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In a ruling of significance to public authority employers, a Scottish council has been ordered to disclose information about its staffing levels and pay scales after failing to convince the Supreme Court that publicly revealing such details would violate employees’ rights and contravene the terms of the Data Protection Act 1998 (the DPA).
A member of the public (the requester) had sought information from the council under freedom of information legislation relating to the number of staff it employed in particular posts and the scales on which they were paid. The purpose of the inquiry was to establish whether the council’s system of pay grading favoured work traditionally done by men.
The council refused the request on the basis that the information was exempt from disclosure in that it fell into the category of ‘personal data’. In a ruling which was later upheld by the Court of Sessions, the council’s decision was overturned, and disclosure ordered, by the Scottish Information Commissioner.
The Supreme Court noted that the right to disclosure of information did not trump the terms of the DPA, which continued to protect rights of privacy with respect to the processing of personal data. However, in dismissing the council’s appeal, the Court ruled that the Commissioner had correctly balanced the requester’s legitimate interests against the rights and freedoms of the council’s employees.
Ruling that disclosure was ‘necessary’ within the meaning of the DPA, the Court noted that the requester had not sought to uncover employees’ identities and that it was therefore difficult to see how disclosure would interfere with their individual privacy rights. Giving guidance for the future, the Court ruled that, in the context of the DPA, the word ‘necessary’ should be interpreted as meaning reasonably, rather than absolutely or strictly, necessary.