Richard Rhodes the Cumbrian Police Commissioner has been the subject of allegations connected with his use of a chauffeur driven car and, it is reported, three members of Police staff have subsequently been arrested for offences against the Data Protection Act and for perverting the course of justice in connection with the making of these allegations.
Whilst there is no evidence that Richard Rhodes, or anyone else, has done anything wrong the whole matter should worry anyone who wants an open democracy and political accountability.
It should be obvious to anybody that if members of an public organisation report matters involving the political head of that organisation and are subsequently arrested then that organisation should have to explain why this is not merely shutting 'whistle blowers' up. Without that explanation we are entitled to worry that open and democratic accountability may have been compromised. If that is not true in this case then what about the next time?
There is no evidence in the news reports that the arrests were unlawful or actually intended to prevent free speech but the Data Protection Act could be a wonderful piece of legislation when it comes to closing down any 'whistle blowing' if it ever was used that way. It is the unintended consequences we must worry about and I would argue that the damage is already done - most people will now be put off exposing wrong doing because they fear arrest.
The information the Data Protection Act covers is pretty much anything referring to an individual whether actually on a computer or simply written down before going on a computer - anywhere in the organisation. That means no one can make allegations against anyone in that organisation based on anything written down or on a computer - that would cover almost everyone and everything.
There are defences people can claim for disclosing data in this way - including that it was in the public interest. If they were charged and went to court they may be able to use that defence and if successful justice would have been done - but the end result would still be that a lot of people would hesitate over 'blowing the whistle' on anybody if they thought they might get arrested and put in a cell and bailed and face ruin.
Getting arrested is not a finding of guilt but it would be a traumatic experience for most of us - it is not a neutral act. Merely arresting a few people - even if there were no charges - would be enough to put anyone else off exposing perceived wrongdoing even if they became aware of serious misconduct.
Whatever the outcome of this case - the system is no longer fit for purpose. When it comes to the
NHS we are all for whistle blowers - why would we want a something less for the police.
For better or worse we have politicians in charge of the Police and whilst some of us think that is a bad idea things have to change if we are to have trust in them.
Surely we cannot tolerate an organisation where people who criticise the boss are arrested by the organisation. This does not sound right and it is not right.