Update on recent Tribunal decisions part 2: personal data of “low inherent sensitivity”

November 8th, 2012 by Robin Hopkins

The “personal data” provisions under s. 40(2) FOIA and regulation 13 EIR can often be very difficult to apply, particularly in light of the Durant “notions of assistance”, namely biographical significance and focus. It is correspondingly difficult to predict how such arguments will fare before the Tribunal. Two recent cases offer good illustrations. Both saw the Tribunal order disclosure of property-related personal data which was deemed to be of “low inherent sensitivity”.

Council housing

Exeter CC v IC and Guagliardo (EA/2012/0073) concerned a request for the addresses of all residential properties owned by or leased or rented to the Council. The Council refused the request. It was accepted that addresses constitute “personal data”, but the Commissioner considered it to be personal data of “low inherent sensitivity”. He found that disclosure would not breach any of the data protection principles. He ordered disclosure, subject to an exemption for addresses of properties allocated for housing those in need of protection.

The decision notice was upheld on appeal. The following aspects of its decision are notable (Tribunal comments appearing in italics).

As to the Council’s arguments for withholding the addresses:

  • The Council had conducted a survey of residents’ attitudes to such disclosures, but the particular questions and answers did not assist the Tribunal.
  • There was no clear evidence on the extent to which Council properties were already visually identifiable as such.
  • “The Tribunal observes that who owns property is not a private  matter. It has to be publicly recorded and available by way of Land Registry Records (although there is a fee for this information). There are many other ways that the ownership becomes public (e.g. local knowledge, press articles when properties are constructed, news articles and planning records).The Tribunal is satisfied that a tenant cannot therefore have a legitimate expectation that this information would not be disclosed.”
  • The Council argued that disclosure of the list of addresses would identify the residents as Council tenants and, as such, vulnerable, for example to being targeted by those wishing to prey upon individuals who were in financial difficulty. There was, however, no evidence before the Tribunal that disclosure would add to the pre-existing risk of such behaviour.
  • The only information (additional to the fact of the address) that can be discerned about any particular data subject by the disclosure of the disputed information was that they or their predecessor may have been financially unable to meet their housing needs at some time.

As to the arguments for disclosure:

  • “Additionally we are satisfied that there is a proper distinction to be drawn between those living in a Council owned asset and private accommodation, because the Council are accountable to the public for the way  they manage those assets and execute housing policy whereas a private landlord has no such additional public responsibility and that this must impact upon the reasonableness of any expectation that the Council would not publish this information.”
  • Disclosure would enhance transparency in allowing the public to be aware of the Council’s assets (i.e. its housing stock). By knowing how many properties the Council owns and where, the public would be enabled to scrutinise the distribution of Council properties between localities, analyse whether factors (such as levels of educational attainment) are correlated with the extent of Council owned housing in a given area.
  • Knowing the individual addresses would enable the public to see how Council properties are maintained, their state of repair and assess whether areas are under or over provided for.
  • “The Tribunal adds that such disclosure would also enable the public to review the type of housing stock owned and used by the Council and ascertain whether it could be used more efficiently to meet better the      needs of those in housing need. Analysis of the extent to which private      rentals are over or under used and whether this provides value for money      would also be enabled by disclosure of this information.”

Overall, the Tribunal agreed that addresses constitute personal data of “low inherent sensitivity”.

This is the second such case before the Tribunal. The Tribunal in Neath Port Talbot v IC (EA/2011/0037) ordered disclosure of the same type of information in another, less fully reasoned decision last year. While no First-Tier Tribunal decision is binding, the case for withholding such information seems nonetheless increasingly difficult to make out.

Building control applications

Martin and Karen Sharples v IC (EA/2012/0076) is a second recent case in the disclosure of personal data has been ordered in light of its “low inherent sensitivity”. The requesters sought information about building control applications made to Bolton MBC relating to roof conversions to residential properties in a specific cul-de-sac. The Council refused to provide the building control records and site visit notes, relying upon regulation 13 EIR (personal data). The issue was whether the residents/owners involved in those applications could be identified from the redacted records and notes and, if so, whether disclosure would breach any of the data protection principles.

The requesters argued that while they knew enough to identify the property owners from the requested information, a member of the public would not. The Tribunal was satisfied, however, that the owners could be identified – particularly given the availability of Land Registry searches, Google Earth and other ways to find out who lives where.

