Government rejection of Macpherson information proposals regretted

The Campaign for Freedom of Information said it regretted that the government had not accepted the Macpherson report’s recommendations on freedom of information (FOI). The Macpherson report called for information about all areas of policing to be covered by an FOI Act. However the government’s response to the report published today [March 23] says that “information relating to an investigation or prosecution…will be exempt, as a class, from disclosure”.

The Campaign’s director Maurice Frankel said “this will permit unnecessary secrecy to continue. Information obtained during police investigations could be kept secret, even where disclosure would not identify an informant, undermine police work or prejudice legal proceedings.”

The Campaign pointed out that the Macpherson report had revealed that the police had received sufficient evidence to arrest the suspects within 48 hours of the murder, although arrests were not made until two weeks later. It also showed that the police had been tipped off that the suspects in the Lawrence murder case were known to keep knives hidden under the floorboards, but failed to lift the floorboards when searching any of the suspects’ homes. The murder weapon was never recovered. The Campaign said “information which would reveal these fundamental failings would be protected from disclosure under the proposed FOI Act”.

Notes

1. The government’s FOI white paper, published in December 1997, proposed that authorities could only withhold information under an FOI Act if they could show that disclosure would cause “substantial harm”. But it also proposed that information about the police’s operational activities would be excluded from the scope of the Act altogether.

2. The Macpherson report rejected this exclusion and said the Act “should apply to all areas of policing, both operational and administrative, subject only to the ‘substantial harm’ test for withholding disclosure.” [Recommendation 9].

3. The government’s response to the Macpherson report, published today [March 23] retains the principle of an exclusion for some police information, though more narrowly defined than was originally the case. However, it rejects the “substantial harm” test and proposes that police information should be subject to a lower “appropriate harm test”.

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