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Home Office foot-dragging exposes ACPO to criticism

But talk of a rift is premature

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Relations between the Home Office and one of their favourite police organisations, the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) may not be quite as tickety-boo as they should be.

Both sides strenuously deny any rift: but as senior politicians raise questions about the role of ACPO in setting public policy, any suggestion that the Home Office is using an unelected and unaccountable body as a figleaf for less popular policy announcements becomes that much more significant.

Speculation was set off last week, as police finally agreed to destroy DNA and other samples taken from Tory MP Damian Green in December 2008, in connection with allegations that he had conspired with a civil servant to breach the Official Secrets Act.

Also in that month, a European Court ruling in the case of Marper and S required the UK Government to come up with suggestions for a revision to its existing guidelines on the retention of intimate samples. As police forces experienced an increase in requests for destruction, guidance on the current legal position became more urgent – and this was provided by ACPO, in a letter to police forces in England and Wales in August.

El Reg appears to have ruffled feathers by suggesting that this letter was another example of "police deciding for themselves when and how to interpret the law".

Shami Chakrabarti of Liberty was more forthright, declaring ACPO guidance as clearly in breach of the human rights ruling, and going on record to say that "these decisions are not for ACPO".

However, a spokesman for ACPO stated: "The letter sent out simply restated the legal position which the government has advised to us." Talking to The Register, ACPO further confirmed that it had no intention at all of widening or changing the law. It was merely responding to a need for information.

This is correct, as far as it goes. However, it still leaves unanswered the question of why the guidance could not have been provided by the government departments that gave advice in the first place – especially as any more detailed questions on the state of the law need to be referred back to the Home Office anyway.

According to a Home Office spokesman: "Whether guidance was issued to police forces by central Government or by ACPO is irrelevant. The important thing is that relevant, appropriate and timely guidance was issued to chief police officers." The difference is that the substance of any guidance issued by the Home Office may be questioned in Parliament: guidance provided by ACPO cannot.

Off the record, a view has been expressed both within ACPO and by senior politicians that ACPO is taking flak for the Home Office's reluctance to stick its head above the parapet on this issue.

In June, the level of concern over ACPO’s quasi-official status became clear, as various Lords rose to support a motion by Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Dormer. While the focus of the Baroness' amendment was on bringing ACPO within the remit of Freedom of Information legislation, speakers raised a wider range of concerns over the constitutional role of ACPO.

For now, the matter remains unresolved. ®

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