Like the Council residence addresses in the Exeter CC case however, this application information was considered to be personal data of “low inherent sensitivity”. Disclosure would not breach the data protection principles, in light of the following factors:

  • The information was similar to the sort of information routinely provided to estate agents and in planning applications (which are made public)
  • It would be discernible to a surveyor when the house changes hands
  • Some of the information was visible to the naked eye
  • Much of the information constituted confirmation of normal practice of construction to a fixed standard
  • The data subjects had not been told they could expect confidentiality
  • There was a legitimate public interest in transparency, in particular in being assured that the Council had properly assessed compliance whether the relevant regulations had been complied with

Many requests for personal data fail because the requester has not made out any or any sufficient legitimate interest in public disclosure of information impacting upon privacy. Sharples is interesting in that the emphasis worked the other way: the public interest does not appear to have been very pressing, but the personal data was sufficiently anodyne for disclosure to be the order of the day.

Robin Hopkins

Local authorities and NHS Trusts (2): unusual appeals ahead

September 17th, 2012 by Robin Hopkins

I blogged earlier (see below) about the sorts of information law issues that arise routinely for local authorities and NHS Trusts. On a more unusual note, it is worth noting that the First-Tier Tribunal is due to hear appeals against notices other than the usual decision notices issued by the Information Commissioner under s. 50 of FOIA.

The first ever appeal against a monetary penalty notice issued for breaches of the Data Protection Act 1998 will be heard on 3-5 December of this year: Central London Community Healthcare NHS Trust v IC (EA/2012/0111). The Trust was fined £90,000 for faxing patient lists containing sensitive personal data to the wrong number. The Commissioner’s press release is available here.

Secondly, Southampton City Council is appealing against a decision by the Commissioner that a licensing policy under which all licensed taxis must use surveillance equipment consisting of CCTV and audio-recording facilities, both of which must operate whenever the vehicle is in motion, breached the first data protection principle. The Commissioner issued an enforcement notice against the Council (his press release is here).

The appeals will feature my fellow Panopticonners Anya Proops (for the Commissioner in both cases) and Tim Pitt-Payne QC (for the appellants in both cases).

Robin Hopkins


May 17th, 2012 by Robin Hopkins

The bulk of the First-Tier Tribunal’s most recent decisions under both FOIA and the EIR have concerned local authorities. Adequate searches, deleted emails and hard drives and listed building consent feature prominently. Here are some notable points from four of the decisions.

Deleted email account: Tribunal finds against Council

Councillor Jeremy Clyne v IC and London Borough of Lambeth (EA/2011/0190) merits close attention from local authority information officers. Southern Rail carried out work at its Streatham cleaning depot without planning permission. The Council considered taking enforcement action, and instructed a consultancy to report on this option. The requester asked for all reports and communications about the consultant’s draft report. The Council provided some information, but the requester was dissatisfied. He maintained, as requesters often do, that it was ‘incredible’ that further information did not exist. The Council insisted that it had not deleted any relevant information. This was enough to satisfy the Commissioner – but not the Tribunal.

One issue went in the Council’s favour: the Tribunal agreed that information held by its external solicitors was not held on its behalf in the circumstances. Otherwise, the key issues went against the Council.

First, the Tribunal disapproved of the Council’s approach to the wide request for information:

“Lambeth argued that in light of the broad scope of the request it had been reasonable to limit its searches to the planning department which was most likely to hold information. The Tribunal disagrees.  It is not for the public authority unilaterally to redraw the ambit of the request; if the scope is too wide to enable a proper search to be carried out, efforts should be made to refine the request.”

The Council further argued that “the breadth of the request meant that it was too difficult to ensure that every loose end was tied up. They argued that Mr Clyne should resubmit targeted individual requests to follow up these loose ends”. Again, the Tribunal disagreed.

Secondly, as to the adequacy of search and whether, on the balance of probabilities further information was held, the Tribunal applied the established approach from Bromley v IC and Environment Agency (EA/2006/0072) [2011] 1 Info LR 1273. A number of further documents were discovered only after the Commissioner’s decision; the Council had used incorrect or inadequate search terms; important communications about the consultant’s report appear to have gone unanswered (which seemed unlikely) and there was no paper trail accounting for the substantial changes between the draft and final versions of the report. The Tribunal noted that:

“Such a fundamental change as happened between the October 2007 and February 2008 versions of the report in [the requester’s] experience could only happen upon instruction and

not spontaneously. Consequently there ought therefore to be a paper trail.  Planning and legal departments are in different buildings, therefore more likely to communicate by email rather than “pop their head around the corner”. The practice of the Council and their preferred method of communication is by email… The Tribunal has not received an explanation that satisfies it that no recorded information was generated, nor an adequate explanation as to why if generated it has not been retained.”

This led to the third important feature of the decision: following Keiller, the Tribunal ordered the Council to restore the email account of the planning officer who was the focus of the requested information (his account had been expunged some time after the complaint to the Commissioner), to search that account and then to provide the requested information or issue a refusal notice.

Deleted hard drive: Tribunal finds for Council

The requester in Gilbert v IC and Northumberland County Council (EA/2012/0274) was a public transport campaigner seeking records about the 681 bus service (and the Council’s alleged ‘decimation’ of bus services). The Council provided some information, and again the Commissioner was satisfied.

