Belfast Telegraph

Document refusal 'not a cover-up'

Refusal by the police in Northern Ireland to hand over sensitive files to a watchdog investigating complaints against officers is not an attempted cover-up, the region's chief constable has insisted.

Matt Baggott said the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) had received legal advice indicating that to hand over the material to the region's Police Ombudsman Dr Michael Maguire may breach data protection legislation.

Mr Baggott, who is weeks from retirement, told his last monthly meeting of his oversight body, the NI Policing Board, that there was a need for the law around sharing top secret information to be clarified.

"This is not about trying to cover things up," he said at the meeting in Belfast.

Dr Maguire is threatening legal action against Mr Baggott in an attempt to force him to hand over the documentation - some of it believed to relate to informers.

The ombudsman claims an inability to access files has stalled his probes into allegations and complaints against the police related to 60 murder investigations.

Dr Maguire said he had no option other than to pursue the unprecedented legal action because he had received more than 100 refusals of bids for information.

He claims the material was necessary for his investigators, who have full security clearance, to do their jobs.

PSNI interim Deputy Chief Constable Alistair Finlay told board members work had been ongoing with the ombudsman's office to resolve the issue when Dr Maguire went public with the issue earlier this week.

Mr Finlay said his reaction to Dr Maguire's decision to publicise the matter was one of "surprise and regret".

The senior officer also insisted that most of the issues of contention could be resolved through the drafting of a new memorandum of understanding. Though he said some matters may need to be tested in court.

"It's a point which I think is fixable and fixable in the near future," he said.

Mr Baggott added that if the case did go to court it should be viewed as a contest.

"If it should go to a judicial review, I think that's very rare, but it shouldn't be seen as a winning or a losing or a competition - this is simply about making sure that accountability is clearly understood for the interest of everybody."

Mr Baggott also made clear there were no personal issue between him and the ombudsman.

He added: "Neither is there any attempt to obstruct, to cover up or hinder the work of the ombudsman's office.

"I have been very clear from day one here - the ombudsman's office is critical to public confidence in policing and I fully acknowledge and respect the work he has to do."

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