Those considering the disclosure of personal data in a civil service context will wish to pay close attention to last week’s decision in Dun v IC and National Audit Office (EA/2010/0060). This is the latest Tribunal exercise in forensic scrutiny of fairness under the “personal information” exemption at section 40 (applied in tandem with the first data protection principle under the DPA).

The disputed information concerned the NAO’s enquiry into the Foreign & Commonwealth Office’s handling of employee grievances of a whistleblowing variety, i.e. those in which the employee had raised concerns as to “the proper conduct of public interest, fraud, value for money and corruption in relation to the provision of centrally-funded public services”. The request for information was triggered by the FCO’s inadvertent publication on its intranet of a “track changes” version of the draft report sent to it by the NAO: this tended to suggest that the FCO had sought not only to correct points of fact in that draft report, but also to influence its conclusions.

Unfairness of grievance and investigation information was pleaded based largely on the expectations of the complainants that their personal data would not be disclosed, and on the distress of their potentially being perceived as “trouble makers”.

A number of categories of arguably personal data were examined: junior civil servants’ names (outcome: don’t disclose), junior civil servants’ roles or job titles (outcome: disclose), contact details (outcome: don’t disclose, except for that part of an email address containing the name of a person whose name was otherwise to be disclosed), details of complaints and criticisms of employees (outcome: disclose in sufficiently redacted form).

The issue of redaction turned on whether disclosure in redacted form would preserve anonymity or achieve fairness – the NAO and IC had said no, but the Tribunal disagreed. It found that disclosure of whistleblowing case information in redacted form would be fair where (i) only those involved would be able to identify the persons being referred to, and (ii) those involved would not learn anything from the disclosed material which they did not know already.

This case is another instance of the established position that disclosure of the names of senior civil servants (here Grade 5 or above) will generally be fair, whereas those of their more junior colleagues would not. A note of caution here, however: the Tribunal was clear that no blanket policy should apply, and that fairness depends on the particular responsibilities and information with which the case is concerned.

One interesting aside: what of a civil servant who was junior at the time the information was created, but has since been promoted? Generally, subsequent events should not make a difference, but not necessarily: the Tribunal observed that it could “envisage a scenario where it is fair to disclose an earlier document in order to refute protestations of ignorance from the same individual who later becomes more senior and accountable”.