As with Clyne, there were some difficulties with the Council’s case before the Tribunal. The Appellant provided four items he possessed which fell within the scope of his request, including correspondence between the Council and his MP. He argued that: “the Council has withheld or destroyed correspondence which confirms the depth of opposition to its highly unpopular bus cuts.” Further, the Council’s former Head of Transport, to whom the MP had written, had left the Council in March 2011 and his hard drive was wiped on his departure (which was after the handling of the request). The Tribunal observed that:

“the Council’s systems for locating information appear not to have functioned well in this case, as illustrated by the initial failure to identify relevant correspondence with an MP. Wiping the hard disc of a departed senior member of staff, without first checking that it did not contain information which might not be available elsewhere is a practice which might merit review.”

However – again by application of Bromley – the Tribunal was satisfied that on balance the Council had done enough and that no further information was likely to be held. This was largely down to the quality of the searches carried out by the relevant officer in response to the request:

“He circulated a communication to all members of the integrated transport unit  ‘who are either known to be involved in the discussions relating to service 681 or may have been party to documents or other forms of relevant evidence during this period’.  Further he made a search of the Council’s CRM using a range of search terms relating to the bus, the

operator and the route.”

In the Tribunal’s view, that was an adequate search, and the appeal was dismissed.

Statutory nuisance and listed buildings are not ‘private’ interests

In Kuschnir v IC and Shropshire Council (EA/2011/0273), the requester’s (listed) property suffered from damp attributable to a problem at the (listed) bicycle shop next door, Hawk Cycles. The Council deemed this a statutory nuisance and ordered Hawk Cycles to undertake remedial works. Hawk Cycles provided the Council was a schedule of works. The requester sought a copy of that schedule. His request was refused, based on regulation 12(5)(f) EIR (adverse effect on the interests of the person providing the information).

The Tribunal found that the exception was not engaged. It did find there to be sufficient adverse interest to engage the exception, although it saw “no evidence that the disclosure of the information would have made litigation against Hawk Cycles more likely, and if any claim was started by Mr Kuschnir, it is abundantly clear that he would have been entitled to disclosure of the information in the context of the litigation.  In our view the potential litigation context therefore adds little to the debate.”

Another requirement for the engagement of regulation 12(5)(f) is, however, that the provider of the information “was not under, and could not have been put under, any legal obligation to supply it to that or any other public authority”. This was the stumbling block for the Council: the Tribunal construed section 80(1) of the Environmental Protection Act 1990 – which empowers councils to take “such other steps as may be necessary” for requiring the abatement of a statutory nuisance – as meaning that the Council could have compelled Hawk Cycles to provide it with the schedule of remedial works.

The Tribunal went on to find that even if the exception was engaged, the Commissioner and the Council had got the public interest balance wrong. The public interest in disclosure was not great, but the Commissioner had been wrong to find it to be of a private nature. This was in part because the case involved statutory nuisance. The Tribunal added that “it is also relevant we think that Mr Kuschnir’s property was a listed building and one that the Council itself features on guided walks of Shrewsbury.”

The Commissioner had also wrongly characterised the public interest in maintaining the exception. It could not be said that disclosure would undermine the voluntary provision of information to the Council in circumstances Hawk Cycles “where were clearly under threat of an abatement notice requiring them to execute works to prevent a recurrence of the nuisance if they did not co-operate with the Council”.

The requester was therefore entitled to a copy of the schedule.

PDF sufficient

The requester in Forster v IC and Westminster City Council (EA/2011/0235) wanted to park his motorbike in Westminster. He asked for “a list of motorcycle parking bays (the addresses where they are located) so that I can plan trips into town.” The Council refused the request, relying on section 21 FOIA (information accessible by other means). It provided a link to the website which contained about 100 pages of images of a list – in a pdf file – of the names of all the streets in the City of Westminster on which motorcycle bays are located. The requester complained that the information was not “accessible” because it did not allow him to search, re-order or edit the data in the list for his own purposes without having to type the data into another file. He argued that the Commissioner has confused accessibility to a document which contains information, with accessibility to the information contained in a document. The Tribunal found, however, that those arguments were premised on the assumption that the Council held the list in the form that he wanted – but it did not; it had outsourced its IT, and the pdf was all it held. It could therefore rely on section 21.

Robin Hopkins


September 8th, 2011 by Robin Hopkins

In Voyias v IC and LB Camden (EA/2011/0007), Camden Council has been ordered to disclose to a former member of the Advisory Service for Squatters lists of empty properties meeting certain descriptions. The decision has been controversial: see for example Housing Minister Grant Shapps’ condemnation of the judgment as a ‘squatter’s road map’. I set out below some of the key points from the decision.

