Britain’s ‘FBI’ sprang to life in a very visible way with televised raids and a large amount of press coverage but is this as much as we will find out about the work of the agency?
The National Crime Agency (NCA) is exempt from the Freedom of Information Act – but there’s no real reason it should be.
Keith Bristow the head of the NCA was questioned in parliament days after the agency was formed and the question arose as to why his organisation wasn’t subject to FOI requests and couldn’t provide a convincing argument as to why the Act shouldn’t apply to it.
Upon creation, under the Crime and Courts Act 2013, the agency absorbed some functions of the National Policing Improvement Agency – which was fully subject to FOI – these are no longer covered, along with any detail about the work the agency does.
Bristow, who is the most powerful officer in the UK, told MPs the NCA’s ability to work internationally and with private companies was the main reason behind being exempt from the Act:
Parliament have come to a view that we are exempt from FOI. I think it is quite a balanced argument. We do want to be open and transparent, and I will show that to yourself and the public. That is how we are going to operate within the bounds of what is sensible for an agency that is about law enforcement and sometimes needs to operate covertly. The difficulty with FOI is that it potentially removed some of our relationships with overseas law enforcement and some of the relationships we need to build and improve with the private sector.
The arguments put forward, by the organisation’s boss, are meaningless and there is no strong reason given as to why the agency should be exempt from FOI.
The provisions to protect its private work already exist in exemptions to the FOI Act.
Looking beyond the most regularly applied exemptions to FOI requests (including commercial confidentiality) exemptions exist for national security, disclosures that could cause contempt of court, protection of international relations, defence, law enforcement, ongoing investigations and more.
These exemptions could be applied by the NCA if they were to ever receive requests. There would be no need for their work to damage relationships between other countries because of FOI. There would be no reason to publish information not covered by exemptions to FOI. And to this extent there is no need for FOI not to apply to them.
Under the formation of the NCA it is required to publish some information regularly (set out in a framework document here), Bristow said this included: “[his] salary, gifts and hospitality, expenses claimed”
Transparency is undoubtedly a positive virtue to promote and one that can’t be criticised on face value. But, and it’s a big but, they’re only publishing the information the Government want – not the information people want, which should be accessible by FOI.
As an example of how well the transparency and openness is going in the NCA the Keith Vaz, the chair of the Home Affairs Committee, heavily criticised the new body for not responding to questions they had been asked more than a year ago.
Here’s Vaz setting a statement of intent to watch over the NCA’s activities.
Keith Bristow: My understanding was that we had passed that to you. I have just been given a note to say the clerk has told us not to reply and that the questions should be redirected to the Home Office, albeit a reply had been prepared.
Vaz: That is very interesting because that is a very serious issue about accountability to this organisation, the Home Affairs Select Committee. You have just told Mr Winnick that you want to be open and accountable to the public. A Select Committee of this House has written to you. You told us your salary. You are on £214,772 a year. We have asked you 11 questions that we would like answered. We started asking you these questions on 17 January 2012, and you are now telling us that you are not able to answer those questions and that they are going to be answered by whom in the Home Office?
At the start of the NCA we will not accept a situation where we write to the head of the NCA and we are told that they will not answer. The clerk has just told me he has not told you not to write back to this Committee. He has said you asked whether the Home Office could reply. That is not acceptable to this Committee. You must reply when I write to you. Do you understand that, Mr Bristow.
Photo credit: National Crime Agency