Police forces are withholding information on who they contract, and breaking the law by doing so. Is this a clampdown in response to Bristol Cable investigations or just a bureaucratic oversight?
Back in October last year, the Cable published an investigation revealing that 7 UK police forces, including Avon & Somerset (A&S), had bought IMSI-catchers, a controversial type of mass mobile phone surveillance equipment. It has since come to light that many police forces have quietly stopped publishing information on who they contract, in violation of the law.
Key evidence in Cable investigations was found in monthly spending reports, which Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs) are legally required to publish every month. The reports showed that police forces had bought equipment from Cellxion, a manufacturer of IMSI-catchers. Similarly, the Cable also dug through past reports to show that 28 forces, including A&S, had purchased phone hacking equipment from another company, Cellebrite.
For years, these reports which list out the companies contracted by police forces, have included redactions; black lines pasted across spreadsheet rows to hide operationally-sensitive and personal-identity information. This is within the law.
However, the Cable has found that 5 of the 7 forces who bought IMSI-catchers, haven’t published their monthly reports altogether since autumn last year (the IMSI-catcher story was published in October). Beyond these 5 forces, 30 UK police forces in total haven’t published their monthly reports since at least December 2016.
It doesn’t look good for PCCs, the elected officials charged with overseeing police forces and representing the public in policing. They have a legal duty to publish these reports on a monthly basis, as set out in the Elected Local Policing Bodies (Specified Information) Order 2011 and the Elected Local Policing Bodies (Specified Information) (Amendment) Order 2012, in accordance with the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act 2011.
“Police and Crime Commissioners are required by law to publish what they spend” says Duncan Hames, Director of Policy Transparency International UK. “Withholding this information does nothing to build confidence in how they discharge their roles and inhibits full accountability over their decisions.
“Transparency isn’t just about dumping data as and when a public body wants – it must also be easy to access and read, timely, and crucially complete.”
Speaking to the Cable, Owen Boswarva an open data activist, said “this transparency requirement is not onerous and there is no obvious reason why prompt publication should present a difficulty for PCCs. The Home Office should monitor the publication of statutory information by PCCs and remind them of their obligations if they fall behind.”
It took a gentle nudge and a request for comment earlier this week, before A&S hastily published their reports, which dated back to October 2016. A&S told the Cable that it was down to an administrative oversight; team capacity was stretched, and new online management systems were being installed, setting them back.
However back in October 2016, Avon and Somerset’s Police and Crime Commissioner’s office said that the documents had been taken down and redacted in the interests of “national security”; a response to the Cable’s investigation on IMSI-catchers. The A&S PCC website still holds a note from the time, stating: “October 2016 – Please note following Constabulary advice we’ve made some changes to the information published in the spending reports.”
Beyond these monthly reports, Freedom of Information (FOI) requests sent by Privacy International demanding information on IMSI-catcher use have been rejected by all police forces. Privacy International received nearly identically-worded rejections letters to their FOI requests from many forces, suggesting some level of orchestration on a national level. This, combined with the widespread failure to publish monthly reports, makes one wonder: are PCCs being leant on by Constabularies and the Home Office to withhold this public information and stifle scrutiny?
Julia Mulligan PCC, speaking on behalf of the Association of Police and Crime Commissioners, said: “Police and Crime Commissioners are fully committed to transparency and ensuring that information is published according to the requirements under the Specified Information Order.
“As the Order sets out, Police Chief Constables do have a role in advising PCCs over the disclosure of information if, for example, there are concerns relating to national security, the prevention or detection of crime, the apprehension or prosecution of offenders, or the administration of justice.” This does not however answer why reports in their entirety have been withheld by police forces.
Silkie Carlo, Policy Officer at Liberty, told the Cable:
“It’s no surprise that police are nervous about being caught out using public funds to buy intrusive and indiscriminate surveillance tools like IMSI catchers. But if forces are going to invest in equipment designed to spy on innocent bystanders, the least they can do is be honest and open with their communities about it.”
Have police forces decided not to publish these reports in order to avoid media scrutiny? If that is the case, it’s certainly troubling, and undermines the government’s much touted commitment to open data and transparency.
“Whether exposing lobbying abuses or unearthing undeclared conflicts of interest, open data is an essential tool in the fight against corruption” says Duncan Hames of Transparency International UK. “Real transparency significantly reduces hiding places for corrupt individuals and allows the public to hold the Government and other public bodies to account.”