Newspaper gagged over 'cash for warrants' scandal

Data protection laws are preventing a Scottish newspaper from publishing allegations of alleged council corruption.

Dundee-based The Courier has lost a Freedom of Information appeal made to Scotland’s Information Commissioner (SIC) that would have forced Perth and Kinross Council to reveal details of what the newspaper has dubbed the ‘cash for warrants’scandal.

The SIC agreed the story was in the public interest but said this was outweighed by the right to privacy of those involved.

The story concerns three employees in the council’s building standards department that allegedly received payments to approve building warrants that they had drawn up themselves.

The Courier, which is owned by publisher DC Thomson, alerted the council to the allegations after receiving a tip-off in February 2010, but the council reportedly waited months before opening an internal investigation.

Three staff were suspended during the investigation into their conduct and The Courier reports that since then one employee has been sacked and lost a subsequent employment tribunal against their dismissal, a second resigned and a third was warned over their conduct.

Reporter Alan Richardson sent an FoI request to the council requesting details of the investigation but the council ruled the documentation must remain private

He then appealed against the decision to the SIC.

The watchdog accepted The Courier had a ‘legitimate interest’in obtaining the information but said data protection laws meant the details could not be released.

This was to ensure that the council’s procedures and the identity of those involved – both directly and indirectly – were not made public.

In her ruling head of enforcement at the SIC Margaret Keyse said there was a ‘general public interest in ensuring that public authorities which receive and spend public money are both transparent and accountable”.

She continued: ‘The commissioner also accepts that [a journalist’s] role leads him to write about matters of local and national interest regarding the workings of public authorities, which affect the public.

“Part of this role includes ensuring that local government is transparent and accountable and that its staff act in compliance with relevant rules and regulations, which ties in with the wider public interest of ensuring that, where complaints have been raised about the service and conduct of front-line staff, relevant actions are taken to investigate and address these fully.”

Though Keyse acknowledged that the council’s investigation ‘raised matters of serious and genuine concern relating to the conduct of council employees” she said this was outweighed by the right to privacy.

She added: ‘Given the general expectations of confidentiality associated with the disciplinary process, the commissioner recognises that the individuals who were interviewed or who provided information within the disciplinary process would expect that the information they provided would be taken into account in the disciplinary process, but they would not expect that information to be disclosed into the public domain as part of a response to a FOISA request.”

Richardson said he had no dispute over witnesseses being guaranteed anonymity so requested to see the documents in redacted form.

‘I was told that in redacted form they would be rendered useless,’he told Press Gazette. “But without seeing the document there’s no way of knowing.”

He added: “If there was greater trust between newspapers and local authorities then we might have been able to come to an arrangement.”

Richardson put the SIC appeal together himself and believes this also put him at a disadvantage.

‘The council has got the background in FoIs and expertise in defending these appeals,’he said. ‘Unfortunately, I didn’t have that background.’

The only way The Courier can now win access to the documents is an expensive one – through the courts.

Richardson said the money involved meant this was a route the newspaper was unlikely to take.

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