Ask a Policeman*

by | Feb 21, 2015 | Uncategorized | 2 comments

A few weeks ago, Lynne Owens, the Chief Constable of Surrey Police, piously weighed in on the perennial debate that FOI is a waste of money: “The irony is the more FOIA requests to be serviced within legislative guidelines the less officers we can afford”. My fellow blogger Alistair Sloan wrote a fine piece about the whole thing at the time.

Various other cops weighed in, including one from my own force, Greater Manchester Police, all of them sceptical about being held to account by the public. No police voices defended the value of FOI very well: all they could see was its cost. Rachel Rogers, a Labour councillor, prospective Parliamentary candidate and failed Police and Crime Commissioner hopeful even dragged out the old chestnut of including the cost of producing information as part of FOI responses, which Owens thought was “an interesting idea” which she would pass on to the relevant officer. Rogers described herself as “leading the field in terms of transparency” during the PCC elections; given that she suggested (even if jokingly) charging journalists for making FOI requests, you can imagine my expression right now.

Having read Owens’ comments, I wondered how much Surrey Police spent on FOI, I also wondered whether there was any evidence that Chief Constable Owens’ determination to divert resources towards providing police officers for the people of Surrey was reflected elsewhere. With this in mind, I made a Freedom of Information request to Surrey Police, asking them how many staff they employ to work full time on answering FOI requests, and how much those posts cost in total. I also asked how many staff they employ working on PR and communications, and how much those posts cost in total. I also asked for the salary of the highest paid officer working on the two areas, but they refused to tell me on the grounds that it would be a breach of the Data Protection Act. I don’t agree with that, but what they did tell me is enough.

Total number of staff working on FOI: 5.8 full time equivalent.

Total cost of those posts: £157,903.46 p.a.

Total number of staff working on PR and communications: 28 full time equivalent.

Total cost of those posts: £1,018,090.58 p.a

The response helpfully pointed out that the 5.8 staff who work on FOI also work on all Data Protection issues, so the actual time spent / cost on FOI is only a proportion of those totals. I suspect that Surrey won’t know what that proportion is exactly, and I’m not going to bother to ask.

These facts do not speak for themselves. They shout until their lungs bleed. Freedom of Information is a legal obligation. Parliament decided that police forces, like most of the rest of the public sector, are covered by FOI. Organisations that exist to uphold and enforce the law should not be so arrogant as to complain about having to comply with the law. Every penny spent on those 5.8 posts is money well spent, in the public interest. As an aside, I found Surrey Police’s FOI process to be efficient, polite and very quick, without too much faff and no unnecessary gold plating. They managed to answer my request, including a justifiable request for clarification, within two weeks: 10/10, would FOI again.

PR and Communication is not a demonic evil, but it is not a statutory obligation. A police force is not obliged to have a PR operation: its size is dictated by force policy and inclination. Forces have decided that PR activities and campaigns (some of them idiotic and probably illegal) are part of their duties, but that’s a choice they’ve all made. Somebody sensible has to answer the phone when journalists want a statement; somebody articulate has to deal with the press when something big happens. These things are unavoidable. But most of Surrey’s 28 PR people will not be deployed on such things, and at least of some of Surrey’s PR work will be avoidable and unnecessary.

FOI is people asking for information, not waiting dumbly to hear what their police force wants them to know. If Surrey, or other police forces or public bodies, want to complain about waste, they should drive down the costs of PR first. If they want to say how much each FOI request costs, they should do the same for every pointless press release, every tweet, every twee photocall. As long as her force spends more than five times as much on PR as it does on FOI, Chief Constable Owens has no right to complain about the costs of transparency.



*Just for all you Will Hay fans out there