The editorial team of a Crystal Palace fanzine are today being congratulated by football supporters across the country for managing to hold to account the police, after the Information Commissioner’s Office ruled that Sussex Police’s had broken the Freedom of Information Act by refusing to answer questions about false allegations that Eagles supporters had gone to the game at Brighton last November armed with “knives and knuckle-dusters”.
The match at the Amex Stadium (which ended 0-0) was the first time that the sides had met in a A23 “derby” for four years. Any tensions between the rival groups of supporters were, if anything, stoked by the local police. This was the first time that Brighton had played their south London rivals in the Premier League.
Hundreds of Palace fans, who had bought legitimate tickets for the match, were denied access to the ground by Sussex Police; without seeing a ball kicked, they were marched back to Falmer Station under police escort.
The official police report following the game claimed that the weapons were found in the away supporters section inside the ground, and said that the actions of Palace fans represented a “return to the dark days of football”.
Five Year Plan fanzine did what any mildly sceptical publication might do: it questioned those in authority and asked them for their evidence. Public statements and match report filed by Superintendent Simon Nelson, the head of criminal justice and custody at Sussex Police, came in for particular scrutiny.
Following the match, Nelson had said, “Significant number of people attempted to enter the ground with pyrotechnics, knives and knuckle-dusters, which were found following efforts to gain access through fire exit doors in the south stand.”
Influenced by such rhetoric from the boys in blue, news reports after the Brighton-Palace game have referred to “significant disorder” at the match. Two stewards – one from either club – did require hospital treatment for their injuries.
Yet in their own statements, neither club made mention of any weapons being found. It was 10 days later that the police issued a statement admitting none had been retrieved. “The reference to weapons being found discarded at the stadium following the Brighton v Crystal Palace match on November 28 was based on information logged by our officers on the night and done so in good faith,” they said.
“Subsequently it has been established that no such items were physically recovered at the stadium or in the city. We accept that this information was incorrect and the tweet published earlier today by one of our officers was wrong. Sussex Police apologises to both clubs and their supporters.” The tweeting officer is understood to refer to Nelson.
Following this apology, Five Year Plan submitted their Freedom of Information requests. But Sussex Police refused to comply on the (usual, and usually spurious) grounds of public interest, leading to a formal complaint to the Information Commission’s Office in June.
The ICO, in its ruling issued yesterday, has determined that Sussex Police, by failing to respond to the request for information, breached Sections 1.1 and 10.1 of the Freedom of Information Act. The police must comply with the request and issue a substantive response or to issue a valid refusal notice, within the next five weeks. Any failure to do so could be deemed as contempt.
This morning, Rob Sutherland, one of the FYP editorial team who brought the complaint to the ICO, told Inside Croydon, “While we’re pleased about the ICO’s decision notice, which finds that Sussex Police have breached the Freedom of Information Act, it doesn’t yet give us reason to celebrate.
“Sussex Police are yet to disclose how false assertions about weapons being taken into the stadium came to be included in official statements, and until those answers are forthcoming we will continue to pursue the matter.”
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