Disclosure Details

Human Tissue Samples - 317/12

Dated: 24 Apr 2012

Date of request:  26/03/2012

Date of response:   24/04/2012

Provision of information held by Northumbria Police made under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (the 'Act')(FOIA)

Thank you for your email dated 26 March   2012 in which you made a request for access to certain information which may be held by Northumbria Police.

As you may be aware the purpose of the Act is to allow a general right of access to information held by a Public Authority (including the Police), subject to certain limitations and exemptions.

You asked: 

Regarding the request I made to your force on 9/9/2011 listed below:
I have recently won an appeal with the Information Commissioner against Hampshire Constabulary regarding this matter (case reference number FS50421662). The force in question has now revealed the number of body parts stored, the categories and how many complaints it has had.
In light of the decision from the ICO, I am asking you to send the information I asked for as soon as possible.
I would like to remind you that West Mercia, Avon and Somerset, Hampshire and City of London have now released details on the subject and this – along with the ICO decision – I believe sets a precedent for disclosure.

Under the Freedom of Information Act I would like the following information with regard to this story:
"More than 100 human tissue samples were kept by Avon and Somerset Police over the past 25 years without the knowledge of families. It said of 1,079 unexplained deaths it had kept tissue from 10% of victims."

  1. Has your police force retained any human tissue samples or body parts during the past 25 years without the knowledge of families? (a simple yes/no is required for this question).

  2. Please tell me the number of samples which have been kept. If possible, please break this down by year. (Please answer a total number here)

  3. Please categorise what kinds of tissue samples or body parts have been kept by your force. (Break down the types of samples kept)

  4. Please tell me if you have had any complaints about this practice from families of victims.

  5. If yes to Q4, please tell me how many complaints you have had and the nature of these complaints.  

In response:

We have now had the opportunity to fully consider your request and I provide a response for your attention.

We will not be disclosing the information requested above as all police forces across England, Wales and Northern Ireland are currently undertaking an audit to establish the number of cases where tissue has been retained and the reason for that retention. As a result of the media interest in this subject area, a decision was made to publish general data together with a summary of the audit and lessons learnt. This intention has been documented within the Management of Human Tissue Retention Audits Communication Strategy and therefore the following exemption is applicable.

Section 22 - Information Intended for Future Publication

Section 22 (Information Intended for Future Publication) states that a public authority does not have to communicate information where -
(a) the information is held by the public authority with a view to its publication by the authority or any other person, at some future date (whether determined or not),
(b) the information was already held with a view to such publication at the time the request for information was made, and
(c) it is reasonable in all circumstances that the information should be withheld from disclosure until the date referred to in paragraph (a).

It should be noted that Section 22 is concerned with timing of the release of information. It is not concerned with the suitability of the content for release.  Section 22 is a classed based and qualified exemption and there is a requirement to carry out a public interest test when engaging this exemption.

Factors Favouring Disclosure

The Human Tissue Authority (HTA) having conducted a series of inspections at a hospital mortuary facility during the summer of 2009, identified a number of procedural issues concerning the retention and disposal of human tissue by the police service.  The police service is fully committed to transparency and accountability across all of its investigations and the HTA inspection process identified a possible flaw in the police handling process.  Therefore, Disclosure would demonstrate a commitment to transparency from the police regarding the role played in the retention of human tissue. It would also show any issues in procedure and steps taken to correct those issues.

As seen by a small number of press comments which have appeared since the investigation commenced, the public remain concerned as to how human tissue samples have been stored by the police without the knowledge and consent of relatives.  There is a requirement for families to be totally confident in any police process in dealing with the death of a relative or loved one. 

The production of force data will provide a full picture of the extent of the problem, and would assist and encourage public debate concerning the retention and storage of human tissue and highlight areas that may be of interest to the public.

Factors Favouring Non-Disclosure

All Police forces across England, Wales and Northern Ireland are currently undertaking an audit to establish the number of cases where tissue has been retained and crucially, the reason for the retention.The National Gold group recognises the significant public interest in the development of this police led investigation/audit process and has always maintained a desire to provide a full and comprehensive report and briefing at ministerial level in identifying historical shortcomings in police processes and provide positive recommendations in establishing fully accountable processes in dealing with the handling, retention and disposal of future human tissue samples.

The information to be published crosses over with other partner agencies and bodies, ie Coroners and local authorities who manage public mortuaries; hospitals and the Human Tissue Authority, who have all been consulted with regard to the formulation of the communications strategy listed above.  The premature disclosure of information would disrupt the said strategy which is designed to provide the public with an accurate and comprehensive insight into the outcome and findings compiled as a result of the audit.

A large amount of work has been undertaken for the audit and it would not be in the public interest to release information into the public domain which would cause an additional workload on police resources.

The audit information and data is currently being obtained from each UK police force, some of which are still carrying out their investigations and more importantly still visiting relatives who are not aware that such a process is being carried out.  The police service must be allowed an opportunity to carry out investigations without disruption or disclosure of information that may damage such a process.

Where families have yet to be informed, it would be in the public interest to release such information into the public domain. Article 8 of the Euroopean Convention on Human Rights gives respect the right for private and family life. Such a disclosure would impose upon this right.

The data held by forces varies across the UK for a number of reasons and the ACPO report intends to explain the discrepancies that exist across the forces.  The provision of independent force data without context which explains how the audit process was conducted is likely to provoke further unnecessary concern and distress for families and the general public.

There is a risk that the release of information in a piecemeal fashion would cause more anguish and uncertainty to the families and undermine the confidence in the police over a protracted period.

It is an important factor that the release of this kind of data is not time critical and a partial release of information at this stage would have no benefit to the public compared to a more comprehensive publication at a date in the future.  The publication of the final report will provide an accurate and in-depth analysis of the issues identified during the investigation process.

ACPO fully recognises the sensitivity of the situation but firmly believe public interest is better served in the overall release of a more informed product.

Balance Test

It must be remembered that public interest is not necessarily what interests the public.  Disclosure must be seen to benefit the community as a whole and it must clearly be shown that the benefits of such a limited disclosure at this particular time outweighs the potential harm that publishing such information could cause.

In this case, the concerns of any relatives that may be affected heavily outweigh the curiosity of the public.  It has been concluded that the focus should be on ensuring that audit findings should be released in a comprehensive and appropriate manner to minimise the distress that may caused to those affected.

It not would be inappropriate to release into the public domain any details in advance of completing the audit and advising relatives.  The level of control around the audit and subsequent processes would be severely compromised by such a release.  This factor heavily outweighs any factor favouring disclosure of the information at this time.

In accordance with section 17 of the Freedom of Information Act 200, you should consider this as a refusal notice for your request. 

The information we have supplied to you is likely to contain intellectual property rights of Northumbria Police.  Your use of the information must be strictly in accordance with the Copyright Designs and Patents Act 1988 (as amended) or such other applicable legislation.  In particular, you must not re-use this information for any commercial purpose.

How to complain

If you are unhappy with our decision or do not consider that we have handled your request properly and we are unable to resolve this issue informally, you are entitled to make a formal complaint to us under our complaints procedure which can be found at: http://www.northumbria.police.uk/foi/disclosurelog/foicomprights.asp

If you are still unhappy after we have investigated your complaint and reported to you the outcome, you may complain directly to the Information Commissioner’s Office and request that they investigate to ascertain whether we have dealt with your request in accordance with the Act.


FOI Complaint Rights Procedure_tcm4-28029