The Special Demonstration Squad (SDS) Welfare Policy documents were released by the Metropolitan Police Service (MPS) under the Freedom of Information Act (FoI) in 2013 and 2014. This is how.
Researching their book Undercover, The Guardian’s Rob Evans and Paul Lewis had found that members of the SDS experienced psychological distress resulting from undercover operations. As we wrote in the story about the SDS Welfare police files, the question was whether the police chiefs who were responsible for deploying undercover officers in political groups did enough to ensure the mental well-being of those officers.
Using the Freedom of Information Act, Evans and Lewis asked Scotland Yard for copies of policies which were in place after 2000 to ensure the psychological health of undercover officers in the SDS and NPOIU. They also asked for the 1995 SDS Tradecraft Manual.
Initially Scotland Yard refused to release any documents. The Met argued that disclosing the documents could ‘damage future police investigations and hinder the way in which the NPOIU can operate in the future’ and added that ‘the publication of information that could reveal operational methodology could have a prejudical impact on the investigation of crime generally’.
In short, this is the Neither Confirm Nor Deny argument that has been used continuously by the Met in dealing with the undercover policing scandal, in particular in the case of the eight women who filed a case to hold the police to account about undercover officers engaging in long-term relationships with each of them. From the very start of the case in December 2011 until the Met’s final apology in December 2015, the police refused to acknowledge the officers in questions were undercovers. As a result of the women’s legal action though, in August 2014 the Met had been forced to admit that two of them, Bob Lambert and Jim Boyling, had indeed been SDS officers.
Rob Evans appealed the decision arguing that the documents did not contain information which was operationally sensitive.
The correspondence between the Guardian and the Met’s FoI managers shows that it pays to be persistent, and never to take no for an answer. It took two years to get the full set of documents released in February 2014. The Met’s internal review after the appeal resulted in the release of a first batch of ten files; the second batch of another ten files only surfaced after Evans filed a complaint with the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) to appeal the heavy redactions of the SDS Tradecraft Manual. The second batch should have been included in March 2013, but had not been disclosed as ‘result of an administrative error’. It was only after the appeal that Evans received a full schedule of the available documents relating to his requests; if he had not gone to the ICO, we would never have known documents had been missing from the first release.
Additionally, the Met (MPS) claimed to be moving towards more openness, stating: ‘Upon revisiting the request in response to the ICO appeal and taking into account recent disclosures made as a result of the progress of Operation Herne, the MPS has concluded that the balance of the public interest favours additional disclosure. In broad terms this includes the rank/title of certain individuals, additional headings and some additional information.’ In practice, this meant that the word ‘Secret’ is now visible on a few of the documents, as well as several dates that were previously redacted.
Since the MPS’ Disclosure Log states that, ‘when information is released under the Freedom of Information Act, it is disclosed to the world’, it was relatively unproblematic to request copies of the previously released material, including these welfare documents (though this is not always the case, as discussed in our article Previously disclosed files made secret again).
This files overview includes:
- the successive drafts of the SDS Welfare Policy paper (numbered 1-4) discussed in the story;
- the 2005 Summary of the development of the SDS Welfare Policy and
- most of the documents mentioned in that Summary as [doc 3], [doc 4] etcetera, numbers that can be found incorporated in the titles of the files listed below.
- the heavily redacted SDS Tradecraft Manual
Remember, these are only the files that the authorities chose to disclose and may only represent a small fraction of the total files held. Also, what police officers report to their superiors is not necessarily true.