Let’s blame Data Protection: Part Two

“The leader of the council wishes to make the names of the debtors public, but the Data Protection Act of 1998 prohibits their publication.”

So says an article from the Blackpool Gazette, when quoting a council report (which I haven’t yet been able to find) which appears to have indicated that

The council has been forced to write off £1.68m in owed business rates going back around the last six years

The council leader is reported to have said

Several names appear more than once, owing vast sums of money to the council…Several high-profile business owners, who always seemed to have a lot to say about how the town is run, seem to have no qualms about disappearing owing us tens of thousands of pounds…We are very dogged and tenacious when it comes to pursuing debtors, and clearly need to continue to be.

but

What I do find very frustrating is that I am not able to publish the names of these people

This puzzles me: names of businesses will not, as a general rule constitute personal data under section 1(1) of the Data Protection Act 1998 (DPA). The definition of personal data

data which relate to a living individual who can be identified—
(a) from those data, or
(b)from those data and other information which is in the possession of, or is likely to come into the possession of, the data controller

Even if individuals can be identified from disclosure of the names of defaulting businesses it is perhaps the case that the information will not considered to be personal data, especially following the precedent of the Court of Appeal in Durant where it was held that, for information to be personal data it
should have the putative data subject as its focus rather than…some transaction or event in which he may have figured or have had an interest
It is interesting to note that the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), in guidance which appears to have been withdrawn, said
Information about people who run businesses, and the businesses they run, will often be covered by the Act. This is because information about a person’s business, activities, possessions, and so on is generally personal information about that person
although, in a rather circular argument

Business information that does not identify individuals is not covered by the Act

What I think is being got at is that, for example, information consisting of “Richard Hannay is a fifty-year-old black man who runs Imaging Solutions Ltd, which made a £1.2m profit last year” is potentially Richard Hannay’s personal data throughout, whereas “Imaging Solutions Ltd made a £1.2m profit” is unlikely to be Hannay’s personal data when considered in isolation, even though one can easily find out that he is the sole director.
In another, more specific scenario, it might be more easily argued that the names of business are personal data. This is where someone is conducting business as a sole trader. The ICO’s ?withdrawn guidance said

Information about a sole trader’s business will be personal information about him

I’m not sure I would be so unequivocal, but as a general proposition it’s not objectionable.

However, even if business information is personal data, the DPA does not necessarily prevent disclosure of it. In fact, the DPA permits disclosure of any and all types of personal data, as long as it is in compliance with the Act. In short, if disclosure is fair and lawful and relevant provisions permit it, then it will be in compliance with the Act. And, helpfully for the council, there is a specific provision relating to personal data “processed for…the assessment or collection of any tax or duty”. This exemption permits disclosure where not disclosing would be likely to prejudice the collection of the tax in question. Additionally, the sixth condition of Schedule 2 of the DPA provides that, if it  is “necessary for the purposes of legitimate interests pursued by the data controller” personal data may be processed, provided it is not “unwarranted…by reason of prejudice to the rights and freedoms or legitimate interests of the data subject”.
This will not give carte blanche to disclosure of personal data (if personal data it is) of owners of defaulting businesses, but it is certainly arguable in this instance that disclosure would assist the collection of the tax (and, therefore, non-disclosure could prejudice it), and that the balancing exercise required by the sixth Schedule 2 condition would fall in favour of disclosure.
So, a) I doubt that the withheld information is personal data, and, even if it is b) disclosure would be in compliance with the DPA.
One thing is certain, the DPA does not prohibit publication of this information, and, to the extent that it might be engaged, I would not see it as a barrier to disclosure. It might even help the council in its aim to be “dogged and tenacious when it comes to pursuing debtors”.
But it’s so much easier to blame Data Protection.
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