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Newspaper's FoI bid to name fugitives rejected

by PA Mediapoint

A Freedom of Information request by the East Anglian Daily Times regarding escaped prisoners has been denied in case it breached their right to privacy.

Government officials from the Ministry of Justice refused to name the prisoners, saying that naming the fugitives would breach data protection rules.

This is despite police routinely issuing details and photographs of fugitives at the time they escape.

The Archant daily requested details of every prisoner who had absconded from Hollesley Bay open prison, near Woodbridge, Suffolk, over a two year period.

The newspaper was told 39 inmates had left the prison between 1 January, 2007, and 31 March this year, and was given details of the crimes they had committed.

But officials refused to name the fugitives, saying the information was exempt as it could breach the Data Protection Act.

They also claimed releasing the information could prejudice police investigations.

Critics condemned the decision. Suffolk Coastal MP John Gummer said he would raise the matter with Justice Secretary Jack Straw.

He said: “It’s intolerable and entirely unacceptable. There is no sense in which a prisoner’s identity is a private matter.

“In my view he sacrifices that when he becomes a prisoner. This annoys me very much indeed. We have gone mad if this is what we are doing.”

In a letter refusing the request, officials wrote: “It is the general policy of the Ministry of Justice not to disclose, to a third party, personal information about another person.

“This is because the Ministry of Justice has obligations under the Data Protection Act and in law generally to protect this information.”

Shadow justice secretary Dominic Grieve said: “The government is not obliged by the law on privacy to withhold the identity of fugitive prisoners, where it helps prevent crime or protect the public.

“The Justice Secretary must stop blaming his own legislation for his own lack of transparency – it only fuels public suspicion that he is really trying to avoid political embarrassment.”

A Prison Service spokesman said: “When someone absconds from prison, the Ministry of Justice provides journalists with the prisoner’s name and details of their offence, unless a court order is in place preventing us from doing so.

“However, any further release of information must be an operational matter for the police.”