Paper uses FoI to uncover details of head's resignation

By Sarah Lagan

Two
regional newspapers have used Freedom of Information legislation to
uncover background information on stories about education and the
police.

The Kent Messenger has used the Freedom of Information Act to reveal
the background to the unexpected resignation of a head teacher, while
in Norwich the Evening News obtained details of exit interviews with
officers leaving the force.

The Kent Messenger’s investigation
showed widespread unrest among teaching staff and long-running concerns
about poor discipline, low morale and high staff turnover since the
head teacher’s appointment in 2003.

For six months political
editor Paul Francis tried to prise information from the education
authority about the circumstances surrounding the events at Maidstone
Girls Grammar School.

In July, Kent County Council withheld 13
documents, claiming the information was protected under the Data
Protection Act, but Francis persisted. He said the information was in
the public interest and should have been released under the Data
Protection (Processing of Sensitive Personal Data)n Order 2000. This is
a statutory instrument that covers disclosure of personal data for
journalistic purposes.

In December the council released details
consisting mainly of minutes from staff union meetings revealing the
concerns of teachers. The education authority banned the release of
further documents, again applying Data Protection and also the “catch
all”

exemption to some of the material, saying its release would be “prejudicial to the effective conduct of public affairs”.

Kent
Messenger editor Bob Dimond said: “Public confidence in councils and
schools can often hinge on their willingness to be open. We felt
parents and others in the wider community were entitled to know the
full background to events at the school.”

Francis said: “Our
persistence eventually paid off. This was an important challenge
because of the authority’s attempt to use Data Protection to prevent
information of a clear public interest being disclosed.”

The
paper is now considering whether to appeal to the Information
Commissioner over the council’s decision to block the release of other
material.

The Norwich Evening News investigation used the FoI Act
to reveal that the main reasons city centre police officers left their
jobs were paper work, political correctness and poor pay. The paper
successfully requested details of previously confidential exit
interviews carried out over the past four years.

Norwich Police said the complaints represented only a small proportion of the workforce.

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