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.
“I am seeking information about the number of police officers and/or staff [both serving and former] who have been placed under investigation for any alleged criminal offences or misconduct matters arising out of Operation Venetic.
If possible can you please give any details such as the nature of the alleged offence and the time period it was committed.
Please disclose the number of police oficers and/or staff [serving and former] who have been charged with offences arising from his operation and give details.
For the avoidance of doubt I'm seeking information about the NCA's Operation Venetic and any spin-off operation resulting from the Encrochat evidence [I know some forces have allocated different operation names for Venetic, but I am seeking information about anything that is Encrochat-linked]”
We have now had the opportunity to fully consider your request and I provide a response for your attention.
Northumbria Police will neither confirm nor deny any information is held specific to your request and by doing so we rely on the following exemptions.
Section 23 (5) – Information supplied by or concerning certain security bodies
Section 24 (2) – National Security
Section 27 (4) – International relations
Section 30 (3) – Investigations
Section 31 (3) – Law enforcement
Section 40 (5) – Personal information
Section 23 is a class based absolute exemption and there is no requirement to consider the public interest in this case. Confirming or denying the existence of whether any information is held would contravene the constrictions laid out within Section 23 of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 in that this stipulates a generic bar on disclosure of any information applied by, or concerning, certain Security Bodies.
Sections 24, 27 and 31 are qualified exemptions and as such there is a requirement to articulate the harm and conduct a test of the public interest in confirmation or denial.
Section 30 is a class based exemption and consideration must be given as to whether there is a public interest in neither confirming nor denying the information exists is the appropriate response.
Section 40 is a class based absolute exemption and there is no requirement to consider the public interest in this case
National Security - Section 24(2) of the Act provides:
The duty to confirm or deny does not arise if, or to the extent that, exemption from section 1(1)(a) is required for the purpose of safeguarding national security.
Evidence of Harm
Providing any notice that confirms or denies the existence of specific policing operations would make these 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.
Public Interest Test – Section 24(2) National Security
Public interest considerations favouring confirming or denying whether the information is held - Providing confirmation or denial as to the extent of operational tactics that might be used by the police service to effectively safeguard matters of national security would improve public confidence in the work of the police and reassure them that the services and equipment available to the police are appropriate, fit for purpose and robust.
Public interest considerations favouring neither confirming nor denying whether the information is held - If Northumbria Police were to confirm or deny that such information was or was not held, this could prejudice the Government’s ability to maintain national security. It is not in the public interest to disclose the capabilities of the police service and other UK authorities and the techniques and operations that they may or may not use to safeguard the country. This would allow determined individuals the ability to, over time, identify which public authorities hold certain types of national security information and which do not, thereby allowing inferences to be drawn about what authorities or bodies might have an interest in certain matters of national security.
Any response that has the potential to undermine ongoing and future operations to protect the security of the United Kingdom would significantly increase the risk of harm to the community at large. Such actions would obviously not be in the best interest of the public.
International relations - Section 27(4) of the Act provides:
(4)The duty to confirm or deny does not arise if, or to the extent that, compliance with section 1(1)(a)—
(a)would, or would be likely to, prejudice any of the matters mentioned in subsection (1), or
(b)would involve the disclosure of any information (whether or not already recorded) which is confidential information obtained from a State other than the United Kingdom or from an international organisation or international court.
Evidence of Harm
In considering whether or not Northumbria Police can confirm (or deny) that this information is held, a Prejudice Test has been conducted to establish any potential harm.
Northumbria Police has a duty of care to the community at large and public safety is of paramount importance. The effective conduct of international relations depends upon maintaining trust and confidence between overseas government states. Confirming or denying whether any other information is or isn’t held relevant to Op VENETIC would destroy that trust and confidence, which in turn would hamper international relations affecting the United Kingdom’s ability to protect and promote the country’s interests.
Public Interest Test - Section 27(4) International Relations
Public interest considerations favouring confirming or denying whether the information is held - Irrespective of what other information may or may not be held, confirming any other information is held would provide openness and transparency by highlighting that Northumbria Police is proactively engaging with Governmental Departments and other law enforcement agencies both at home and abroad as part of global crime prevention initiatives.
