Met Police accused of 'serious failure' over system flagging 'high-risk' FOI requests
Exclusive: Campaigners warn of ‘chilling effect’ after police force categorises journalists’ enquiries about BLM and surveillance as ‘high risk’
Freedom of Information requests relating to Black Lives Matter and Extinction Rebellion protests were among those identified as “high-risk” by a “shocking” Metropolitan Police system.
The police force has been labelling FOI requests about sensitive issues, as well as those from journalists and MPs, as “high profile” – despite transparency rules that say FOIs should be “applicant-blind”.
Last year, more than 1,200 FOI requests – almost a third of all requests the Met received – were flagged as “high profile” and sent for sign-off by the organisation’s press office before being published.
Of those referred through the system, 35 related to the Black Lives Matter protests, 22 were about Extinction Rebellion, and 15 concerned the controversial Prevent strategy. Some 130 enquiries about the pandemic were also referred to the force’s press team for approval.
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At least four requests from openDemocracy were deemed “high profile”. One of these revealed that the head of the Met Police urged the government to use Extinction Rebellion protests as a “much-needed opportunity” to limit protest laws.
Requests from the Daily Mail, The Guardian, The Sun and other media outlets were also flagged under the system.
Two weeks after providing openDemocracy with its FOI policy, the Met has now claimed it is “outdated” – but has yet to send any updates.
The guidance, released under FOI, suggests that questions from journalists and MPs “have the potential to cause significant harm”. It adds that “any request involving an identified member of the Media” must be referred through the system.
Met Police staff dealing with FOIs are told: “You MUST obtain approval from DPA [Directorate of Public Affairs] / Press Liaison... before release if this request is from a journalist or identified as high risk.”
Any information relating to the royal family is also sent for sign off, along with requests for information about surveillance and police misconduct.
The FOIs are compiled on a list that calls them “High Profile” requests, while the policy document itself describes them as “high risk”.
The Met Police is building lists of journalists and rights campaigners who ask difficult questions
Former Labour shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, told openDemocracy: “This is a shocking revelation. The effective operation of Freedom of Information is critical to ensuring we have accountable public services.
“Targeting journalists and campaigning organisations for special treatment puts at risk our ability of securing the truth and holding public bodies to account.”
Silkie Carlo, director of the campaign group Big Brother Watch, said: “This shocking discovery shows the Met Police is building lists of journalists and rights campaigners who ask difficult questions.
“This is a serious failure of the Met to meet its obligations to process FOI requests fairly, objectively and anonymously and is likely to have a chilling effect.
“We rely on FOI requests to shine a light on rights abuses and injustice, but if our requests are being treated as something between a PR issue and a surveillance opportunity, our work is made that much harder and transparency is obstructed.”
‘A poor record’
Figures published last year show that the Metropolitan Police fails to respond to more than 40% of FOI requests on time. The backlog of delayed FOIs had become so bad that, before the pandemic, the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) – the FOI watchdog – was considering issuing the force with an enforcement notice.
A report by openDemocracy, also published last year, named the Met as one of three police forces with chronic FOI stonewalling problems in the past five years. Together with Sussex and City of London police forces, the Met Police accounted for half of the 108 decision notices issued by the ICO in the police and justice sector.
Under the Met’s system, FOI requests are given labels explaining why they are high risk, including “Media Generated,” “Political Party Generated” and “Likely Media Interest”.
A spokesperson for the Campaign for FOI, said: "Requests should not be processed differently because they come from a journalist or someone likely to publicise disclosures.
“If 1,200 requests a year – nearly a third of all FOI requests to the Met – are treated as ‘high risk’ and put through additional clearance procedures, that is bound to cause serious delays in replying. It helps explain why the Met has such a poor FOI record."
They added: “When a journalist makes a request publicity could follow, but publicity does not mean harm to law enforcement and is not a reason for requests to be refused or delayed.”
If 1,200 requests are treated as ‘high risk’... that is bound to cause serious delays. It helps explain why the Met has a poor FOI record
The Met Police’s system for dealing with Freedom of Information requests – which goes against FOI guidance – appears to have been in place for at least 13 years, without any update to policy.
However, after questions from openDemocracy, the Met claimed that the policy it referred us to was in fact “outdated”.
The police force told us: “We are currently reviewing this matter; we hope to provide you a revised response as soon as possible.”
At the time of writing, the Met has not sent us any updates.
The original guidance stated: “The process is not intended to hinder or delay the release of information but to ensure that we release consistent information and are properly prepared for any potential consequences of the release.”
Data protection breach
The Met provided openDemocracy with a list of 1,243 requests that were placed in the “high risk” category last year.
However, the list itself includes the names and personal details of several requests – including journalists and political activists. The Met has now admitted that this disclosure constituted a breach of the Data Protection Act.
Two weeks after sending us the list, the Met said: “We confirm that due to human error the spreadsheet disclosed to you contained third-party personal details.
“The release of third-party information to you has been recorded as a breach under the Data Protection Act 2018 – we have logged this as a security incident in the MPS with the relevant department.”
Commenting on the Met’s FOI policy, a spokesperson for the force told openDemocracy: “FOI requests which are likely to lead to disclosure of information that may be reported in the media are routinely shared with the Met’s Directorate of Media and Communications (DMC).
“In some cases the DMC provide information to assist the response (eg. press statements previously issued). The Met releases information in accordance with its obligations under the act, and highlighting certain cases to DMC has no bearing upon these obligations.”
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