Posted on February 12th, 2010 No comments
As a journalist what I really like about the Freedom of Information Act is that behind every Decision Notice there is a story – from MPs expenses and the legal advice on the war in Iraq, right down to neighbourhood disputes.
A recent ruling from the Information Tribunal is a case in point, which although some might say is very much a “local” issue, it throws up legal points that may well have bearing in much more high profile cases.
So this decision takes us to the former pit village of Ferryhill, in County Durham. Population 10,000 and a Town Council that although Labour Party dominated has been infiltrated in recent years by members from a new party called FAIR (Ferryhill Association for Independent Representation).
One of FAIR’s gripes was the fact that the local council tax had risen sharply in recent years and much of this it claimed was down to sharp wage rises behind the doors of the Town Hall.
The Council’s chief officer Jamie Corrigan was singled out by FAIR as the main culprit and a Freedom of Information request was sent to the council to ask how much he was paid.
In Ferryhill things were about to get personal as the person sending in the request was FAIR councillor Brian Gibson and the person on the receiving end was – yes you’ve guessed it Jamie Corrigan.
A long story can be cut down to say that Mr Corrigan’s salary band has been revealed as being between 54k to 62k. But that’s not enough for FAIR. They want to know to know exactly what he is being paid and how much of that is made up with the overtime, it is claimed he amasses by spending extra time in the office dealing with Freedom of Information requests from Mr Gibson.
So when the matter came before the Information Tribunal they had to deal with what is becoming something of an old chestnut – would it be a breach of S.40 (Personal Information) to reveal Mr Corrigan’s exact salary and overtime payments.
The simple answer is that the Tribunal declared that it would be a breach of S.40. in that Mr Corrigan’s rights under the Data Protection Act would be infringed.
I spoke to Mr Gibson today and he said: “I’m disappointed with the judgement. I could appeal but I don’t think I will.
“I’m a councillor. How can I set budgets when I don’t even know what the council staff are earning? This is public funds, why the secrecy?”
I have to say that I have some sympathy with Mr Gibson. If elected on a platform to establish if the Town Hall was feathering its own nest it can certainly be claimed that there is a legitimate public interest.
Where the claim falls down of course is would the disclosure cause “unwarranted harm” to the individual, and is that outweighed by the public interest. Sadly for Mr Gibson the Tribunal decided it wasn’t. Is this bad news for my hopes of squeezing the details of the Olympic Delivery Authorities £250,000 bonus criteria? I don’t think so really.
For those of you who would like to read the Tribunal’s decision the link is [here].