Public interest considerations favouring neither confirming nor denying whether the information is held - The importance of building and maintaining goodwill within international relations cannot be underestimated. By confirming or denying that Northumbria Police holds any other information, would undermine the relationship and trust built up between police services and international agencies.
Investigations - Section 30(3) of the Act provides:
The duty to confirm or deny does not arise in relation to information which is (or if it were held by the public authority would be) exempt information by virtue of subsection (1) or (2).
Public Interest Test - Section 30(3) Investigations
Public interest considerations favouring confirming or denying whether the information is held - Disclosing information about investigations would provide a greater transparency in the investigating process and the actions of a public authority. It is clear that there is a public interest in public authorities operating in as transparent a manner as possible, as this should ensure they operate effectively and efficiently. Confirming involvement within an investigation could help to ensure that authorities do not overlook issues which they should investigate or that they have good reasons for not investigating.
There is a clear public interest in ensuring that public authorities do not act outside their authority by investigating matters which fall outside their remit. By making certain that public authorities confirm or deny whether any information is held in relation to investigations, this should provide the necessary safeguards and satisfy the public interest in this matter.
Public interest considerations favouring neither confirming nor denying whether the information is held - There is an inherently strong public interest in public authorities carrying out investigations to prevent and detect crime. This ensures that offenders are brought to justice and that the necessary checks and balances are in place to safeguard public funds and resources. To allow the effectiveness of investigations to be reduced, as described in the harm above, is not in the public interest. Northumbria Police would need to be allowed to carry out investigations effectively away from public scrutiny until such times as the details need to be made public, otherwise it will be difficult for accurate, thorough and objective investigations to be carried out.
Law Enforcement - Section 31(3) of the Act provides:
The duty to confirm or deny does not arise if, or to the extent that, compliance with section 1(1)(a) would, or would be likely to, prejudice any of the matters mentioned in subsection (1).
Evidence of Harm
In considering whether or not Northumbria Police can confirm (or deny) that this information is held, a harm test has been conducted.
Northumbria Police is charged with enforcing the law, detecting and preventing crime, and protecting the communities we serve. Confirming or denying whether any information is held would impact on the effectiveness of police investigations, thereby hindering the prevention and detection of crime.
Public Interest Test - Section 31(3)
Public interest considerations favouring confirming or denying whether the information is held - This FOIA request relates to the involvement of Northumbria Police in multi-agency, cross-border operations concerning organised criminality, and there is likely to be a public interest into what specific involvement each agency had within such an investigation. Therefore this in itself favours confirming whether the information is held.
Public interest considerations favouring neither confirming nor denying whether the information is held - There is an inherently strong public interest in public authorities carrying out investigations to prevent and detect crime. Northumbria Police need to be allowed to investigate crime effectively and ensure that offenders are brought to justice. To confirm or deny that any information is held could compromise law enforcement tactics in the area of organised criminality, which would hinder the UK Police service's ability to prevent and detect criminality in this area.
Where current or future law enforcement capabilities of the force may be compromised by the release of information, it is unlikely to be in the interest of the public.
The security of the country is of paramount importance and the Police service will not divulge whether any information is or is not held if to do so would undermine law enforcement and therefore compromise the work of the Police Service. Whilst there is a public interest in the transparency of policing and any impact to the threat of widespread organised crime, there is a very strong public interest in safeguarding the integrity of law enforcement methods in this very sensitive area.
The strongest reason to confirm or deny whether any other information is held, is that it is recognised that there is a genuine public interest in information relating to any investigations conducted between forces and wider UK and International agencies. The strongest reasons against confirmation or denial of any other information being held, is to ensure that policing and security measures are not rendered less effective through disclosure, therefore hindering the effective delivery of operational law enforcement.
Therefore, for these issues the balancing test for confirming or denying whether we hold any further information is not made out.
Section 40(5) – Personal data
Consideration on applying this exemption is subject to whether the disclosure of any information would lead to identifying individuals and place information pertaining to them into the public domain. This constitutes personal data which would, if released, be in breach of the rights provided by the Data Protection Act 2018 and General Data Protection Regulations; namely the first data protection principle, which states that personal data will be processed lawfully, fairly and transparently. It is my view that the request runs counter to the three requirements prescribed by law and that there is no lawful basis to provide this information. This is an absolute exemption and no public interest test is required.