Application of the first data protection principle

Ms Alison Ince worked in a further education institute in Northern Ireland. She was dismissed from her employment in June 1999 and, from around 2002, had alleged on a number of occasions that her managers had been engaged in a fairly widespread fraud against the public purse in 1997. These allegations were investigated first by the Department for Education and Learning (DEL), and then by the Police Service of Northern Ireland. No criminal or disciplinary charges were brought and the investigation was not taken any further. Ms Ince had also raised the matter with her local MLA, with the chairman of the public accounts committee in Westminster and before an Industrial Tribunal (as they are still called in Northern Ireland). The IT held that there were no grounds for finding that any fraud had been committed.

Ms Ince was not satisfied with this finding. In October 2007 she made a request for information from the DEL with respect to her allegations of fraud at the institute. The information she sought included the transcripts of certain interviews held with other employees during the fraud investigation by the DEL. DEL provided some of the information, but withheld the transcripts pursuant to the personal data exemption in section 40(2) FOIA. The Information Commissioner agreed with DEL’s reliance on the exemption.

The Information Tribunal in Ince v Information Commissioner (EA/2010/0089) agreed – for the most part – with the Commissioner’s decision. Save in respect of one of the transcripts – that belonging to a friend of Ms Ince who gave evidence at a late stage in the hearing in which he consented to disclosure – the Tribunal found that it would not be fair for DEL to disclose the information and that disclosure would therefore breach the first data protection principle. Ms Ince had made four contentions in respect of the information:

(i)                  That because it related to the individual’s employment for a public sector organisation it related to their public, not private life;

(ii)                That no harm or distress would have been caused to the individuals by disclosure of the transcripts;

(iii)               That the interviewees’ objections to disclosure were outweighed by other considerations; and

(iv)              That the interviewees did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in respect of the transcripts

The Tribunal disagreed on all counts. As to (i), following the reasoning in Corporate Officer of the House of Commons v IC and Baker it unanimously rejected the notion that anything said or done by a public sector employee was public information and could therefore be disclosed. It found by a majority that “the disputed information in the case related to the individual’s employment but was not information so directly connected with their public role that its disclosure would automatically be fair”. As to (ii), the Tribunal found that harm or distress would be caused by disclosure generally, and would also be caused by Ms Ince’s own ‘disproportionate’ method of pursuing her allegations –  which included threatening to bring private prosecutions for fraud against certain individuals. The Tribunal further considered that the Commissioner had given appropriate weight to the interviewees’ clearly expressed objections, and that they also had a reasonable expectation of privacy in respect of the transcripts. There was moreover no common law public interest in disclosure – fraud in the education sector generally was obviously of legitimate concern, but would not be helped by disclosure of the information sought by Ms Ince.