POLITICIANS and transparency campaigners have raised serious concerns after it emerged the country’s new FBI-style central police force will be given total exemption from Freedom of Information laws.
The Government is facing backbench opposition over the “cloak of secrecy” handed to the new National Crime Agency, which will not be required to answer questions about spending and other non-operational matters.
The decision echoes the previous Labour government’s decision to exempt the now-defunct Serious and Organised Crime Agency from FoI laws, and flies in the face of the coalition’s firm commitment to create a “new era of openness and transparency” in public services.
The revelation follows a Yorkshire Post investigation into the Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpo) which revealed hundreds of thousands of pounds have been spent by the organisation on consultants, many of whom were retired senior police officers collecting up to £1,100 per day.
The payments were only made public after Acpo was brought under FoI rules last year.
Conservative MP for Skipton and Ripon Julian Smith said this showed why public bodies must be answerable to FoI, and pledged to raise the issue with Policing Minister Nick Herbert next week.
“The introduction of FoI rules for Acpo has been vitally important in the Yorkshire Post’s investigation which established some very concerning facts about the way that organisation is run,” he said.
“I will therefore be making the case to the Police Minister that the National Crime Agency should be subject to FoI, from the point of view of how it is spending taxpayers hard-earned cash.”
The Home Office insists the new police body – due to be set up through the recently-published Police and Crime Bill – will still be transparent, but that the nature of its work means it should not fall under FoI rules.
Home Secretary Theresa May told MPs: “We are clear the NCA should be transparent about how it operates, and we will set out clearly those aspects that we expect it to publish information on.
“However, given the nature of many of the cases that it will deal with and some of the information behind those cases, it is right we exempt it from the FoI.”
But campaigners point out there is already an exemption within FoI laws that allows police forces up and down the land to refuse requests relating to operational matters, while still being forced to answer questions about finance, spending and other issues not related to specific investigations
Greg Mulholland, Lib Dem MP for Leeds North East, said he would be raising the issue with his backbench colleagues.
“Whilst the National Crime Agency will clearly be dealing with some matters that are rightly exempt from FoI laws, it doesn’t seem appropriate to have a blanket exemption,” he said. “As a public body it should have to be answerable on certain non-operational issues, such as costings.”
Nick Pickles, director of campaign group Big Brother Watch, added: “For a Government supposedly committed to transparency, this is a calculated move that would shut the public out of holding the country’s most senior policing officials to account.
“At a time when the Home Office wants to give these officers access to details of who we email, call and send postcards to, it is remarkable to be proposing they should be able to do so behind a cloak of secrecy.”
The Home Office, however, said the exemption was necessary for the NCA’s “intelligence-led” work.
“As an intelligence-led law enforcement agency, it is vital that the agency can safely share intelligence with other security organisations,” a spokeswoman said.