Former metropolitan police commissioner Lord Stevens was paid more than £300,000 to lead an official investigation into the death of Diana, princess of Wales.
Stevens ultimately failed in his attempt to stop the information being disclosed. But he hugely delayed its release by claiming that it would breach his rights to privacy under the data protection act.
Figures dragged out of the met under the freedom of information act (FOIA) showed that the police force paid Sir John Stevens, as he was then known, a basic fee of £235,000 for his part-time role heading “Operation Paget” during a 31-month period between February 2005 and September 2007.
Following his retirement at the beginning of 2005 as commissioner, Stevens was retained as a con-sultant for the investigation, which was carried out by the met on behalf of the coroner, into the deaths of Diana and Dodi Fayed in 1997 in a car crash in Paris.
The figures raise a question as to why the met did not appoint a senior serving officer to lead the investigation, so reducing its cost.
The met also paid related expenses to Stevens of £40,247, including £26,550 for accommodation and £13,600 for travel. With VAT on his basic fee, the met paid a total of £316,372 to Stevens through his consultancy business.
Figures previously disclosed under FOIA showed that Paget cost up to £750,000 during the first year of the investigation, including £42,000 on travel and accommodation, and that it had a team of 14 police officers, each working part time on the case, plus another four support staff.
The team included an assistant commissioner, who spent up to 10% of his time on the investig-ation, a detective chief superintendent, detective chief inspector and a traffic officer.
According to research by the Mail on Sunday, Stevens earned £150,000 a year as met commissioner, and the newspaper reckons that his day rate on Paget of £1,000 was double the daily pay in his job as Britain’s most senior policeman.
Stevens has taken on other lucrative work since leaving the met besides the Diana investigation, which included leading the Football Association’s investigation into soccer transfer “bungs”.
He told the Mail on Sunday that the payments were “justified”, saying: “If you look at my commitment over two-and-a-half years, it's been a continuous commitment since I left as comm-issioner. I don't get all of that money, because it goes into the consultancy to help run that.”
The met initially refused the FOIA request, filed in February 2006, for details of his fee and expenses, referring it the metropolitan police authority (MPA).
The MPA also refused the request, and claimed that it was exempt from disclosure for three reasons: first, it was “personal information” and could not be disclosed because of the data protection act; second, the information was supplied in confidence (implicitly by Stevens); and third, publication would prejudice the commercial interests of Stevens’s consultancy firm.
When this refusal was challenged, the MPA invited Stevens to make a submission to a review of its decision on why the information should not be disclosed.
Explaining the delay in completing its review, the MPA said: “This was largely due to the need to give Lord Stevens the opportunity to give his views on the release of the requested information.
“He has responded that he objects to the release of this information on the grounds that he considers it to be personal data and release would contravene the data protection principles of the data protection act.”
The MPA concluded that the second and third reasons should not have prevented disclosure: the requested information was not supplied in confidence and disclosure would not prejudice anyone’s commercial interests.
However, the review upheld the decision to refuse disclosure on the grounds that releasing it would breach the data protection act, saying: “Whether or not Lord Stevens was an employee of the MPA at the time, this is not a request about his company's business with the MPA, but specifically about personal payments to him. It is known that he objects to such information being disclosed to a third party.”
The FOIA Centre advised that the claim by Stevens and the MPA that disclosure would breach the data protection act was wrong and challenged it in June 2006 with a formal complaint to the information commissioner, who acts as the regulator of the relevant open-access laws.
The notorious backlog of complaints lodged with the information commissioner meant that it was 16 months before an investigation into the case began in October 2007.
The met then admitted that it held the requested information after all. An official in its directorate of professional standards said: “Following receipt of correspondence from the office of the information commissioner, I have conducted further searches to locate information relevant to your request. I can confirm that the requested information is held by the metropolitan police service.
“I apologise for the delay in providing an approp-riate response to your request and any inconvenience this delay may have caused. I can assure you that a prompt response will now be made to your request for information.”
The met has finally supplied the figures, nearly two years after the initial request.
In January 2008, the information commissioner’s office indicated that it believed that the MPA was wrong to refuse disclosure on the grounds that this was prevented by the data protection act.
It has asked the MPA to justify its refusal to disclose in light of this view together with the fact that the met has released similar information.
Another version of this article first appeared in the Mail on Sunday.
FOIA Centre commentary
This case demonstrates how FOIA is working in practice in the UK – and its key inadequacies. A straight-forward request for information about the spending of tax-payers’ money was met with obstruction and wrong-headed refusal.
This much can be expected of public bodies unused to openness and accountability. And this is why the role of the regulator, the information commissioner, in upholding FOIA is crucial. Although the information commissioner ultimately flushed out the requested information from the met, the delay of 16 months before it even began looking into the complaint about the refusal to disclose is the most depressing aspect of this case.
Such lengthy delays mean that the information commissioner is failing the cause of freedom of information in the UK. All the available evidence suggests that the regulator needs more resources to enable it to do its job properly.
For clients of the FOIA Centre, it is an illustration of how we can help them navigate the complexities and obstacles to retrieve information under open-access laws. But it also shows how retrieving such information can be a very lengthy battle.