A very interesting article was published on the Modern Gamekeeping website last week, based on our research into information sharing agreements between the police and other bodies, including the RSPCA (http://www.moderngamekeeping.com/viewpoint/sensitive-information/). We reproduce it below for your interest. Sensitive Information, Posted on January 13, 2014 by Nicola Turner. There are few things most Modern Gamekeeping readers value more than their firearms certificate and shotgun licence. Of course, in mixed company, we will put wives, girlfriends and offspring higher on the list, but there are few things that bring us out in a cold sweat quicker than the thought of life without our guns. Without them, a gamekeeper can struggle to find or to continue in work, with all the attendant risks of losing their home to think of too.
That is why we take the whole business of ownership and use of guns so seriously. Gun ownership in the UK is not like it is in the United States. We do not have, or claim, the right to bear arms. Instead, we accept that having and using shotguns and firearms is a responsibility, and those who show themselves incapable of treating that responsibility properly have it removed. While we might not always agree on the individual decisions police firearms departments make, there are very few who argue with that principle.
Whether taking care of some problem pigeons or for taking on a keeper’s day, a shotgun is an essential tool of the gamekeeper’s trade so we take the security of our guns very seriously. Leaving a gun unsecured and vulnerable to theft is a risk to the rest of society and could lead to the withdrawal of our licences. When the local firearms licensing officer interviewed my 10-year-old son about his shotgun certificate (he needed one to join our wildfowling club) one of the main points he stressed was that Tom should not tell everyone at school he had a licence, as that would reveal we had guns in the house.
It was no surprise therefore that gun owners were shocked when the Countryside Alliance and a campaigning website ‘The Register’ published separate Freedom of Information Act responses which showed that the police were handing details of shotgun certificates and firearms licences to completely unaccountable third parties. Some police forces seemed to think that the fact that these third parties worked for the RSPCA was some mitigation for handing over such sensitive data. Most of us, however, were even more concerned that such information was being handed over to people who might not be a long step away from the radical animal rights movement.
The Alliance found that 10 police forces had data sharing agreements with the RSPCA which either specifically, or as part of the wider agreement, would allow the passing of firearms licensing information to the RSPCA’s employees. This is an unprecedented relationship; giving a private organisation access to incredibly sensitive information that would not be routinely shared with foreign police forces or available at border controls.
The public rightly expect that confidential information held about them will not be available to private organisations. Firearms licence holders in particular would assume that information about their gun ownership would be treated with as much care by the police at it is by themselves. In fact, the police seem to believe that the RSPCA can be trusted with such sensitive information without any scrutiny or regulation.
A spokesman for the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) first said that “local forces would do things differently with the RSPCA” and that the police did not “release any intelligence or other information that the RSPCA does not need access to in order to prosecute their case in court.” While a spokesman for Hertfordshire Constabulary said that “to conduct thorough investigations and bring prosecutions to court we often have to inform and share information with other agencies – as is standard practice” completely unaware, apparently, that the RSPCA is not a Government ‘agency’ but a completely unaccountable charity.
‘The Register’ revealed an even more shocking trade in data between the RSPCA and ACPO. The RSPCA is paying ACPO £35 a time to access hundreds of items of data from its criminal record office. In two years, from 2011-2013, the RSPCA paid ACPO over £100,000 for data relating to prosecutions and named individuals.
ACPO responded by claiming that the RSPCA: “may make a request for disclosure of records at the stage that a prosecution is brought. This indirect access does not include firearms licensing, vehicle registrations (which are held on other systems to the PNC) or any information that the RSPCA does not need in order to prosecute a case at court.”
Even if this is true of ACPO’s dealings with the RSPCA, and as the RSPCA is a private organisation we have no way of knowing what data it holds, we do know it is not true of all the police forces that are willing to share data with the Society.
In fact, we have evidence that Cheshire Police, who do not even have a formal data sharing agreement with the RSPCA, passed it copies of the shotgun certificate and firearms certificate of a local farmer who it was investigating in relation to an allegation of interference with a badger sett. The RSPCA eventually charged the farmer, his partner and his daughter, probably because they were helping the Cheshire Hunt, but the case collapsed on the first morning of the trial. What has happened to the firearms information passed to the RSPCA is anybody’s guess.
Meanwhile, after another case involving hunt terriermen and a failed RSPCA private prosecution in Cheshire, one of the accused contacted Cheshire Police firearms licensing department to inquire about the renewal of his certificates only to be told that the department was waiting for information from the RSPCA before processing his application. This was after a case which did not involve firearms, and which the RSPCA was forced to drop before it even got to trial for lack of evidence. Yet, at the time of writing, Cheshire Police is still withholding the licences at the behest of the RSPCA.
The actions of Cheshire Police in both of these cases seem utterly indefensible, and the Countryside Alliance is helping those concerned pursue answers both from the Chief Constable and the Information Commissioner, who oversees UK data legislation.
What is even more worrying, however, is how far such behaviour goes. Every stone we turn over seems to reveal another serious question about the relationship between the police and the RSPCA, both at the national and local level, and the improper sharing of data between the state and a completely unregulated and unanswerable non-governmental organisation. This would be questionable at any time, but when the organisation in question is pursuing an agenda of prosecutions, targeting many in the shooting community, it is completely unacceptable.