Last week, the Police Oracle revealed that nearly £750,000 from the counter-terrorism budget is being spent on an IT system to analyse police documents submitted to the Pitchford Undercover Policing Inquiry. Ian Weinfass of the weekly police outlet obtained documents under the Freedom of Information Act confirming that the Home Office approved the spending.
We had a good look at the article, found some nuggets and we have some questions about how this extra funding will be spent.
Sorting out police chaos record keeping
The IT contract will only handle documents from the National Public Order Intelligence Unit (NPOIU) to see if they need redacting before being released to the Pitchford Inquiry and subsequently to the public. The NPIOU existed from 1999 to 2011 and focused on activist groups outside of London for much of its history.
It is not clear why a second IT system is needed. An existing IT contract is covering documents relating to the Metropolitan Police’s Special Demonstration Squad. This contract has already been paid for through contributions from all regional forces – although the costs for that are not known yet.
The Independent writes that the police regard the analysis of the vast number of NPOIU papers as a far more complex process than simply putting black lines through documents. ‘As well as a desire to protect the identities of undercover officers, there are concerns about revealing operational and tactical information that might be of use to criminals seeking to avoid detection.’ Though why that should be materially different is not clear: redaction is redaction and something FOIA officers have been dealing with for years.
Some of the problems with the files were mentioned in a February 2015 report of Operation Herne (the most recent) of the Met’s self-investigation into the SDS and the NPOIU. In a complaint about how understaffed his team is, Mick Creedon explained that they have to go through 37 different data stores containing an estimated 50,000 SDS documents for the period 1998-2008. ‘Detailed examination, reading and indexing to the current CT HOLMES standard… will take in excess of 27 (Twenty seven) years.’ Creedon therefore suggested to keep the files in the Forensic Toolkit database where it was stored, and have the Pitchford Inquiry ‘trawl through this data’, rather than Operation Herne.
How this problem with the SDS documents was resolved – if at all – we do not know, nor how the issue relates to the new IT contract. The Police Oracle draws a similar picture for the NPOIU documents, writing: ‘the police service collectively holds 86 boxes of paper material related to the NPOIU, along with 185 digital storage devices and there is a “highly sensitive” archive of all material relating to the unit containing “more than a million items of information”.’
We have written before about the Met’s Chaotic and Dysfunctional Record Keeping explaining that the Met’s Inquiry response team AC-PIT has responsibility for disclosure: they do the actual searches for material and redact it before passing it to the inquiry, via the Directorate of Legal Services. Their first job was to understand what the Met actually has – leading to the realisation that the records system needs cleaning up and sorting out if disclosure obligations are to be met.
At The Monitoring Group / Centre for Crime and Justice Studies conference in April 2016 on ‘Political policing and state racism in the UK’, representatives of the Iquiry pointed out that the MPS and the undercover policing Inquiry (UCPI) were still negotiating various obstacles. In particular, the access that the UCPI team themselves would have in order to conduct searches or supervise them.
We are trying to find out exactly the new IT contract entails, if this is about creating a ‘central data storage’, a searchable database of all documents irrespective of their original format (written or typed, print or digital, doc or excel etcetera, etcetera); or whether the brief is to develop software that can support the redaction of the enormous amount of data.
And, more importantly, if this is to create a super-database to eventually handover to the Pitchford Inquiry, is it the police who decide what is included, and what not. How is the oversight organised?
Democratic protest considered ‘domestic extremism’ and ‘terrorism’
Looking at the comments of the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) spokesman, they are honest in their own way. In his efforts to justify why the costs should be paid from the counter terrorism budget, he in fact says ‘but that is what the undercover operations were all about!’
It is good to know that the NPCC today, our top police officers consider democratic protest as ‘domestic extremism’ and ‘terrorism’:
The NPCC spokesman told the Independent the same, though in slightly different wording:
This has been funded from the counter-terrorism policing budget on a one-off basis because the majority of the operations were conducted under their command and the IT system used is funded by counter terrorism policing. The budget for counter-terrorism is of course focused on preventing and pursuing terrorists but this agreement has been reached because we also have an obligation to be transparent and accountable to this public inquiry.
Delay – at least untill 2019
Finally, another detail revealed in the Oracle article was that:
a national coordination team to meet costs of the inquiry is being given £1 million annual funding by contributions from force budgets until 2019.
This is the first time to have something in writing on how long the police think that the Pitchford Inquiry will take. Officially started in the summer of 2015 to run for three years – it is not clear when the hearings will start, probably not before the summer. Pitchford only just acknowledged the Inquiry is behind schedule, and will put out a revised timetable in the next couple of months.
Uneven playing field
Meanwhile Green Party member Baroness Jenny Jones has written to the Home Office in January 2017 about what she believes is underfunding of the Pitchford Inquiry. She said: ‘You have to ask what chance there is of getting to the truth when the police have £750,000 to redact files.’