The Information Commissioner has ordered disclosure by the Metropolitan Police of the ages of the deceased children whose identities were used by the ‘Special Demonstration Squad’
In Frederick Forsyth’s novel The Day of the Jackal the protagonist uses a heartless, but, at the time of the novel’s writing, well-known, method of assuming a false identity. He visits graveyards until he finds the gravestone of a dead child who would have been born about the same time as him, then purchases the child’s birth certificate, which he uses to obtain a fake passport. In 2003 Forsyth said
I asked a forger how to get hold of a passport. He told me there were three ways. Steal one and substitute a photograph. Bribe an official for one ‘en blanc’ in which you can fill in your details. Or apply for one under a false name
In February 2013 the Home Secretary, Theresa May, announced that the existing investigation into undercover policing in the Metropolitan Police Service would now be headed by the Chief Constable of Derbyshire Police. This was in part because of serious allegations aired in the Guardian about a covert police officer apparently adopting the identity of a baby named Rod Richardson, who had died at the age of two days old, in 1973.
The ensuing first report into what had become Operation Herne found that there was
both documentary proof and witness accounts to confirm that the genuine details of deceased children were extensively used by members of the SDS until around 1995 so as to create cover identities and thereby enable the officers to infiltrate a range of violent protest groups
It described the practice as “morally repugnant” but effectively excused it was being necessary within the constraints of the time, but did acknowledge that
There is understandable public, political and media concern about the use of the identities of deceased children, irrespective of the context, of the operational rationale, of any perceived necessity and of any legal considerations
Although it said that the issue should not detract from the importance of the tactic of undercover policing.
Perhaps the Met had this in mind when they refused to disclose, in response to a request made under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FOIA), the mere ages of the 42 dead children whose identities the report either confirmed were or were considered as highly likely to have been (ab)used. The Met placed perhaps most weight on the fact that disclosing this information would allow officers to be identified (thus engaging the FOIA exemption at section 40(2)), but the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) was distinctly unimpressed with this argument
the Commissioner does not consider the age of a child who dies at some point over a forty year period meets the criteria of being the ‘personal data’ of an undercover officer as the age alone is simply too far removed to make any such link
Nor, for a similar reason, were the exemptions at section 38 (prejudice to health and safety) and section 24 (safeguarding national security) engaged: if officers could not be identified from this information then their health and safety could not be prejudiced and there was no compromise to the need to safeguard national security.
The ICO did concede that exemptions at section 30 was engaged. This exemption deals – broadly – with investigations conducted by relevant public authorities into potential criminal offences, and information which relates to the obtaining of information from confidential sources. However, and ultimately the public interest favoured disclosure. The ICO found particularly compelling, as will many, the following submission from the requester
There is…a clear public interest with regards to the hundreds of thousands of families who lost a child during the relevant period. Any of these families may fear that their relative’s details were used by police officers without consent. The question of whether the 42 families should be told is complex. By confirming which ages were used, the MPS would also be confirming which ages were not used. This information could help answer the questions of tens of thousands of families for each any [sic] age that is identified as not having been used
Perhaps, if it transpires (the Met can, of course, appeal) this FOIA disclosure will, even more than most, serve a public interest.
*Faith, like a jackal, feeds among the tombs, and even from these dead doubts she gathers her most vital hope – Herman Melville