Tuesday

Why the Home Office is taking so long to answer 12 simple FOI questions about Madeleine McCann - by the Home Office



From: Lister Ian (IMS)
Subject: RE: Home Office FoI request CR14428 PLUS FOUR MORE FOI QUESTIONS and COMPLAINT
To: "ANTHONY BENNETT"
Date: Tuesday, 22 June, 2010, 14:03


Dear Mr. Bennett,

Thank you for your email of the 17th June 2010 about your ongoing request under the Freedom of Information Act that we received on the 22nd March 2010, in which you asked the twelve questions which you have detailed below.

I would like to apologise again for the amount of time it has taken to provide a substantive answer to your request. I appreciate that the fact that your request is still ongoing might appear to indicate that we are deliberately delaying our response to you or that we are trying to obfuscate the matter. I would like to reassure you that this is not the case.

The questions that you have asked relate to an investigation into the disappearance of a missing child; an investigation that is still ongoing within the UK at this time, as I am sure you are aware. Whilst your questions ask for the release of simple facts, as you put it, we must be extremely careful that our answers to those questions and the release of any information that we may or may not hold, does not prejudice this investigation, any relations between UK and Portuguese authorities or would be otherwise prejudicial to the effect conduct of public affairs.

I acknowledge that this matter is of significant interest to a large number of people and that there is great deal of ongoing speculation about the stage of investigation. As you have said, there is huge public interest in ascertaining what happen to Madeleine McCann. However, the ‘public interest’ that we consider in conjunction with the Freedom of Information Act, is not the same as what might be of interest to public, or what they might find interesting. In carrying out a Public Interest Test we consider the greater good or benefit to the community as a whole if the information is released or not. The ‘right to know’ that is provided by the FoI Act must be balanced against the need to enable effective government and to serve the best interests of the public.

Furthermore, the FoI Act is ‘applicant blind’. This means that we cannot, and do not, ask about the motives of anyone who asks for information. In providing a response to one person, we are expressing a willingness to provide the same response to anyone, including those who might, in some circumstances, represent a threat to the UK. In this instance, we must also consider whether or not our answers to your questions could be used by some members of the public to prejudice the ongoing investigation into the disappearance of Madeleine McCann.

We have to balance, on one hand, the inherent public interest in the Home Office being open and accountable whilst, on the other hand, how the public interest would be served by us providing answers that could prejudice these investigations or be otherwise detrimental to the work of the police, the government and the McCann family in their efforts to locate Madeleine. Would it be in the best interest of the public for the Home Office to be seen as releasing information that might prejudice the investigation? Probably not. Would it be in the public interest for the Home Office to release information that could potentially jeopardise relationships between the United Kingdom and policing authorities with which cooperate around the world? Would these authorities be willing to work with us in the future if we released information that potentially prejudices an ongoing investigation? The answer to both is no. Would it be in the public interest to release information that could help Madeleine’s captor evade detection and arrest? Most certainly not.

These are some of the considerations we are currently considering. Simply because the questions are direct and would only require simple answers, does not mean that potential prejudicial effects of providing those answers would not be far reaching. Whilst we do not doubt that, as a concerned member of the public, you are interested in ascertaining what information the Home Office holds on this matter, we must consider the possibility that some individuals may use this information to their advantage and not for the benefit of the community as a whole.

I would therefore like to apologise once again for the time it is taking us to provide you a response to your questions. Please be assured that this is because the subject matter is extremely sensitive and not because we are trying to obfuscate the matter or be deliberately awkward. Please also be assured that I am aware that we have exceeded the twenty working day deadline provided under s.10(1) of the Act and that, despite legitimately extending this deadline under s.10(3) of the Act, we have also exceed the forty working day guideline provided by the Information Commission. The Home Office does aim to provide a prompt response to all FoI requests but, in some cases, where the information is particularly sensitive, we do need to take some extra time to make sure we have considered all the aspects relevant to that case.

In regards to the four new questions which you have asked us to consider, these will need to be treated as a separate request. This is because a valid FoI request under s.8 of the FoI Act only concerns information that was held at the time a request was received. Because your new questions concern information that might have been recorded since your original request was received, we will need to consider it separately. In light of this, I would be grateful if you can confirm that you would like us to answer these questions separately.

Thank you again for your interest in the Home Office and for your patience in this matter. If you have any more questions about the handling of your request, please don’t hesitate to contact me and I will be happy to help.

Yours sincerely,

Ian

Ian Lister
Information Access Consultant
Information Access Team

Tel: 020 7035 6065
Email: ian.lister@homeoffice.gsi.gov.uk
----
Comments from a forum:

"Very interesting, so it is still an ongoing investigation in the UK? So why are the McCanns asking for the case to be re-opened, and having meetings with Alan Johnson? Surely if the UK is still investigating, and they must have the co-operation of the Portuguese police why all the hoo ha about noone looking for Madeleine?? Confusing or what?? The papers should have a copy of this letter and ask the question, why are the McCanns saying no police force is looking for Madeleine, and they have to employ their own private detectives."
-----
"I am sure this will upset some people who wanted to believe there was no ongoing investigation going on so it is good to see this confirmed here."
-----

Tony Bennett's response to the Home Office can be seen here.