Chris White writes: silencing the whistleblowers

Hertfordshire County Council has just received a £100,000 fine for breaching the Data Protection Act. The charge sheet as published by the Information Commissioner is serious.

The council had faxed confidential details about a child abuse cases to the wrong number that of a private individual (P). On the day the Information Commissioner’s staff were at the council persuading them to change their practices to prevent further breaches, another fax, containing confidential and sensitive details of care proceedings, was wrongly sent to a set of lawyers’ chambers.

The Information Commissioner clearly wanted to make an example of the council, which now claims that it has changed its systems and has apologised.

But we began to delve. The council’s story that someone had manually dialled P’s number when he or she found the correct pre-programmed number busy appears to be in doubt. P complains that this was a repeated occurrence (P’s number is one digit different from the correct one) and that it is more than likely that the wrong number had been pre-programmed.
The council says there is no evidence for this, neatly confusing the idea of ‘no evidence’ with ‘never was any evidence’.

It gets murkier. P in fact complained to the council AND to the Information Commissioner about the repeated breaches. The council claims that it reported itself first.
When P said he was minded to report the breach to the data subjects (those whose details were so carelessly faxed around) the council took out an injunction. This not only prevented P from talking to the data subjects (which might be fair enough) but also prevented P from providing materials to the Information Commissioner or to councillors.

And of course there are significant costs to being on the receiving end of an injunction –costs that the county council has yet to meet.

The breaches took place in June. The Liberal Democrat Group, the Official Opposition, was informed only after several months had elapsed and then in only the vaguest of terms.

No briefing was offered to councillors until after the matter had hit the Today Programme on Radio 4.

When we asked why there had not even been a full disclosure to key councillors the night before the story was due to break in the national media, we were told that there had been technical difficulties in getting information out from the council.

It is interesting to speculate what those technical difficulties might be. We know that the council is not good with faxes. Perhaps it is equally troubled with telephones or email.

Who else knew? The tiny Labour Group apparently knew all about it. The ruling Conservatives knew that they knew all about it. But they continued to conceal it from the Liberal Democrat Opposition.

What do we learn?

That Hertfordshire County Council will use the full weight of the law to crush whistleblowers.
That it will cover up its mistakes, even (or especially) the most serious.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.
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3 Comments

  • Sal Brinton 9th Dec '10 - 12:38pm

    Thanks for letting us know this, Chris. I find this story quite extraordinary.

    Usually, a whistle blower comes from within the organisation, but P was the innocent recipient of their confidential information, and notified them himself of their mistake. When repeated, he remonstrated with them. Their behaviour is disgraceful, intimidating and should be exposed. I hope that the Information Commissioner throws the book at them further for this.

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