When the government decided the country’s police forces needed elected police and crime commissioners, the argument centred on the importance of accountability – we, the public, needed to know we could vote on how well the police were run.
Two years on, and with many crime commissioners now in place after winning elections which attracted turnouts as low as 15%, it would appear the idea of accountability is starting to slip – at least when it comes to Freedom of Information.
Whereas the democratic process allows you to hold someone to account just once in a period of time, FOI enables you to hold a public authority to account at a time of your choosing, on a specific subject of your choosing – something the office of the Hertfordshire police and crime commissioner clearly finds irritating.
According to the Herts and Essex Observer, one FOI requester has had his requests for information branded “persistent and oppressive.”
Diana Currie, the deputy chief executive in the commissioner’s office, made her comments in a letter to a man who had been asked for details of the gifts and hospitality register held by the police and crime commissioner – hardly the most taxing of requests.
Apparently staff didn’t like some of the remarks made in the requests – such as ‘the clock is ticking.
But perhaps more worrying – given the police and crime commissioner is supposed to hold those enforcing law and order to account on our behalf – is the way the deputy chief executive seems prepared to ignore the conditions of FOI law which state requests must be dealt with within 20 days.
Miss Currie said: “We are a small office with limited resources, and we have many people and organisations to deal with in addition to yourself.
“We also have many other statutory responsibilities and work areas in addition to reporting statutory information. We assign work as appropriate to the staff available and prioritise work accordingly.
“With this in mind, I would like to make you aware that hard working staff in the office do find some of your correspondence persistent and oppressive.
“Particularly with regards to comments such as ‘and the clock is ticking’ and some of the assumptions made.
“I feel sure that it is not your intention to offend and would respectfully request that you consider the tone of any future correspondence.”
Ouch! Imagine if I started ignoring the law because of my workload, maybe ignoring speeding limits to get from one meeting to another. Would the police accept my heavy workload defence? Of course not.
It sets a very poor precedent to see a public body, created allegedly to promote accountability just two years ago, seems happy to pay scant attention to the regulations of FOI using the argument of being ‘too busy.’ As we all know, we can’t just ignore the laws we don’t like … well, most of us can’t.