Special Branch: Met Police retreat on openness


The impression is sometimes given that we are on a one-way drive towards greater openness in public life, as more and more state information is constantly being revealed.

Adrian Mitchell The poet Adrian Mitchell was monitored

But in fact change is not always in the same direction. Public bodies sometimes cut back transparency, deciding to keep secret material which previously they might have disclosed. One example of this is the Metropolitan Police Special Branch, the section of the force whose duties have featured monitoring political subversion and which is now part of the Met's Counter Terrorism Command.

A recent decision by the Information Commissioner makes it clear that the Metropolitan Police is now highly resistant to releasing Special Branch (SB) records under FOI, even when they are no longer current, and that the Commissioner is likely to support such a refusal.

The Police argued that SB documents have generally related to security bodies and so are absolutely exempt from freedom of information requests. The Commissioner says he accepts the bulk of this material has been shared with security agencies and so he backs the absolute exemption. This appears to impose a blanket ban on the release of SB records, without any need to assess whether it would be in the public interest to do so.

The FOI request in this case was for information on the poet Adrian Mitchell, who died in 2008. It's been reported that in previous decades the Branch had a file on Mr Mitchell's anti-war and CND campaigning.

The latest decision follows several other FOI applications for old SB records, some of which were for information held 20 years ago about the BBC.

Security bodies

In an earlier case about Tony Cliff, the former leader of the Socialist Workers Party who died in 2000, the Information Commissioner ruled last year that SB should release some material it had held about him. This was before the Commissioner adopted his new stance, which was influenced by evidence presented at Tribunal hearings in closed session.

A Met Police spokesperson told me: "The Information Commissioner has indicated that information concerning the work of special branches would relate to, or have been supplied by, security bodies, and would therefore generally attract a Section 23 exemption under the legislation. However, every freedom of information request received by the Metropolitan Police continues to be treated on a strict case-by-case basis."

It is striking to contrast this with the much more relaxed approach adopted by the Police to the disclosure of old SB documentation in the early years of freedom of information. (Of course material relating to existing organisations or living individuals would doubtless still have been a matter of secrecy).

'Embarrassing situation'
James Callaghan James Callaghan's security precautions were evaded by a Jehovah's Witness

In 2005 I was given access to files that revealed how until the early 1990s Special Branch had infiltrated and monitored the Anti-Apartheid Movement, which campaigned against the South African system of racial discrimination.

Similarly, when I asked SB for information held about the former prime minister James Callaghan, I was sent extracts from his personal protection file. These papers showed that Lord Callaghan felt his level of protection was inadequate, much to the consternation of the Police, as well as providing an amusing account of the "embarrassing situation" when a Jehovah's Witness managed to evade the security precautions at his home.

I can well understand the sensitivity of a personal protection file and, as I wrote at the time, I was surprised by the openness of the Met Police in releasing it.

'Left-wing bias'

But looking at the material about the Anti-Apartheid Movement, it is hard to see how it could have any implications for security.

There is nothing in these files to suggest that the AAM was involved in anything illegal, but the documents show how Special Branch's interest in the organisation extended to detailed accounts of routine local meetings attended by six people, reporting on a supermarket worker who handed leaflets to her colleagues at Sainsbury's in Croydon, and investigating a shed found to contain "a large number of political posters with a left-wing bias".

Yet it now seems clear that because of the historically close links between Special Branch and the security agencies, all such material, however harmless and whatever the balance of the public interest, will remain secret in future, despite the existence of freedom of information.

Martin Rosenbaum Article written by Martin Rosenbaum Martin Rosenbaum Freedom of information specialist

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  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    Being rather averse to conspiracy theories - I would offer the view that being out of the clutche sof the FOI is simply due to the extreme difficulty of satisfying a FOI request without mistakenly including highly confidential information. Basically its a filing, management and cost of admin issue not a secrecy issue.

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    Lets face it, police forces in general and the Met in particular are all unaccountable organisations who think they have a right to protect us from anything vaquely left ot right of centre. Just look at the mess they have got themselves in to over the Nottinghamshire environmental protests.

    They also have an exceedinlarge whitewash brush to cover up their major blunders.

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    There are technologies currently in use on unwitting members of the public that remain shrouded in secrecy because of the laws created due to paranoid hysteria surrounding terrorism. The London Bus bombings in 2003 need never of happened, however the public will never be informed as to what technology could have prevented it or what technologies are still on trial.

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    There is plainly a whole industry of people keeping things secret and people trying to find those things out. Personally, I am of the view that given the choice between conspiracy and screwup the screwup is always the most likely explanation. I am also frankly annoyed at the constant left wing bent of the BBC, since I pay for it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    More & more state information is being revealed. Are you kidding me? Most significant information is kept SECRET for something like 100 years, when only historians will care.
    Do you seriously believe that we will ever have transparency in Government - where where life & death, war & peace are decided?
    Against public interest? A JOKE! The Government doesn't want to be bothered by public input.


Comments 5 of 11



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