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Speech:
Date Responded 18 February 2020

Provision of information held by Northumbria Police made under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (the 'Act')

As you may be aware the purpose of the Act is to allow a general right of access to information held at the time of a request, by a Public Authority (including the Police), subject to certain limitations and exemptions.

You asked:

  1. How many investigations into county lines drug dealing operations has your force conducted annually?
  2. In how many of these cases was an individual involved in the county lines operation studying at a UK university?
  3. Which university were they studying at?

For each question could you please provide the data broken down by academic year (i.e. September to September) for each of the past five academic years (2018/19, 2017/18, 2016/17, 2015/16, 2014/15).

In Response:

Following receipt of your request, searches were conducted with the Crime Department of Northumbria Police.  I can confirm that the information you have requested is held in part by Northumbria Police, however will not be disclosed as the following exemptions have been applied as relevant.

  1. Information at this point will not be disclosed and by withholding we rely on the following exemption.

S31(1)(a)(b) Law Enforcement

This exemption is a qualified and prejudice based exemption and therefore the legislators accept that there may be harm if released into the public domain. The authority has to consider and describe the harm that would occur if the information were released and carry out a public interest test.  In accordance with best practice, I detail the harm first.

Harm

To disclose information detailing how many investigations into county lines drug dealing operations the force has conducted annually would disclose force capabilities and would identify any perceived weaknesses in force capabilities.   Those with the intent to do so may target those areas perceived to have low occurrences of county line investigations to cause disruption or focus there criminal activities on those areas where they believe those activities are less likely to brought to police attention. This would obviously impact on the  Police service’s ability to protect the public it serves and could prejudice its ability to perform core functions such as the prevention and detection of crime.

Factors favouring disclosure

The release of the information would demonstrate the openness of the organisation to make such matters public.  Disclosure would contribute to the accuracy and quality of public debate and allow the public to know what police resources are available in their areas.

Factors favouring non disclosure

Releasing such data would give those  individuals with the intent to do so, the intelligence required to disrupt police activity.  This knowledge would mean that offenders would be able to target their offending more effectively which would inevitably lead to an increased likelihood of county lines criminal activity and an increased danger to the public.

On a national level, criminals would be able to identify any specific operations or investigations being carried out, and use this knowledge to their own advantage in furthering criminal activity around the country.

Any disclosure of information which is likely to undermine the Police service’s ability to serve the public in preventing and detecting crime can only be considered as being harmful to the public.

It would not be in either the public's or the polices interests to provide information which could aid those who are intent on causing disruption or harm to our communities or police services.

Having considered both sides of the public interest, it is considered that the balance favours non disclosure of the information requested. Whilst this information may be of interest to the public, it is not in the public interest to provide those with intent to do so the means to target places which may or may not have a perceived lack of police resources to investigate occurrences of county lines, thereby  increasing the risk of such criminal activity, and the area being seen as a likely place to avoid detection.  Such disclosures would always be resisted.

You should consider this to be a refusal notice under section 17 of the Act for this part of your request.

2 & 3

We shall neither confirm nor deny any information is held at these points and in doing so rely on the following exemptions

S40(5) Personal Information

S30(3) Investigations

S31(3) Law Enforcement

S24(2) National Security

Evidence of Harm

Although every effort should be made to release information under the Freedom of Information Act, to confirm or deny whether information is or isn’t held stating that a nominal involved in county lines operations attends university, together with the name of the university the nominal(s) is currently studying could not only undermine ongoing investigations, but also the National Security of the United Kingdom.   

Whilst there is a public interest in the transparency of policing, providing assurance that the Police Service is appropriately and effectively engaging with the threat from criminals, this should be countered against the need to protect vulnerable areas, and ongoing Policing operational activity.  

The security of the country is of paramount importance and Northumbria Police will not divulge whether information is or is not held if to do so would undermine national security. Whilst there is a public interest in the transparency of policing operations and providing reassurance that the Police Service is appropriately and effectively engaging with the threat posed by offenders involved in county lines activity, there is a very strong public interest in safeguarding both national security and the integrity of police investigations and operations in the highly sensitive areas of which they work.  

Confirming or denying whether any information is held relevant to questions 2 & 3 would show where policing interest has or has not occurred in any specific university which would enable those engaged in criminal activity to identify the focus of policing targets and identify vulnerable parts of the UK.    

In addition, and irrespective of what information may or may not be held in respect of questions 2 & 3, to confirm information is held by citing a substantive exemption , or conversely, stating ‘no information held’, would undermine the effective delivery of operational law enforcement by compromising potentially ongoing investigations, some of which may be covert.

Public Interest Considerations:

Factors favouring confirmation or denial - Section 24

Confirmation or denial that any information exists relevant to the questions 2&3 would lead to a better informed public and would enable the community to hold Northumbria Police to account in relation to how they gather intelligence when referring to individuals involved in county lines operations.

Factors against confirmation or denial - Section 24

Other organisations outside the Police Service may, or may not, have an active interest in the subject of questions 2&3 above.  By confirming or denying that any information exists relevant to nominals studying at universities, and which actual university they attend, would harm the close relationship that exists between Northumbria Police and other organisations, i.e. Education Departments, Universities and other local authorities.

To confirm or deny whether the force hold any information would allow inferences to be made about the nature and extent of national security related activities which may or may not take place in a given area. This would enable criminal groups to take steps to counter intelligence, and as such, confirmation or denial would be damaging to National Security. 

By confirming or denying any policing arrangements of this nature would render national security measures less effective. This would lead to the compromise of ongoing or future operations to protect the security or infrastructure of the UK and increase the risk of harm to the public.

Factors favouring confirmation or denial – Section 30

Confirming or denying that information exists relevant to questions 2&3 would lead to a better informed general public improving their knowledge and understanding as to how Northumbria Police collate and store intelligence to assist with investigations.

Factors favouring neither confirming or denying – Section 30

Modern-day policing is intelligence led and Northumbria Plice where appropriate gathers information to assist with the investigatory process.  To confirm or not whether information is or isn’t held in respect of questions 2 & 3 could hinder the prevention and detection of crime as well as undermine the partnership approach to investigations and law enforcement.

Factors favouring confirmation or denial – Section 31

Confirming or denying whether any information is held relevant to questions 1, 2 & 3 would allow the public to see where public funds have been spent and allow the Police Service to appear more open and transparent. 

Factors favouring neither confirming or denying – Section 31

To confirm or deny that Northumbria Police holds information could compromise law enforcement tactics which would lead to a hindrance on the Police Force’s ability to prevent and detect crimes.  Vulnerable areas could be identified by force level disclosure leading to more criminal activity placing the public in harm’s way.  If information is released confirming or denying that nominals are studying at university and which named university they attend may impact police resources as vulnerable forces may need to increase their resources to reassure the public and protect the surrounding community. 

Balance Test

The points above highlight the merits of confirming, or denying, whether any information pertinent to questions 2&3 exists.  The Police Service is charged with enforcing the law, preventing and detecting crime and protecting the communities we serve and will never divulge information which could pinpoint where an individual involved in county lines operations is studying. 

Whilst there is a public interest in the transparency of policing operations and investigations, as well as providing reassurance that the Police Service is appropriately and effectively engaging with the threat from criminals, there is also a public interest in safeguarding individuals involved in this type of offending which often involves vulnerable individuals.  As much as there is a public interest in knowing that policing activity is appropriate and balanced, it will only be overridden in exceptional circumstances.

Therefore, at this moment in time, it is our opinion that for these issues the balance test for confirming, nor denying that information is held in relation to questions 2&3 is appropriate.

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