The Wallis files: What the police can and can't find
- 27 July 2011
- From the section UK Politics
The Metropolitan Police can't find the document setting out the details of the public relations consultancy services it controversially bought from Neil Wallis, former deputy editor of the News of the World.
But it hasn't lost all the files associated with the contract. It does have the restaurant receipt for the meal with Mr Wallis which was claimed on expenses by Dick Fedorcio, the Met's Director of Public Affairs.
This shows that the pair of them consumed veal burgers washed down by a bottle of Chablis at an £80 lunch together at a Westminster restaurant in the run up to Mr Fedorcio agreeing to give the Met's business to Mr Wallis in September 2009.
This contract was one example of the closeness between the Met Police and current and former employees of News International, which greatly concerned the Commons Home Affairs Select Committee at its hearings earlier this month.
Mr Wallis has been arrested and questioned by police investigating phone-hacking at the News of the World.
In its report last week the Home Affairs Committee was highly critical of Mr Fedorcio. It said:
"We are appalled at what we have learnt about the letting of the media support contract to Mr Wallis.
"We are particularly shocked by the approach taken by Mr Fedorcio: he said he could not remember who had suggested seeking a quote from Mr Wallis; he appears to have carried out no due diligence in any generally recognised sense of that term."
The force has told us that it cannot find the schedules to the contract which set out the services to be provided and the payments to be made.
These documents were provided to the BBC not through the Freedom of Information Act, but under a more obscure and rarely used legal right to information which only applies for a short time each year.
This is laid down in the Audit Commission Act, which gives local electors a temporary right of access to the detailed financial records of English councils and police and fire authorities (including contracts, bills, vouchers and receipts). Similar legislation applies in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
It applies for a period of a few weeks annually, to facilitate the public raising concerns with auditors. The timing is linked to the auditing schedule for each council or authority. It generally falls between May and August, and we are currently in the middle of the relevant period for the Metropolitan Police.
From the point of view of those seeking information this law has several advantages over the Freedom of Information Act. One is speed. In this case we obtained the records within a few days. An FOI application is likely to take 20 working days or sometimes considerably longer to obtain an answer.
Window of opportunity
Another is that the grounds for exempting material from disclosure are narrower than under freedom of information law.
Personal data about staff can still be restricted, but it is harder for authorities to keep other material secret on the basis that it is confidential or threatens commercial interests than it would be in response to an FOI request.
The rights of access under the audit legislation can only be exercised within the narrow window of opportunity and by those with a local interest.
The best source for background material about this law is the website of the Orchard News Bureau, a news agency run by Richard Orange, who is the leading journalistic authority on this subject. The Daily Telegraph has also published a useful listing of when different councils have their open periods.
The coalition government is now trying to encourage citizens to use this right, as part of its campaign to unleash a force of "armchair auditors".