1. In each of the last financial year 2013/14 please state how many people were (a) charged and (b) cautioned by your force for sexual grooming (Home Office Offence code: 88A)?
2. Of these people (the total of (a – charged) and (b – cautioned) how many of them used the internet in ANY way to contact and/or communicate with their victim?
3. Taking the subset of people who used the internet in some way could you please list the websites/forums that were used by these people to communicate?
1a. Charged – 5
1b. Cautioned – 0
3. I can confirm that information with regards to the 4 cases above is held by West Midlands Police. However, I am withholding that information since I consider that the exemption outlined below applies to it.
REASON FOR DECISION
The Freedom of Information Act places two responsibilities on public authorities, the first of which is to confirm what information it holds and secondly to then disclose that information, unless exemptions apply.
In this case the information is exempt by virtue of the following exemption:
Section 31(1)(a)(b) (Law Enforcement)
This exemption and explanatory notes are shown here:
In line with the above, I am required to complete a Prejudice Test/Public Interest Test (PIT) on disclosure.
The prevention and detection of crime is the foundation upon which policing is built. The Police Service has a clear responsibility to prevent crime and arrest those responsible for committing crime or those that plan to commit crime. By disclosing the specific websites it would show which websites are of police focus. A mosaic picture would be realised across the country as to which websites are of interest nationally to police forces and which ones are not seemingly on the police radar. The disclosure of this information could directly jeopardise current investigations and prejudice future law enforcement.
Factors Favouring Disclosure
The Police Service is charged with enforcing the law, preventing and detecting crime and protecting the communities we serve and there is a public interest in the transparency of policing operations to ensure investigations are conducted appropriately.
People would be made aware of the websites that sex offenders are using for grooming activities, so that additional steps could be made to protect their children from those sites.
Factors Against Disclosure
Disclosure could hinder the prevention or detection of crime as it would reveal to the criminal fraternity information which could be used to their advantage. It also provides details of websites where this activity is taking place and those intent on committing such offences would find that information useful. Similarly, a full disclosure of all of the websites, for the timescales specified, would disclose information about on-going investigations, this would undermine those investigations.
The public already have a wealth of knowledge about the dangers of unsupervised online activity via official government campaigns, the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre, and publicity by such groups as the NSPCC. Also there is exposure by commercial companies who provide products to assist in this online protection. This negates somewhat the benefits of having knowledge of certain websites when the reality is that any website which allows interaction between people could possibly be used for this unlawful purpose. There is also the fact that any disclosure which makes policing the activities of online groomers more difficult, means that we are placing children at risk. This is not something the police service is prepared to do. It is therefore my opinion that at this time, the case for releasing the names of the websites is not made out.
In addition to the above, West Midlands Police can neither confirm nor deny that it holds any other information relevant to this request, as the duty in Section 1(1)(a) of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 does not apply by virtue of the following exemptions:
Section 23(5) Information Supplied By, Or Concerning, Certain Security Bodies
Section 31(3) Law Enforcement
Section 23 is a class based absolute exemption and there is no requirement to consider the public interest in this case. Confirming or denying the existence of whether information is held would contravene the constrictions laid out with Section 23 of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 in that this stipulates a generic bar on disclosure of any information applied by, or concerning, certain Security Bodies.
Harm in Confirming or Denying that any other Information is held
Disclosures under the Freedom of Information Act are disclosures to the world, not just to the individual making the request. To confirm that any further information relating to suspects identified by internet use, potentially committing offences under Section 15 of the Sexual Offences Act is held, even if that information was exempted, or to confirm no information is held, would provide intelligence to criminals about the status of police investigations and intelligence.
Factors Favouring Confirming or Denying that any other Information is held – Section 31
To confirm or deny that any other information relating to this request is held would better inform the public about any other websites which are vulnerable to child grooming. If information is held, this would allow parents to make informed decisions so as to protect their children from accessing sites which may be harmful. Parents are able to safeguard their children and it is less likely that children will put themselves into a position online where they would be susceptible to this type of behaviour.
Factors Against Confirming or Denying that other Information is held – Section 31
To confirm or deny that any other information is held would identify websites in which convictions have been obtained for grooming offences. This could undermine police activity, if held, in detecting crime as offenders may change behaviour in order to avoid detection. This would mean that other sites may be targeted and will give offenders the upper hand.
The Police Service is charged with enforcing the law, preventing and detecting crime and protecting the communities we serve. The disclosure of any other information would identify the police focus. Whilst there is a public interest in the transparency of policing activity and providing assurance that the police service is appropriately and effectively tackling online grooming, there is a very strong public interest in safeguarding the integrity of police investigations and operations. Therefore it is my opinion that for these issues the balancing test for neither confirming nor denying that any other information is held is not made out.