Unearthing the story in accounts

The task was far from straightforward, but his dogged determination was rewarded with the information that the Met had splashed out more than £2.2m for information about criminals operating in the capital and beyond.

The Metropolitan Police and police forces throughout the UK refused to reveal how much they spent on informants when the BBC filed a Freedom of Information request.

Similar requests by Greenwood had been fruitless, but he thought he would try again after reading an article by Orchard News Bureau journalist Richard Orange in Press Gazette about the effectiveness of Section 15 of the Audit Commission Act 1998, which gives people a right to inspect accounts and other financial papers during a 20-working-day window each year.

Despite the legislation, gathering the information is far from straightforward, according to Greenwood. After finding out when the 20-day window was – it changes every year – he exchanged several emails with the Met and made at least a dozen calls to four different people to negotiate access to the relevant papers. Various hurdles were put before him.

First he had to demonstrate that he was ‘any person interested’under the law. He argued that he was a London taxpayer. He was then given what he describes as a ‘barrage of legal jargon’explaining that his request could be blocked under various laws including Section 6 of the Human Rights Act and even the Official Secrets Act if he chose to inspect sensitive documents.

‘I would say that them quoting these various laws was really a smokescreen to try and scare me off,’he said.

On the last Friday of the 20-working-day window, Greenwood was finally given access to the Met offices at the Empress State Building at Earl’s Court.

On arrival, Greenwood was taken to a room with a large desk covered in lever-arch files, each one crammed full of papers. Three senior accountants for the Met sat and watched him while he went through the files. On reflection Greenwood said that journalists should familiarise themselves with public company accounts beforehand.

‘You need to make sure you fully understand how accounts are organised because what is of interest to readers is not necessarily how big authorities organise their financial records. For example, I asked how much the Met spent on safeguarding the Royals.

‘It has a category in their finances called ‘firearms unit’ and in among a huge overall figure would be how much is spent on bodyguards for the Royals. You have to be organised enough to know how a company arranges its information to be able to drill into it and obtain nuggets.’

Greenwood advised that journalists read all the publicly available financial information beforehand. He said: ‘When I started working on this story the Met tried to say all its financial information was published on its website. The fact is this is an opportunity to delve deeper into the budget and find specific information which isn’t normally available. I got all sorts of different leads for other stories apart from the informants line.”

In the time he was given to trawl through the papers Greenwood discovered that the force paid out £2.2m in rewards for information about criminals. A further £134,961 was spent on ‘informant-related expenditure’thought to include travel, accommodation and food for informants who help fight against organised crime, gun crime and terrorism.

‘This little-used auditing legislation is a great opportunity to get around the increasingly narrow opportunities offered by Freedom of Information requests,’said Greenwood. ‘But the sheer quantity of paperwork available means it helps if you know what you are looking for.”

Greenwood explained that members of the Metropolitan Police Authority and politicians had been calling for this information to be made public.

‘Spotting the figure buried in the middle of files packed with often incomprehensible budget documents was a very satisfying moment,’he said. ‘This is really just carte blanch to go in and ask loads of difficult questions. Paying informants is a legitimate method of crimefighting, but £2.2m is a lot of cash and we should be able to see how it is being spent.”

The story made the splash in Metro and was followed up by the BBC and Radio 5 Live.

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