I hadn’t planned to write further about the British Transport Police for a while – it was clear from my dealings with it that the force wasn’t enjoying my Freedom of Information requests or the resulting coverage and so I thought it sensible to have a small pause.
But this morning the force made a welcome u-turn on its refusal to say how many armed officers it employs.
In response to my original FOI asking for the number, data which is published by the Home Office for every other force operating in England and Wales, BTP claimed that this information was exempt on the grounds of public safety.
Justifying that decision, it told me:
“If British Transport Police were to publish figures relating to AFOs based in the same area, that would have the effect of breaking down the numbers to divisional level and enable members of the criminal fraternity or individuals or groups intending to carry out acts of terrorism to map resources available.
“If coupled with further requests relating to other areas, the effect of this would be multiplied. British Transport Police’s area of jurisdiction covers geographically the whole of England, Scotland and Wales and is policed by approximately 3000 police officers.
“The Metropolitan Police are responsible for policing the Greater London area and have over 32000 police officers.
“It can therefore be seen that there is far greater harm that could potentially be caused by releasing information that could allow for the mapping of the resources or capabilities of British Transport Police compared to those of the Metropolitan Police who have far more officers concentrated over a far smaller area.
“Again, these risks are magnified when dealing with specialist resources such as Authorised Firearms Officers”
It went on:
“The public interest is not what interests the public, but a test of whether the community benefit of possession of the information outweighs the potential harm.
“In this case, we have identified that there would be a small benefit to the public by the release of the information concerned. However, there is a very strong factor favouring non-disclosure, this being the negative impact on the effectiveness of the police force in being able to respond to incidents successfully, to detect crime and to combat the ongoing threat from terrorism.
“If there is a risk that the future law enforcement role of the force could be compromised and the public’s safety be put at risk, it cannot be justified that the public interest would be served in releasing this specific information if either of these aspects were to be compromised in any way.
“I have determined that the disclosure of the requested information would not be in the public interest. I believe the harm considerations and the importance of the factors favouring non-disclosure outweigh the public interest in disclosing the information. My decision, on balance, is that it would therefore not be in the public interest to release this information.”
However this response was undermined by oral testimony from the force’s Deputy Chief Constable, Adrian Hanstock, who earlier this year told MPs that the entire BTP armed contingent “is purely in London at the moment.”
This testimony spurred me into pushing back and requesting an Internal Review of the response.
As I said in my IR request, “Unless DCC Hanstock misled MPs – highly unlikely – it’s hard to see how your grounds are valid because there are – based on his testimony – no AFOs outside the capital.”
In a welcome move towards sanity, the reviewer has agreed and overturned the initial FOI response. BTP has now provided the number:
“The total number of British Transport Police’s Authorised Firearms Officers is 151. These officers operate not only in London and the South East but can travel across the force dependent on operational requirements.”
Those officers sit alongside the Met’s 2,139 and City of London’s 48 (as of the Home Office’s latest update covering 2016).
BTP’s handling of the request is a good example of how some public bodies default to claiming wide-ranging FOI exemptions which don’t withstand scrutiny or challenge.
Sadly those who fund BTP – ultimately fare and tax payers – have had to cover the cost not just of the original FOI but also the Internal Review in order to have this information, which is routinely published by every other public police force in the UK, released.
BTP managers need to look again at their overly defensive and patently resentful approach to public accountability and the release of information and understand that being paid for by the public means being answerable to the public.