Freedom of Information Act can't catch a snitch

A police informant can remain anonymous after alleging to police that an explosives expert witness had threatened a judge. The Information Tribunal has backed the Information Commissioner's exemption of the details under the Freedom of Information Act.

Edwin Alcock was an explosives expert who was employed by Derbyshire Health and Safety Executive (HSE). An informant told Staffordshire Police that he believed that a bailiff who had tried to serve papers on Alcock was threatened with a brick and chased off Alcock's premises, that he had threatened a judge in court and that he had threatened to blow someone up.

When the HSE was told of the claims Alcock lost his job, his explosives licence and his home. Staffordshire Police shared the information with Derbyshire Police, who passed it on to the HSE, but took no further action. The Information Tribunal said that "evidence has been provided to us that would indicate that there was some basis of truth to some of the allegations and that they were not entirely foundless (sic)".

Alcock asked Staffordshire Police to give him the details of the informer and they refused, saying that the details of that person were exempt from the Freedom of Information Act under five different clauses of the Act.

Those exemptions allow a body to refuse to disclose information if it was obtained in an investigation into whether someone should be charged with an offence and it came from confidential sources. They also allow an absolute exemption in relation to personal information relating to a person who is not the information requester.

Alcock referred the case to the Information Commissioner, who backed Staffordshire Police's decision that the information did not have to be handed over because of the confidentiality exemption and because the information related to a third party.

Alcock then appealed the Information Commissioner's decision to the Information Tribunal, which assessed the reasoning behind the application of the two exemptions. The Tribunal found that the exemption relating to the disclosure of another person's information did apply.

When it came to assessing the decision on the confidentiality exemption, the Tribunal assessed the public interest arguments in favour and against disclosure of the informant's identity.

Though Tribunal chairman John Angel found that there was some argument in favour of disclosure in order to make police dealings transparent, he said that the balance lay in favour of non-disclosure because if a confidential informant's details were made public it would jeopardise the gathering of information by police from other informants.

"This is a most unfortunate case, the background circumstances of which have caused great hardship to Mr Alcock," said Angel in his ruling. "He has attempted to pursue his grievance through this Tribunal, but we cannot help him for the reasons given above. We uphold the decision notice dated 6th April 2006 and dismiss the appeal."