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  • Writer's pictureDanny Shaw

Home truths

Updated: Jan 18, 2021

This is a story about secrecy, obfuscation and political embarrassment at the heart of government.

It revolves around an attempt by the Home Office to withhold vital research evidence about the causes of serious violence - a decision the department clung to, even though it undermined the credibility of its flagship plan to tackle the problem.

It ended in a three-year legal battle that cost taxpayers thousands of pounds.

The story began in April 2018 when ministers were under pressure to deal with a rise in knife crime and murders across England and Wales, amid claims that cuts to the criminal justice system, especially the police service, were partly to blame.

The consistent government position was that there was no link between budget cuts and violent crime, a line reinforced by Amber Rudd, who was then Home Secretary, in a Sunday Telegraph article on the eve of the launch of the Strategy.

“The evidence does not bear out claims that resources are to blame for rising violence,” Rudd wrote.

The next day, however, the Guardian revealed that it had seen a leaked Home Office document saying the exact opposite. The paper published sections of the document, which had been produced by the department’s Analysis and Insight Unit in the form of a slide presentation.

On one slide, titled “Police Resources”, analysts summarised their conclusions about changes in violent crime since 2012/13:

“Resources dedicated to serious violence have come under pressure and charge rates have dropped. This may have encouraged offenders,” the document said.

“[Police resources is] unlikely to be the factor that triggered the shift in serious violence, but may be an underlying driver that has allowed the rise to continue.”

A highlighted box from the slide emphasised the point that a reduction in police resources was a factor: “Not the main driver but has likely contributed,” it said.

The Guardian leak of the slide presentation document overshadowed the launch of the Strategy. Interviewed on the Today Programme, on BBC Radio 4, Rudd said: “I haven’t seen this document”, adding, “there are a lot of documents that go around the Home Office.” Later that day, at a media briefing, officials squirmed when questioned about it but, clearly under orders, declined to offer any comment.

Critically, there was no mention of the leaked Home Office document in the Serious Violence Strategy itself. Even though the Strategy claimed to have used the “available evidence”, the conclusions on the link between police resources and violence, written by the department’s own experts, had been airbrushed out of the 112-page booklet.

So, the Strategy got off to a wobbly start, but with the impact of police cuts still in dispute, I wanted to get hold of the leaked document myself to find out if it had set its controversial conclusions about resources in context, and whether it contained other analytical findings also left out of the final paper.

There was also another reason for seeing the document. Although the leaked slide presentation looked authentic, and its existence hadn’t been denied, ministers could easily bat aside questions about the findings with the standard response, “We don’t comment on leaked documents”. It’s an effective way to deflect attention from a troublesome story by implying that it’s based on something unreliable.

A document acquired through official channels, however, would be harder for the Government to ignore.

On April 12, I sent a request to the Home Office under the Freedom of Information Act (FOI), asking for the document containing the slide presentation, along with some other material referred to in the Serious Violence Strategy. It was the start of a long and protracted journey that other journalists pursuing FOI requests will be familiar with, but it took a couple of unexpected twists along the way.

Although the Home Office made the additional material I had asked for available, it refused to release the slide presentation document. I asked the Home Office to review its decision, as I was entitled to do under FOI rules.

By this point, Amber Rudd had resigned following the Windrush scandal, brought down, ironically, by leaked documents which undermined her claims she’d been unaware of targets to remove illegal immigrants. I thought, perhaps, with a change of Home Secretary the department might want to draw a line under the controversy over the violence strategy - but instead it upheld its original decision and refused to disclose the slide presentation document.

Six months had now elapsed and it was tempting to forget the whole thing. That’s probably what the Home Office was hoping I’d do. But after consulting colleagues at the BBC, I decided to contest the decision by appealing to the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO).

The Home Office had claimed, in essence, that to release the document would hamper its policy-making process and it needed a “safe space” to consider such issues. I argued that disclosure would assist knowledge and understanding of serious violence; and because the leak may have given a distorted and partial view of the factors causing it, disclosing the full set of slides would provide a more rounded picture of the evidence.

