Back in June, I wrote a piece explaining how campaigners, if they believed they may have been targeted for undercover surveillance, could submit a Subject Access Request under data protection legislation to find out what personal details are held about them by the police. My own initial submission to the Metropolitan Police, whose Special Demonstration Squad targeted the Lawrence family, their supporters and police custody death campaigners during the 1990s and who are now responsible for the National Domestic Extremism Unit, apparently went missing but a second request was formally acknowledged on 25 July.
Five months ago, when I said that despite an entitlement under the Data Protection Act to receive an answer within 40 days, no-one ever receives a response in that time, I had little idea just how prophetic that would prove to be. After chasing the Met's Public Access Office, I finally received a letter from them three months later, on 25 October, which apologised for the delay in responding but gave absolutely no indication when, if ever, it planned to respond to my request. I therefore complained to the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO), who told me in early November that they had written to the Met asking them to provide me with a full response by 9 December.
The ICO's deadline is today. It has been 138 days since the Metropolitan Police received my request for personal data, it has still failed to respond despite repeated prompting and now it has ignored the independent regulator set up to promote openness by public bodies.
Curious to discover whether police resistance to providing the data it holds about me is less wilful non-compliance and more staggering incompetence, I also submitted a Freedom of Information request asking for the number of Subject Access Requests received by the Metropolitan Police during the six months from 1 April 2013 to 30 September 2013 and how many were completed within the 40 calendar day limit. Remarkably, the Met replied last week refusing, initially, to answer these simple questions on the grounds of cost, because I had asked for the number of successfully completed requests. It claims it has no internal systems in place to monitor this and insisted it would need to check each of the 480 submitted in the six month time period that were completed. Eventually, however, the Met did manage to admit that it received 1600 requests between April and September this year.
So now I know my request is one of the staggering 70% (1120 out of 1600¹) that the Metropolitan Police has failed to respond to within the required 40 days during the six months from April.
This degree of repeated failure to provide adequate public transparency by any public body is shocking but to put it into some context, it's worth remembering that for the first three months of the period from April, the ICO said it was monitoring the Met over concerns about its timeliness.
I have now asked the ICO to again intervene on my behalf but, when it is evident that the Metropolitan Police is neither transparent or accountable on the personal data it holds, the time has surely come for the Information Commissioner to begin regulatory enforcement action.
The Network for Police Monitoring (Netpol) has produced a detailed guide to writing and submitting Subject Access Requests to check what information is held by the National Domestic Extremism Unit. It is available to download or online here.
¹ This includes any Subject Access requests received by the Met right up to 30 September: my FoI request was made exactly 40 days after that date.