Criminals using FoI Act to identify informants

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The Independent Online

Murderers and convicted criminals are using the Freedom of Information Act to try to identify the police informers who helped to jail them.

Offenders are also contacting the police and Home Office asking for details of how the authorities caught them. This includes information about undercover police operations and forensic science techniques used to recover their DNA.

Police suspect that more than 100 convicted criminals have conducted searches and they fear that the lives of informants could be put at risk if any details about their identity are released. They also believe that criminals are trying to learn from their mistakes so that they do not get caught the same way next time.

In some cases, the criminals use aliases, or get their friends and family to make the requests. Most of the offenders causing police concern are still serving jail sentences. They include many murderers.

The Home Office said it was aware of five to 10 convicted criminals making Freedom of Information requests to the department.

Since January last year, public bodies have been under a duty to disclose previously withheld information whenever possible. But police stressed that "abusive" requests such as those from criminals made up only a tiny proportion of the 22,000 applications for information the police dealt with in England and Wales last year.

Chief Inspector Paul Brooks, the Association of Chief Police Officers' project manager for the Freedom of Information Act, said: "We get a lot of requests about individual cases, not just murders. There are requests from offenders. They will dig into a case and go after any information they can get hold of. If you are not careful, material could be released inadvertently that gave away the identity of an informer.

"You have to be extremely careful in what you say. For example, if you give out information that could only have come from one source, you may reveal an informer's identify. The police service will protects its informants throughout their lives."

Offenders often want to find out information about how they were caught, he added. "This includes information from the DNA database and what police methods were used."

When the police believe someone is trying to find out details of an informer or learn confidential police tactics, the request for information is refused. It is exempted under the FoI law because it is about informers or sensitive information. Chief Insp Brooks said: "We are picking these requests up before they get very far. Our advice to police forces is that they need to get the SIO [senior investigating officer] for each case involved so that they know what the issues are."

Ian Readhead, Deputy Chief Constable of Hampshire and the force's spokesman on FoI issues, said: "Some murderers are making requests for information. This can include sensitive information - for example, SIOs may have included in their reports the source of information used for a conviction."

In a separate development, one man has made more than a thousand requests under the Freedom of Information Act and used the details he received to impersonate police officers and members of the armed forces. The man, who is known to police, has asked for details about police and armed forces procedures and collected the names of officers. He has then allegedly attempted to get into military bases, and police stations, by pretending to know people inside.

Although the man has had a positive reply to many of his requests the police have now decided that he poses a potential danger and are refusing most of his applications.