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Information Commissioner overturns Thames Valley Police "vexatious" claim

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The Information Commissioner has overturned a decision made by Thames Valley Police who refused to answer a Freedom of Information request from the NWN, branding this newspaper “vexatious.”

In February, the Newbury Weekly News submitted a single FOI request to the police authority asking how many times it had used Chapter 2 of Part 1 of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act.

The Act gives the police far-reaching powers of surveillance such as obtaining phone records and other communication data in some cases.

An inquiry into the use of these powers published earlier this year revealed that there were 34 investigations by 19 police forces between 2011 and 2014 in relation to suspected illicit relationships between journalists and sources.

These involved 105 journalists, 19 of which work for local newspapers, and 242 sources, with 608 applications authorised under Chapter 2 of Part 1 of the act to obtain communications data.

Thames Valley Police is yet to confirm or deny if they are one of the 19 police forces that have used these powers.

Answering the original request earlier this year the police argued that the Newbury Weekly News was “vexatious” and refused to provide the information because of what they termed an “unreasonable persistence” on the subject by the media.

This newspaper then complained to the police authority who stood by its original decision, before lodging an appeal with the Information Commissioner who are the regulatory body for the Freedom of Information Act.

Reporter William Walker argued to the ICO: “That other news organisations have written similar requests should be incidental to the final decision as to whether to disclose the information.

“Each FOI request should be treated on an individual basis and not automatically assumed to be part of a group of FOIs.

“The single request made by myself was on a matter of genuine interest – that of the protection of confidential sources for journalists.

“As such this should not represent a ‘vexatious’ request by its very definition – nothing in the request is designed to annoy, or irritate or cause offence, but rather shed light on an area of important public concern.”

Siding with this newspaper the ICO concluded: “The Commissioner’s decision is that the request is not vexatious.”

Outlining their reasoning the regulator said: “The Commisioner’s guidance suggests that, if a request is not patently vexatious, the key question the public authority must ask itself is whether the request is likely to cause a disproportionate or unjustified level of disruption, irritation or distress.

“In doing this the Commissioner considers that a public authority should weigh the impact of the request upon it and balance this against the purpose and value of the request.

“Where relevant, public authorities also need to take into account wider factors such as the background and history of the request.

“TVP has relied heavily on central advice issued when responding to the request.

“In the absence of any further arguments from TVP…the Commissioner again concludes that section 14(1) is not engaged and the request is not vexatious.”

Thames Valley Police must now either disclose the requested information or issue a fresh refusal notice within 35 calendar days or risk possible contempt of court.

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