National insecurity

In all the furore over the announcement of the Government’s draft Investigatory Powers Bill, one detail caught my eye. The Daily Telegraph published an article by Peter Wanless, Chief Executive of the NSPCC. Mr Wanless was keen that whatever else, we did not forget about the children:

We have heard plenty from groups extolling privacy principles and spies unveiling foiled terrorist threats, but let’s also hear the voices of thousands of children placed in jeopardy while the trade in abusive images continues to flourish

I don’t doubt Mr Wanless’ sincerity in combating the menace of child abuse and exploitation, but I found this a bit odd. How exactly does an article like this come into being? Did Wanless contact the Telegraph, keen to offer his support for the proposed legislation? Was it the other way around, with the Telegraph searching for an appropriately unimpeachable source to back up Theresa May’s plans? Or was it box number three: is it the Home Office who brought the article about, contacting Wanless and asking him to contribute?

You may disagree, but I find the idea of the Home Office persuading charity bosses to back Government policy in the press – especially without acknowledging it in the article – a deeply unattractive proposition. To find out whether this was the explanation, I made an FOI request four weeks ago to the Home Office, asking for correspondence between the Home Office and Wanless on the subject of the new bill.

A day before the deadline, I received an interesting email from the Home Office’s FOI team:

Although the Act carries a presumption in favour of disclosure, it provides exemptions which may be used to withhold information in specified circumstances. Some of these exemptions, referred to as ‘qualified exemptions’, are subject to a public interest test. This test is used to balance the public interest in disclosure against the public interest in favour of withholding the information. The Act allows us to exceed the 20 working day response target where we need to consider the public interest test fully.”

So far, so not much of a problem: this is an entirely legal move. The deadline can be extended for this reason. The one mistake that organisations often make at this point is not quoting an exemption, as if the public interest test floats free. But this is not what they did:

The information which you have requested is being considered under the exemption in section 23 (1) of the Act, which relate to information supplied by, or relating to, the bodies dealing with security matters.

The first thing to say is that this response appears to confirm that the Home Office has been in correspondence with Mr Wanless about the bill, which is interesting enough in itself (no correspondence, no need for an exemption). However, there are two more interesting elements. On the one hand, the response suggests that the correspondence contains information provided by the security services. Given that Wanless’ article is effectively a PR exercise, this is remarkable, if not scandalous and appalling. On the other hand, Section 23 is not a qualified exemption; it is an absolute exemption and has no public interest test. Either the Home Office don’t understand FOI properly, or they are just spouting legally inaccurate bollocks to avoid responding to my request on time.

Ever keen to help, I emailed the Home Office to point out that Section 23 is an absolute exemption and to enquire whether they in fact meant Section 24 (which applies to national security issues more widely, and does have a public interest test). With remarkable speed, the Home Office replied. I was invited to disregard the original email, and provided with the following explanation:

We apologise for the delay in sending you a substantive response. We always aim to respond to requests within the statutory period under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Unfortunately, due to pressing business and other Ministerial priorities, it is not always possible to do so, and in this instance, we regret that we have not been able to respond within the statutory period.

What to make of it? Is it still reasonable to assume that the Home Office did put Mr Wanless up to it? Am I the first person to receive the phoney Section 23 letter? If they are going to delay replying, doesn’t the Home Office care enough to at least pick an exemption with a PI test, or just go for the old Dransfield Vexatious routine? At the very least, I think it is reasonable to assume that the Home Office is not really considering the use of an exemption, and is merely stalling on what might be an embarrassing answer. If there was a genuine exemption at play, they would have corrected their mistake in the follow-up. If they really did think Section 23 applied, I would have got a refusal.

Whatever happens next, reader, I have a feeling it will be worth looking out for.

Comments

  1. Section 23 was used in my request to do with the Sheinwald report that suggested a data sharing treaty too.

    Out of curiosity what mechanisms exist for challenging the use of such an exemption? I can’t imagine that there are many, since in most cases the reasoning for doing so will also be withheld, and would be difficult to obtain.

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