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Martin

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FOI shows council was wrong over Dale Farm eviction support

Last year’s Dale Farm eviction // (Photo: The Advocacy Project – Flikr/CC)

When Basildon council evicted travellers from Dale Farm in October, it did so with the support of the borough’s residents. So said Tory council leader Tony Ball, just weeks before bailiffs turned up at the site.

“I’m absolutely clear,” he claimed, “the overwhelming majority of emails, letters, phone calls I’ve had, not only from people in Basildon, but up and down the country and some from abroad, support the council’s position.”

But the council’s own records suggest otherwise. According to figures released following a Freedom of Information request, Basildon council received a total of 5,472 letters and emails condemning the eviction. This compared to just 768 messages in the council’s favour.

Cost of St Paul’s protest eviction revealed by police

St Pauls occupy london eviction police cost

The Occupy London camp at St Paul's Cathedral. // Photo: KOREphotos

The police spent £103,981 removing peaceful protesters from St Paul’s Cathedral, a Freedom of Information Request has revealed.

The eviction, named Operation Hawley, saw 464 officers from the City of London Police break up the Occupy London camp on February 28.

Campaigners had been in the square outside the cathedral since October, but were evicted after a decision by the High Court not to allow an appeal.

London Mayor Boris Johnson said he supported the eviction because of the economic damage it was doing to the city.

He said: “I’m glad that finally the law has taken its course. My interest is in the economic interest of the city and I want to make sure the businesses in that area can flourish.”

With cuts being made to emergency policing, the £103,981 spent on Operation Hawley was clearly money well spent.

How Scotland Yard monitors prying bloggers and journalists

Photo credit - Metropolitan Police

'You MUST obtain approval from press office', Scotland Yard's Freedom of Information team ordered

Although the police were happy to turn a blind eye to phone hacking at the News of the World, they’re making a habit of keeping tabs on innocent journalists and bloggers.

When a Freedom of Information (FOI) request is made it is meant to be dealt with “applicant and motive blind”. But, Scotland Yard have a system in place where requests from journalists are flagged up. The ‘High Profile Request’ list is circulated to all internal departments in the police force, along with the full name of each requester.

The Met have admitted: “The list includes the applicant and if they are a known journalist that information is included”.

FOI staff are banned from releasing any information to journalists without getting express “approval” from the Met’s Press Bureau. It is unclear whether any disclosures have ever been denied because of pressure from the Bureau.

An email to staff  said: “You MUST obtain approval… before release if this request is from a journalist or identified as high risk.” It said that “high risk” FOI requests include “any request involving an identified member of the media.” It also includes requests from “VIP’s (MP’s etc)”.

Another email, sent in November, again reminded FOI officers of the policy. It said: “All High Profile FOIA requests – particularly those from journalists – continue to be of interest to DPA [Directorate of Public Affairs].” The message continued:  if “you feel a request is generating issues which could result in media coverage and you have not already been contacted by DPA please contact Ed Stearns, Chief Press Officer.”

In a phone conversation I had with Ed Stearns in November he defended this policy. “We’d have to be aware if something is likely to become high-profile,” he said. “I don’t think that would be unusual to have that sort of flagged up.”

But how far does the Met pursue its interest in journalists and bloggers? Three individuals, who have asked to remain anonymous, have told this blog that Scotland Yard informally “investigated” them after they asked questions to the force. In one case, the Police Central E-Crime Unit (PCeU) scrutinised articles written by a political blogger after he had  talked to a police officer about his work. He claimed he was never charged for a crime and says he “found out accidentally” about the (informal) investigation when an officer “confessed” to having personally investigated his website.  The PCeU said there had been no formal investigations into online media.

In my phone conversation with the Met’s Cheif Press Officer, Ed Stearns, I asked him whether the Met made a habit of investigating bloggers.

“Can you categorically say that it’s not regular practice of the Press Office to find out information about journalists?”  

Well, I mean… if… umm… it depends, it depends what – I mean obviously if a journalist has… I mean… In what way do you mean ‘find out information’?”

“I wouldn’t rule it out that we would search on something like Twitter or Google News.”

This is probably fair enough – it is a press office after all. But the question is, does this research into journalists and bloggers affect what information is disclosed – and how quickly? Is this one reason for the Met’s continual FOI delays? After all, “flagging” is one thing, but why does the press office need to give “approval”? What happens if the Press Office does not grant approval?

The Met have attempted to justify their policy on FOI, saying: “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.”

The Information Commissioner’s Office, meanwhile, states: “The correct approach in considering requests for information and the application of the exemptions and exceptions should be on the basis that the application could have been made by anyone, anywhere in the world, for any (non vexatious) reason.”

Top cops pocket £70,000 in private healthcare

Photo credit - Metropolitan PoliceSenior police officers are being handed thousands of pounds of private healthcare by the Scotland Yard, a Freedom of Information request has revealed.

Top officers who are already paid up to £260,000 a year are given the medical premiums – but lower-ranking officers have to pay for them themselves.

The Met spend a total of £70,000 each year on the healthcare premiums, with an average spend of £1,000 per senior officer.

An explanation of the payments stated: “The policy is in place primarily to help ensure senior officers and staff receive prompt treatment for medical conditions which might otherwise impair their ability to do their job effectively.”

Clearly, the NHS is not good enough for London’s senior cops.

Phone Hacking: will Scotland Yard ever cough up their secretive stash of emails?

http://www.flickr.com/photos/ewancross/3025040152/

Nothing to hide? Scotland Yard delay the release of emails. Photo credit: Ewan Cross, CC license

The day after the revelations that Milly Dowler’s phone had been hacked, Scotland Yard announced that they could not disclose emails between police and the News of The World. They told this blog that all emails over three years old had been deleted.

But, when they were quizzed on this, they eventually admitted in September that the emails did still exist. They said the emails were “retained for business continuity purposes on tapes.”

It seems that politicians and journalists have not been able to get access to this secretive stash of emails. The constraints of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) restrict disclosure requests to ones that can be completed within 18 hours.

Particularly interesting would be Andy Hayman’s and John Yates’ correspondence while phone hacking was rife at News International. But the FOIA constraints appear to have prevented these from being scrutinised.

So, a new disclosure request to the Met was submitted for this blog. It was deliberately narrow, using the time allowances the Met themselves had stated, so that the request couldn’t be rejected. Although it would not retrieve very much, it was a test to see if the Met were really prepared to stick to information laws – and disclose any emails at all.

A day before the legal deadline for disclosure this month… the Met said they were delaying their response!

They said: “We are currently trying to establish what information the MPS holds, if any, and whether it can be retrieved within the cost threshold.” They could not provide a date when a disclosure would definitely be made.

The (tedious) saga continues…