Scope of the request

Two types of information were plainly within scope, namely lists of the Council’s own records of empty Council-managed properties, and properties owned by non-individuals which had been confirmed as empty by the Council.

There were two additional categories of information at issue. Here the Tribunal drew the following distinction, based on the wording of the request. On the one hand, the requester had asked about properties which were “listed” as being of a certain description: this information (found on the Council tax register) was in scope, and it did not matter whether or not the facts recorded in that register were accurate.

On the other hand, the requester had also asked for information about “empty” properties: this was not in scope. It was to be construed as meaning “actually empty” at the date of the request, and here the relevant records were not accurate.

Approach to the evidence

The Appellant argued that the IC’s reliance on material he had not seen was a breach of Article 6 ECHR. The Tribunal disregarded this argument, as an appeal before a Tribunal is a complete rehearing of the matter.

The next question concerning the evidence was this: how relevant were other decisions dealing with similar issues, but in the context of different local authorities?

The Tribunal was willing to take into account evidence from other Tribunal decisions dealing with general issues relating to squatting (LB Bexley v England and IC (EA/2006/0060 & 66)). The evidence was set out in that decision, and was thus available to the Appellant. Further, “it would be a waste of time and money to have to rehear such evidence in each similar case”. In contrast, the Tribunal declined to have regard to the evidence relied on in another, similar decision notice issued by the IC (concerning LB Tower Hamlets), as much of that evidence was case-specific and was not cited in detail in that publicly-available decision.

Camden’s own past disclosures of such information were not of assistance to the Tribunal, as circumstances change over time. Nor were other such disclosures by other local authorities of assistance.

Engagement of section 31(1)(a) FOIA

The IC found that s. 31(1)(a) FOIA (prevention of crime) was engaged. The Tribunal agreed, but based on different conclusions as to the evidence.

The Tribunal was satisfied that the relevant prejudice was made out as regards organised squatting. The Tribunal was satisfied that disclosure was likely to cause an increase in the number of properties squatted (even if the number of squatters remained the same) as the list of properties would add to the list of available premises known to a motivated and organized squatter. It was also satisfied that a significant proportion of entries into empty premises involve some criminal damage; it therefore concluded that organised squatting is linked to certain types of criminal activity.

The Tribunal was not satisfied, however, that disclosure of the list of properties would influence the behaviour of disorganised or opportunistic squatters, or those engaged in more systematic criminal behaviour involving drug use.

The public interest test

The IC found the public interest to favour the maintenance of the exemption. The Tribunal disagreed. Certain public interest factors were not relevant, and while there were strong factors on both sides, the balance favoured disclosure.

The Tribunal did not consider that any perceived social disadvantage of living next door to squatters, or the costs of the eviction of squatters were matters that the Tribunal was entitled to take into consideration, since squatting is not illegal. It did, however, take into account feelings of security, and the additional cost to the public purse (preventing crime, repairing criminal damage and so on) as inherently strong factors.

The Tribunal’s assessment of the weight to be given to the likely increase in crime is of interest. First, it found that disclosure would not lead to the majority of the crime associated with empty properties (crack-dens and so on). Further, in considering the other sorts of crime that would arise (criminal damage, for example), “the Tribunal takes into consideration the nature of the crimes that it considers would follow disclosure and finds that they are at the lower end of victim impact and that in some cases the presence of organized squatters itself will prevent the use of the premises for more socially disruptive crime (eg use as a crack house).”

Crucially, it found there to be a very strong public interest in bringing empty properties into reuse:

“The Tribunal is satisfied that publication of this list would bring a proportion of the void properties back into use earlier than would otherwise be the case and that consequently this is a strong public interest factor in favour of disclosure… The Tribunal is satisfied that there is already a lively and informed debate in this area, but, recognises that specific examples provide colour and are important in increasing public understanding and local involvement. It puts the specific empty properties into the limelight, may be an added tool to incentivize owners to reuse their properties and would enable the general public to walk up to a ‘void’, and see for themselves what is going on, whether it is being worked on, or has been left in limbo”.

It was this factor which outweighed the increased risk of low-level criminality, and which tipped the scales in favour of disclosure.

Robin Hopkins


April 16th, 2011 by Robin Hopkins

Pursuant to the Government’s transparency drive, the Department for Communities and Local Government has begun consulting on its proposed statutory code of recommended practice for local authorities on data transparency, which is intended to complement FOIA and the EIR. The draft code aims in particular to assist the public in understanding local authorities’ decisions on funding voluntary organisations. The Government proposes to make the publication of expenditure above £500 mandatory, and to publish salary data by reference to salary thresholds (publish if above £58,200), but will consider whether other reference points (such as job title or function) would be more suitable. It also seeks views (in accordance with its “demand-led” ethos) on particular types of data set which local authorities should be required to publish. Click here to read the consultation paper, and for details of how to respond.