The appeal to the ICO was submitted in November 2018. Over the months that followed, the Home Office appeared to make an effort to resolve the matter by releasing a redacted version of the document. It was so heavily redacted as to be virtually meaningless. Here’s an example:

Finally, in July 2019, the ICO came to a decision. “The Commissioner is not satisfied that the HO {Home Office} has demonstrated that the weight of the public interest in maintaining the exemption outweighs the public interest in disclosure in this case.” In other words, the Home Office should release the document.

With a second change of Home Secretary, Priti Patel having succeeded Sajid Javid, and a new Prime Minister, Boris Johnson in place of Theresa May, I thought the Home Office would draw stumps and comply with the ICO decision. After all, the police cuts debate had moved on: Javid and Patel had both gone out of their way to acknowledge how stretched forces were and a recruitment drive, to hire 20,000 extra officers, had begun.

The 28-day window for the Home Office to lodge an appeal passed and I was awaiting the document. It never came. In August 2019, I was informed that the Home Office was seeking to challenge the ICO decision in court, “out of time”, meaning that it would try to persuade a judge that the case was important enough to consider, even though the deadline had come and gone.

One of the grounds on which government lawyers based their case was at best bizarre, and at worst, desperate. They claimed that the ICO’s decision was invalid because my email to them, requesting an ICO review, had been sent by a BBC colleague, whereas my original email to the Home Office had come directly from me. Never mind that we were both working together on the story and, at the time, both representing the BBC, the Government said the ICO had “no jurisdiction” over the matter because different people were involved.

A judge decided that this legal issue had to be settled before any other grounds could be looked at. A hearing of the First Tier Tribunal, General Regulatory Chamber took place at Leicester Magistrates’ Court in December 2019, with leading barristers from London appearing for both the Home Office and the Information Commissioner. Thankfully, it was brief. In a 14-paragraph ruling, the judge dismissed the Home Office argument and said the ICO did have jurisdiction over the case.

The judgment presented another opportunity for the Home Office to concede. But it refused. What was in that slide presentation document that it was so determined to keep under wraps? The more the saga went on, with more taxpayers’ money being spent on legal fees, the more I thought there must be something in it.

The Tribunal set dates for the exchange of documents and legal submissions, ahead of a substantive hearing to determine the remaining grounds advanced by the Home Office. That was all meant to take place last year.

I have no idea how the case progressed during those 12 months - we all had other things to worry about in 2020. But ten days ago a letter arrived from the Home Office saying that the case had been settled without a further hearing. The department released the slide presentation document in full - apart from two sentences relating to the supply of firearms. The Information Commissioner had agreed that those lines could be redacted.

A couple of sentences about guns, however, was not the reason this battle against disclosure had gone on for almost three years. So what else did the Home Office not want us to know?

Possibly that its own analysts had spotted a major flaw in the Government’s approach to youth offending. One slide suggested a “sea change in youth justice policy”, aimed at keeping most young offenders out of the criminal justice system by using diversion programmes, “may have raised crime levels amongst the most serious offenders”. That was not mentioned in the Serious Violence Strategy.

Another slide indicated that an increase in drug-related violence may have been partly due to a reduction in the number of police operations to tackle drug dealing: “Serious violence within a drugs context is likely to be facilitated by...a shift in police resources meaning less proactive policing (e.g. hot-spotting and pre-emptive gang work) and falls in arrests/charges relating to serious violence and drug trafficking offences”. The link between drugs and violence was a key theme in the Strategy, but it did not include any reference to police resources.

And the document eventually released also contained the original slide leaked to the Guardian, saying offenders may have been “encouraged” by lower charge rates and pressures on resources. I can only think that the Home Office wanted to prevent us from publishing an “official” version of that slide to limit the oxygen flow to this uncomfortable story and spare itself further embarrassment.

The truth was, as its own team of experts discovered in late 2017 to early 2018, government cuts to police resources had contributed to the surge in serious violence. But the most robust defender of the cuts programme, former home secretary Theresa May, was now at Number Ten. It was an unpalatable truth, too politically toxic to be told and so it was excised from the Strategy - and the Home Office used the courts to try to stop it gaining currency.

Policy should be based on evidence. Much of the evidence in the Serious Violence Strategy was on view. But crucial parts were omitted for political reasons. When that happens, trust in policy and policy-makers is damaged, and we all suffer as a result.

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