This article is written by me, Richard Taylor, in an entirely personal capacity, and not as a WhatDoTheyKnow volunteer.
On the 15th of September 2010 a document was sent by the UK Home Office to a request thread on mySociety’s Freedom of Information website WhatDoTheyKnow.com, the document was completely unrelated to the Freedom of Information request it was sent in response to.
We don’t know why it was sent, it could have been an accident, or it could have been a whistleblower within Government trying to use WhatDoTheyKnow as a “WikiLeaks” kind of site to release material they thought should be in the public domain.
The material relates to deliberations of the Chief Constable appointments committee at Dyfed-Powys Police Headquarters in Camarthen on Friday the 28th of March 2008. It is correspondence between elected Carmarthenshire County Councillor W.G. Hopkins, who was a member of the Dyfed-Powys Police Authority, with the Home Office and Inspectorate of Constabulary. The correspondence relates to Cllr Hopkins’ concerns relating to the process of appointing the Chief Constable. The councillor addressed his initial correspondence to the then Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith, and copied Adam Price MP.
Mr Hopkins wrote:
in my view certain aspects of the proceedings of the seven-member Police Authority Appointments Committee were dreadful. Her Majesty’s Inspector of Constabulary (HMIC) Kate Flannery was present at every stage of the daylong proceedings except for the last half hour or so and my key objection and deep concern is that – in effect – it was Kate that actually made the appointment.
Kate who had already contributed several times earlier during the day was then asked for her opinion as to the appointment. To my amazement she proceeded with what I can only describe as a thinly veiled character assassination of Howard [Roberts]. In essence she declared that he seriously lacked the necessary attributes for the post of Chief Constable. She alleged that, in this respect, he has a number of almost alarming character, ability, leadership and operational deficiencies and claimed that if the committee was misguided enough to appoint him he would be “found out” within two weeks of being appointed.
One of the members, Mrs Delyth Humfryes, was so incensed and appalled by what had happened that she totally refused to participate any further in the proceedings. I was just as furious and appalled
In my opinion she showed considerable contempt for the committee (and by extension to Dyfed-Powys Police Authority) and her exhortations were almost tantamount to bullying and frightening the committee into voting in the way she favoured. Regrettably, she was all too successful
In future I shall certainly not knowingly allow myself to be a member of a committee whose freedom to act and authority is curtailed – effectively usurped – by an individual who is not a member of the committee
The released correspondence reveals that Alasdair Kenwright, the chairman of Dyfed-Powys Police Authority had also expressed concerns about the Inspectorate of Constabulary’s involvement in the appointments process.
Oddly Sir Ronnie Flanagan, the Chief Inspector of Constabulary, was able to tell Mr Kenwright that had the appointments committee made a decision to appoint Howard Roberts this would have had ministerial approval. He appears to be trying to give an assurance that his inspector was not trying to throw the process so that the Home Secretary’s, or the central government machine’s preferred candidate was the one chosen by the committee.
Councillor Hopkins’ letter expressing concern to the Home Secretary was apparently replied to by Home Office civil servant Andrew Wren, the then Head of Police Productivity Unit, Police Reform and Resources Directorate. He stated, presumably on behalf of the Home Office and Home Secretary:
I know that full acknowledgement has been made that this appointments process was not handled as well as HMIC, or indeed the Home Office, would have liked. My understanding is that Kate Flannery has fully recognised this. I therefore feel in a position to assure you that lessons have been learned for the future, and the mistakes will not be repeated.
My view is that there is a significant public interest in having the material above, and the source documents themselves, available to the public as they give an insight in to the way a local police authority was influenced by the Inspectorate of Constabulary while appointing a Chief Constable.
As we move towards elected Police Commissioners who will take over the role of Police Authorities in appointing Chief Constables I think it’s important commissioners are alerted to the potential that the Inspectorate of Constabulary may wish to seek to influence appointments, Commissioners will in my view need to be alert to the potential for central elements of the British state, such as the Home Office and Inspectorate of Constabulary seeking to influence what ought be a local decision.
If parts of central government have grounds to interfere with the appointment of a Chief Constable they ought do so publicly and openly.
Home Secretaries interfering with, or vetoing, Chief Constable appointments is quite rightly big news, and invariably controversial, on the rare occasions it happens or is threatened. (eg. Blunkett orders police chief’s suspension)
More subtle interference via a the Inspectorate of Constabulary behind closed doors is no less important, it’s just less visible until someone on the inside lets the public know what’s going on.
When the material was first released I sought to draw the national, and local press’ attention to the documents, though none appeared interested in the story, presumably as even then it was two years old (it’s now four) and four year old news generally isn’t news any more.
WhatDoTheyKnow’s Publication Of The Material
In September 2010 the Home Office asked WhatDoTheyKnow to cease publishing the material.
Recently the Information Commissioner has become involved, and they are supporting the Home Office. The fact the ICO are involved and I now perceive a risk that WhatDoTheyKnow may cease to publish the document is the only bit of “insider” WhatDoTheyKnow knowledge which I am applying here, and it is what has prompted me to get round to writing this article. I’m aware the Home Office has made vague comments about substantial distress being caused as a result of the publication of the material, if anyone raises any complaints along those lines with me about what I’ve written, I will of course as always consider them and seek to balance any impact on any individuals with the public interest.
My own view is that WhatDoTheyKnow is not a whistleblowing website and hosting of this material is not part of its core function; faced with a decision by the Information Commissioner, it may well be the time for them to say this isn’t a fight that WhatDoTheyKnow wants to, or needs to, have. There is a reputational risk though, while WhatDoTheyKnow expends a huge amount of time, effort and energy on proper consideration of takedown requests, and takes its responsibilities extremely seriously when material is taken down from the site it is quite rightly a cause for concern to be raised by observers who think a stronger pro-publication stance ought be taken.
If there’s a document the Home Office and Information Commissioner don’t want you to read, and which they are able to persuade a site like WhatDoTheyKnow to take down off the internet, then, well my reaction would be – that’s probably a document worth reading.
While the material should probably not have been released in full, even if a FOI request had been made for it. My view is that if it had come into the hands of a decent local paper, or local website, in a timely fashion, it would probably been quite justifiable to reproduce it all in full.
My view is that there is a very strong public interest in the concerns raised by Mr Hopkins, and accepted by the Inspectorate of Constabulary, The Home Office and reportedly the individual inspector concerned, being in the public domain.
In terms of personal information present, I note I’ve not reproduced Mr Hopkins’ home address here, but it is in the source documents, and openly published on the carmarthenshire.gov.uk website.
Mr Hopkins’ letter has been stamped “Received in DCU – 7 APR 2008″ and has had “PPP9 Operational Matters” scrawled on it. Perhaps commenters will be able to decipher the latter?