Article: Police Bonuses

From The Times, 24 January 2009
What have they got to hide?
By Heather Brooke

Investigation is a little like psychiatry where the most telling details are often those kept hidden. When only one police force is willing to tell the public what it pays its Chief Constable in bonuses curiosity is piqued. What do they have to hide?

The police chiefs who accepted bonuses not only refused to reveal the amounts, but also declined to say what they were for. Some Chiefs told us they refused bonuses ‘on principle’ which makes one wonder what principles are at stake? We can’t know that until we know the details of the bonuses.

They cited the Data Protection Act, claiming that it would be an invasion of their privacy for the public to know the details of their salary and benefits. This may interest chief executives of public companies who must disclose this information in their annual reports.

It’s a topsy turvy world when the public have more rights to find out how the heads of corporations spend their shareholders’ money than the public do the heads of their public services.

The Data Protection Act is a badly written law. It is understandable that no one can understand it, but it is the implementation of a European Directive designed to protect the privacy of private individuals not to help public officials avoid public accountability.

The law hinges on a fairness principle and a balancing test is used to compare personal privacy interests to the public interest in knowing the information. Under this test, if the information is determined to be private, it can be released anyway if it is found that the public interest in release is more important than the privacy interest. There have been several cases now, including a High Court case on MPs’ expenses, where this balancing test has been done and the public interest found to outweigh the individual privacy interests.

In the case of Chief Constable pay there is clearly a valid public interest in this information. The public pay this money. They have a right to know how much and what it is for. Are the bonuses for cutting particular types of crime? Has this resulted in changes to the way crimes are recorded? Until the bonuses are published we just don’t know how they are affecting policing.

Another issue of concern is the massive non-compliance with the Freedom of Information Act. Of the 57 requests sent out at least 38 forces failed to answer legally. They simply let the deadline come and go failing to provide a legal reason for their continued delay. The police enforce the law, so what does it say when they don’t obey it themselves?

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One Response to “Article: Police Bonuses”

  1. Mark Pack says:

    I’m surprised that you wrote “The Data Protection Act is a badly written law. It is understandable that no one can understand it” as my experience of the act is rather different. Whenever I’ve had recourse to it, I’ve found it much clearer than most acts and, crucially, by laying down key principles it makes it far easier to apply the act to novel situations than is the case for much other legislation.

    Compared with nearly all election law legislation the DPA is a much clearer, which is the main area of legislation I know about.

    It also seems to me a mark in its favour that both the primary and secondary legislation has been only relatively rarely changed – which is normally the sign of legislation that is well written?

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