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  • Maddy search e-mails to remain secret

    Posted on March 18th, 2009 admin 1 comment

    secretSensitive e-mails concerning the hunt for missing child Madeleine McCann will remain secret for fear of offending the Portuguese authorities who were tasked with finding her.

    A request for the disclosure of 13 e-mails and one letter, which were written in the two months after Madeleine went missing, was refused by the Information Commissioner.

    The Foreign Office had dealt with the original request which had asked for copies of communication between the then Ambassador to Portugal John Buck and the Portuguese police. Some information was supplied immediately and another batch was released after the requester called in the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) to hold an appeal.

    However, a number of documents were not released by the Foreign Office and these were examined by officers from the ICO.

    The documents were not released by the Foreign Office primarily on the grounds that they were covered by the Section 27 exemption (International Relations) and that the public interest test rested in favour of non-disclosure.

    In the appeal the requester recognised that the documents would be covered by S.27 but argued that the public interest was in favour of their release.

    The complainant said the release was in the public interest in order to uphold public confidence that British authorities do everything possible to help find missing children, reassure people the authorities keep in close contact with the police involved in the search and ensure public funds are used effectively to help find missing children.

    But the Commissioner said in his decision that the disclosure would offend the Portuguese authorities.

    He went on to say: “..even now, to disclose full information about the then ambassador’s communications with the Portuguese authorities then, on a balance of probabilities, substantial damage to the international relationship would result.”

    He added: “The Commissioner is mindful of the need for the UK authorities to be seen to be worthy of trust by their foreign counterparts in Portugal and elsewhere in the world.

    “He sees significant risk that disclosure of confidences or of other sensitive material would have damaging implications for any possible further developments on this matter and any relevant future investigations in Portugal or elsewhere in the world. This would not be in the best interests of the McCann family, including Madeleine, or of other UK citizens travelling to Portugal or elsewhere outside the UK.”

    The Commissioner ruled that the S.27 exemption was engaged and that the public interest in maintaining the exemption outweighed the public interest in the release of the information.

    Link to full decision.

    Editor’s note: The clear indication from this judgement is that the ruling was made because of the content of the documents. Had the documents been congratulating the Portuguese authorities it is hard to imagine they would have caused “offence” and so therefore could have been released because they would not have put at risk our international relations. The inference has to be that the few documents that have not been released are perhaps less than complimentary about the local authorities. But of course we will now never know. The lesson for Foreign Office staff might be that the more provocative their views the less likely they are to be released.


    One response to “Maddy search e-mails to remain secret”

    1. I am an FoI lead for a public sector organisation. I have not identified myself in the contact details I have supplied as this is a response in my personal capacity.

      This outrages me, when I think of what information we have to relase. How can we be expected to uphold the principles of FoI if the Government does not? This is not the first time this has happened (Iraq, minutes pertaining to…)

      I rest my case: it has always been clear FoI was only supported by the Government to the extent it served their purposes, but I am surprised at the ICO response to this. Must really be damning to the Portuguese authorities as the editor sugggests.

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