August 2008 Archives

We now await a reply to our Modified FOIA request to the Ministry of Justice, regarding locations of Official Secrets Act 1911 Prohibited Places declared by Order of a Secretary of State.

All we are trying to do is to find out where exactly the few locations in the UK are, where it is illegal to take photographs in public !

Text of the email:

A substantive reply from the Ministry of Justice, regarding our attempt to get a simple listing of where people are not allowed to take photographs of the exterior of buildings or the immediate vicinities of buildings or sites, which have been declared to be Prohibited Places under the pre- First World War Official Secrets Act 1911.

I can advise you that the Ministry of Justice does hold some of the information you request.

However, it will not be possible to provide you with this information within the appropriate limit set out in section 12(1) of the Freedom of Information Act. Section 12 of the Act makes provision for public authorities to refuse requests for information where the cost of dealing with them would exceed the appropriate limit, which is set at £600 for central Government. The limit represents the estimated cost of one person spending 3½ working days locating, retrieving, and extracting the information. Your request is therefore refused under section 12 (1) of the FOI Act.

If you were to refine your request, for example by specifying a narrower time frame, or listing which orders you are especially interested in, we would be happy to reconsider your request.


We shall try again, just concentrating on the name and location of any 'Prohibited Places' declared under the Official Secrets Act 1911; specifically by Order of a Secretary of State, which are currently in force.

Full text of the reply:

The Information Commissioner has made a Decision, in favour of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, refusing disclosure of the just names and job titles of the Russian and UK diplomats expelled in July 2007, over the failure to extradite or prosecute Andrei Lugovoi, for alleged involvement in the radioactive Polonium 210 murder of British citizen Alexander Litvineko in London in November 2006.

See the Information Commissioners Office Decision Notice FS50179353 (.pdf)

These names and job titles are obviously known to all foreign governments with embassies in London or Moscow, and to the international press corps and other corporate or national intelligence agencies.

The Exemptions claimed were not, as you might expect, Section 24 National Security or Section 27 International Relations but Section 40 Personal Data

We think that it is wrong for senior diplomats, who, after all, publicly represent the people of the United Kingdom, to be hidden under such a veil of secrecy, when neither National Security, nor their own personal safety are at any risk whatsoever from an FOIA disclosure.

Just because it is a "longstanding diplomatic custom", not to name the individuals expelled in such Cold War games, that is an obsolete concept in this internet age.

The Foreign & Commonwealth Office publishes an official list of accredited diplomats at foreign embassies and consulates in London, for protocol purposes.

Every other embassy and consulate in the world, also knows all the other accredited members of the Diplomatic Corp in the capital city to which they are posted, again, primarily for protocol and precedence reasons, to determine who gets invited to, and where they are seated at, official ceremonies and functions.

It seems that the FCO has cast aspersions on our FOIA request, with the insulting claim that:

12 The public authority recognised the fact that in certain circumstances there is a legitimate interest in knowing the identities of officials, for example, where senior civil servants are accountable for high profile projects. However in this case it said that any interest in the identities of the diplomats expelled as a result of the Litvinenko diplomatic dispute could be described as "curiosity" rather than " a legitimate interest that would further a common good". The public authority referred to a decision of the Information Tribunal when it had commented on the difference between what is in the public interest and what is of interest to the public.
That Information Tribunal decision was about prurient interest in medical records, home addresses etc. - which were not was requested in our FOIA request, which only asked for the names and former job titles of the expelled diplomats.

The FCO itself already publishes the London Diplomatic List, which names the possible Russian diplomats who were expelled.

See also the Spy Blog article London Diplomatic List - can you spot the expelled Russian diplomats ?

30. The complainant has suggested that the information he has requested is of an anodyne nature, i.e. the names and job titles of diplomats employed by the public authority in Moscow and their counterparts and that this is information that one might expect to be made readily available. However it is important to stress that what has actually been requested are the names and job titles of diplomats expelled as a result of a very high profile diplomatic dispute. The murder of Alexander Litvinenko and the subsequent diplomatic expulsions generated a significant amount of media interest and the Commissioner is of the opinion that were the identities of the diplomats to be revealed there would be a very real risk that they would be subject to undue press interest or pressure to the extent that disclosure could be considered unfair.

What has the amount of, or lack of "press interest" got to do with a Freedom of Information Act disclosure ??

31. The public authority has also suggested that they may be stigmatised at having been expelled. The public authority has not shown any evidence to justify its concern and the Commissioner makes no comment on this point one way or another. However he does feel that given that the diplomats involved were expelled as a result of a situation over which it appears they had no control, they should be protected as far as possible from any adverse consequences. It would not be unreasonable to suppose that their careers, given the sensitivity of their roles, could be disadvantaged in some way were their identities to be revealed.

If any of the expelled diplomats were actually intelligence officers working under diplomatic cover, then they should never be sent on such a mission again - their cover is blown to all the world's intelligence agencies etc.

The people who will be stigmatised, are all the people who have been working at the London and Moscow embassies, who have, for normal career progression or personal family reasons, left and gone back home or been posted elsewhere, at around the same time, but who have not been expelled.

Transparency and openness through the requested FOIA disclosure would prevent these people from being stigmatised as possible spies.

32. The complainant has argued that the identities of the expelled diplomats will be known to other governments with embassies in Moscow and London and to the foreign press corps. Therefore he has suggested that the public authority's decision to refuse his request is unjustified. The Commissioner sees no contradiction between the public authority's decision to withhold the names of the diplomats and the fact that this information may be known to diplomatic staff that would have an operational need to know this information. Equally, the fact that a relatively small group of journalists may have speculated on the identities of the diplomats concerned is not in itself a reason to order wider disclosure of the information.

