One for the Environmental Information Regulations + Data Protection nerds

In 2010 the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) held that, insofar as they required the automatic publication of the name and other particulars of natural persons (as opposed to legal persons) of beneficiaries of funds deriving from the European Agricultural Guarantee Fund (EAGF) and the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development (EAFRD), certain articles of European Council Regulation (EC) No 1290/2005 of 21 June 2005 on the financing of the common agricultural policy were invalid. This was because they imposed an obligation to publish personal data relating to these beneficiaries (who might be private individuals or sole traders) without permitting criteria such as the periods, frequency and amounts involved to be considered.

Rip-roaring start to a blog post eh?

In the words of the First-tier Tribunal (Information Rights) (FTT) which has recently had to consider the impact of those CJEU cases on an Environmental Information Regulations 2004 (EIR) case

[the CJEU] ruled that such a requirement for publication was incompatible with an individual’s right for privacy where the agreement holder concerned was a private individual or sole trade

The relevance of the European judgments was that Natural England, which had until 2010 published information about beneficiaries of funds granted to farmers and landowners under the European Stewardship Agreement (ESA), even when it consisted of personal data of private individual or sole trader beneficiaries, ceased such automatic publication and removed previously published information from its website. This was despite the fact applicants for an ESA had, until 2010, been given a privacy notice in a handbook which explained that the information would be published, and had signed a declaration accepting the requirements.

Notwithstanding this, when it received a request for agreements reached with farmers and landowners in the River Avon flood plains area, Natural England decided that the personal data of the beneficiary (there appears to have just been one) was exempt from disclosure under regulations 12(3) and 13 of the EIR (which broadly provide an exception to the general obligation under the EIR to disclose information if the information in question is personal data disclosure of which would be in breach of the public authority’s obligations under the Data Protection Act 1998 (DPA)).

The Information Commissioner’s Office had agreed, saying

although consent for disclosure has been obtained [by virtue of the applicant’s declaration of acceptance of the handbook’s privacy notice], circumstances have changed since that consent was obtained. As Natural England’s current practice is not to publish the names of those who have received grants with the amounts received, the Commissioner is satisfied that the expectation of the individuals concerned will be that their names and payments will not be made public.

However, the FTT was not convinced by this. Although it accepted that it was possible “that the applicant no longer expected the relevant personal data to be disclosed” it considered whether this would nevertheless be a reasonable expectation, and it also took into account that the effect of the CJEU’s decision had not been expressly to prohibit disclosure (but rather that the validity of automatic publication had been struck down):

When one combined the facts that an express consent had been given, that there had been no publicity by NE or mention on its website of the ECJ decision and finally, that the effect of that decision had not, in the event been to prohibit disclosure, [the FTT] concluded that such an expectation would not be reasonable

Furthermore, given that there was no real evidence that disclosure would cause prejudice or distress to the applicant, given that some identifying information had already been disclosed into the public domain and given that there was a legitimate interest – namely “accountability in the spending of public monies” – in the information being made public (and disclosure was necessary to meet this legitimate interest) the disclosure was both fair and supported by a permitting condition in Schedule 2 of the DPA. For these reasons, disclosure would not, said the FTT, breach Natural England’s obligation to process personal data fairly under the first data protection principle.

So maybe not the most ground-breaking of cases, but it is relatively rare that an FTT disagrees with the ICO and orders disclosure of personal data under the EIR (or FOI). The latter is, after all, the statutory regulator of the DPA, and its views on such matters will normally be afforded considerable weight by any subsequent appellate body.

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Filed under Data Protection, Environmental Information Regulations, Europe, Freedom of Information, Information Commissioner, Information Tribunal

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