Privacy and the GOSE: you have none

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We’ve lodged a formal complaint with the Government Office of the South East (GOSE) for breach of privacy over its proven habit of leaking our Freedom of Information requests to Imperial College. This is just one instance of many in which we have discovered that everyday requests to local authorities and, on this occasion, a government department are being routinely copied to Imperial, which is effectively a potential private developer with no right to receive them.

To our certain knowledge, Imperial’s senior managers have received copies of both FoI requests and private e-mails from save-wye, passed on instantly by some of the key players in this saga. The most egregious instance until now was Kent County Council’s craven offering of our FoI request to it last February, which resulted in Imperial demanding the witholding of key documents on Wye which KCC had been ready to release.

But the leak of a report by the Bell Pottinger firm of lobbyists, working on behalf of Imperial, which we ran here on Friday proves once and for all that private FoI requests to public bodies are being shared around with Imperial as a matter of course.

In a report to Imperial, Bell Pottinger, which was being paid £10,000 a month by the college for its services at the time, reported a meeting with unnamed GOSE officials and went on to crow that they ‘were sceptical of the impact of negative coverage in the local press and of the effectiveness of the Save Wye Group. GOSE had received a Freedom of Information request from the Save Wye group but had not been concerned by it as they genuinely had no information to provide’.

This stems from an FoI request to GOSE which drew a blank. GOSE had no right or reason to share our request with Imperial or anyone else. While GOSE has a very poor and skimpy ‘privacy policy’ on its own website, it is, in our view, bound, under the Data Protection Act, by the general rules and practice of all government departments over the handling of requests from members of the public. These are well summarised by the Department of Health…

In accordance with the Data Protection Act, we have a legal duty to protect any information we collect from you. We will only use your information for the purpose as described and we do not pass on your details to any other government department or third party unless you have given us permission to do so.

Had GOSE been intent on delivering up to us material which somehow originated from Imperial we might — just — have been persuaded that they needed to talk to the Brooks Wilson army, though only with our prior permission. But instead they told us nothing then went on to boast of the fact to the very developers who may one day seek their backing for the Wye Project. This seems to us entirely improper and we have laid a formal complaint about this action and demanded a full explanation of what was revealed, when, by whom and to whom. We will let you know what transpires.

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In the meantime we should note that Kent County Council is also under fire for breach of the Freedom of Information Act, this time from its own members. The county’s Lib Dems have gone public with a series of instances in which the council has breached the act by failing to provide key documents, including cabinet items, in time for opposition members to scrutinise them. We’d like to say we’re surprised but frankly we’re not. Mind you, we do wonder when Kent’s Lib Dems will find their voices on Wye Park, a subject they have largely ignored since the story broke.

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About David Hewson

Professional novelist, published in more than 20 languages. Creator of the Nic Costa series set in modern Rome. Most recent book the novel of the Danish TV series, The Killing.
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3 Responses to Privacy and the GOSE: you have none

  1. Simon Webster says:

    I would also consider a formal complaint to the Information Commissioner. The following is lifted from their web site:

    “The Information Commissioner’s Office is the UK’s independent public body set up to promote access to official information and to protect personal information.

    It is our job to rule on eligible complaints, provide information to individuals and organisations, and to take appropriate action when the law is broken.

    We handle complaints about breaches of the following legislation:

    Data Protection Act 1998 (this covers information about individuals);

    Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations 2003 (this covers unsolicited electronic marketing messages such as telephone, fax, email and text messages);

    Freedom of Information Act 2000 (this covers information held by public authorities);

    Environmental Information Regulations 2004 (this covers information on environmental matters held by public authorities).

  2. Neil Paterson says:

    David,
    This is perfect for Private Eye! I’ve been engrossed by your RSS feed for months, wondering as I read how either the “Rotten Boroughs” or “Nooks and Corners” columns might cover the whole sorry story.
    This news of your FoI requests being leaked to “the opposition”, takes the story to another level. Have you thought about trying Lord Strobes, or would publication there be counter-productive in some way?

  3. David Hewson says:

    Thanks for the feedback. We can’t go to the ICO until we have complained through the entire process within GOSE. That’s the way the system works, but if necessary we will take it all the way. As to coverage elsewhere – the more the merrier. Everyone is free to use our material as they wish (though an acknowledgement would be appreciate). But we don’t have the time to start pushing it ourselves – so if you think others ought to be looking do please tell them.

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