A tribunal has ruled today that police cannot use “national security” as a reason for refusing to release information about fracking opponents referred to a counter-terrorism programme.
The policing monitoring group, Netpol, went to the Information Rights Tribunal last month in an appeal over requests for information about Channel, part of the Government’s counter-terrorism strategy.
Netpol had asked whether anti-fracking campaigners had been referred to the voluntary programme, which is aimed at people identified as “vulnerable to being drawn into terrorism”.
The Information Commissioner had backed the decision of five police forces in the north-west to reject the request.
In 2016, she said releasing this information “would disclose that Prevent officers were targeting anti-fracking events for extremist activities” and provide “useful intelligence to anyone wishing to circumvent counter-terrorism arrangements surrounding fracking”.
But in today’s ruling, the tribunal panel rejected arguments from the police and the Information Commissioner. The five police forces must now respond to the requests without relying on the national security exemption in the Freedom of Information Act.
The panel said:
“Having regard to what is already in the public domain, and having regard also to the existence of the concerns about appropriate use of Channel referrals, we judge that answers concerning whether the requested numbers are held would make a small but worthwhile contribution to public understanding, and hence towards the effectiveness of the programme.”
The panel said revealing whether the police hold this kind of information would “indicate a level of concern or watchfulness concerning anti-fracking campaigning as a movement”. But it said:
“This would not of itself reveal anything new that is not already in the public domain.”
The panel added:
“In our judgment it is stretching credulity to contend that such confirmation would be of material assistance to terrorists or potential terrorists”.
It accepted there was a public interest in transparency about the way the Channel programme operated. It could only work if it had “widespread public understanding and support”, the panel concluded.
Netpol said this evening:
“Netpol’s victory is important because the police and the Home Office have both repeatedly insisted, despite growing evidence, that there is no proof the anti-fracking movement has ever been targeted for surveillance by Prevent counter-terrorism officers.
“Now that the Tribunal has instructed all five forces to go back and look at our freedom of information requests again, the police can no longer simply fall back on a standard “neither confirm nor deny” response to avoid saying whether opponents of fracking were ever considered vulnerable to the influence of so-called “extremists”.
“This over-reliance by the police on ‘national security’ to block greater transparency is a long-standing concern for many campaigners alarmed about the scale of intrusive surveillance on political dissent. It has been an excuse used again and again by the police during the ongoing public inquiry into undercover policing, even when the names of disgraced former officers have been widely reported.
“We hope that as a result of losing this case, the Information Commissioner will finally adopt a more positive stance on ensuring the public are not shut out completely from the debate about the effectiveness (or otherwise) of counter-terrorism and policing policy.”