How does this make any sense at all ? There is no "wider disclosure" which could possibly affect the expelled diplomats or spies - every intelligence agency, terrorist group, organised criminal gang etc. already knows their identities and probably lots of other details.

33. The complainant has highlighted the decision of the Information tribunal in Ministry of Defence v Information Commissioner and Mr R Evans [EA/2006/0027] (.pdf) in support of his position. In this case the Tribunal decided that the Ministry of Defence should release the details of staff at the Defence Export Services Organisation, including staff operating in sensitive areas overseas. The Commissioner believes that the circumstances in that case were quite different to the circumstances in this case. In that case the Tribunal's decision was influenced by the fact that staff details were already widely available. The Commissioner rejects the complainant's argument that the decision in the Ministry of Defence case somehow acts as a precedent which he is obliged to follow.

That Information Tribunal Decision even allows the disclosure of the names, job titles and office contact details etc. of dozens of Ministry of Defence staff working in Saudi Arabia, where the MoD claimed that they were at particular risk of terrorist attack.

The same cannot be said of the former diplomats who have been sent home from London and from Moscow, who do not face any such risk at all..

This decision by the Information Commissioner is wrong,

It just seems to support rule by "faceless bureaucrats" including Russian Federation ones, who should not be protected by the UK Freedom of Information Act 2000 exemptions at all.

We have until the 3rd of September to lodge any Appeal with the Information Tribunal.

We cannot afford to hire a barrister to represent us before the Information Tribunal, and so this capitulation to faceless bureaucracy by the information Commissioner will probably go unchallenged.

See the full text of the Decision below:

Our attempts to clarify exactly the where you can and where you cannot take photographs in seemingly public areas, some of which used to be or perhaps still are designated as "Prohibited Places" under the pre-World War 1, pre aerial or satellite photography (or even pre- hand held camera ) era Official Secrets Act 1911 continue.

The Mnistry of Justice have replied, just within the 20 working days statutory limit, to our "belt and braces" copy of our original request to the Home Office, sent on 3rd July, on the assumption that the promise by the Home Office to forward the request to the Ministry of Justice, was not something to be relied on.

However, the Ministry of Justice is claiming another 20working days, i.e. up to 1st September 2008, in order to perform a public interest balancing exercise, regarding Section 24 Natioal Security exemption for some of the information requested.

Surely if the idea is to prevent spies from taking photographs of "Prohibited Places" or the immediate vicinity of such places, then there need to be warning public signs and notices to that effect ? How can this be of any use if the approximate locations which are being "protected" in this way are kept secret ?

1 Penalties for spying

(1)If any person for any purpose prejudicial to the safety or interests of the State--

(a)approaches, [F1inspects, passes over] or is in the neighbourhood of, or enters any prohibited place within the meaning of this Act; or

(b)makes any sketch, plan, model, or note which is calculated to be or might be or is intended to be directly or indirectly useful to an enemy; or

(c)obtains, [F1collects, records, or publishes,] or communicates to any other person [F1any secret official code word, or pass word, or] any sketch, plan, model, article, or note, or other document or information which is calculated to be or might be or is intended to be directly or indirectly useful to an enemy;

he shall be guilty of felony . . . F2

Do "Prohibited Places" still include, for example coal mines or railway lines or military dockyards , which were of strategic military importance before and during the First and Second World Wars, but which have now been shut down ?

3 Definition of prohibited place

For the purposes of this Act, the expression "prohibited place" means--

[F1(a)any work of defence, arsenal, naval or air force establishment or station, factory, dockyard, mine, minefield, camp, ship, or aircraft belonging to or occupied by or on behalf of His Majesty, or any telegraph, telephone, wireless or signal station, or office so belonging or occupied, and any place belonging to or occupied by or on behalf of His Majesty and used for the purpose of building, repairing, making, or storing any munitions of war, or any sketches, plans, models or documents relating thereto, or for the purpose of getting any metals, oil, or minerals of use in time of war];

(b)any place not belonging to His Majesty where any [F2munitions of war], or any [F2sketches, models, plans] or documents relating thereto, are being made, repaired, [F3gotten,] or stored under contract with, or with any person on behalf of, His Majesty, or otherwise on behalf of His Majesty; and

(c)any place belonging to [F3or used for the purposes of] His Majesty which is for the time being declared [F2by order of a Secretary of State] to be a prohibited place for the purposes of this section on the ground that information with respect thereto, or damage thereto, would by useful to an enemy; and

(d)any railway, road, way, or channel, or other means of communication by land or water (including any works or structures being part thereof or connected therewith), or any place used for gas, water, or electricity works or other works for purposes of a public character, or any place where any [F2munitions of war], or any [F2sketches, models, plans] or documents relating thereto, are being made, repaired, or stored otherwise than on behalf of His Majesty, which is for the time being declared [F2by order of a Secretary of State] to be a prohibited place for the purposes of this section, on the ground that information with respect thereto, or the destruction or obstruction thereof, or interference therewith, would be useful to an enemy.

What about former Ministry of Defence or other Government buildings e.g. The Treausy, HM Revenue and Customs, the Home Office etc., which were "Prohibited Places" by virtue of being owned by the Crown, but which have now been sold off and leased back, under Public Private Finance Initiative schemes ?

About this blog

This United Kingdom based blog has been spawned from Spy Blog, and is meant to provide a place to track our Freedom of Information Act 2000 requests to United Kingdom Government and other Public Authorities.

If you have suggestions for other FOIA requests,  bearing in mind the large list of exemptions, then email them to us, or use the comments facility on this blog, and we will see  what we can do, without you yourself having to come under the direct scrutiny of  "Sir Humphrey Appleby" or his minions.

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