PRESS RELEASE: CITY COUNCIL GUILTY OF BREAKING LAW OVER EMAILS – OFFICIAL 4/06/07
LIVERPOOL city council broke the law by publishing confidential emails between its former Leader and communications chief.
The Information Commissioner has found the city council guilty of breaking the ‘First Principle’ of the Data Protection Act, 1998 - that the publication of any personal information should be ‘fair and lawful.’
The Commissioner upholds an official complaint by Matt Finnegan, the city council’s former Assistant Executive Director (Media), who had accused the council of acting unlawfully in first publicising the confidential emails two years ago.
In the emails, the then Council Leader Mike Storey, instructed the council’s media chief to publicise his opposition to a £240,000 pension deal for the council’s chief executive Sir David Henshaw, who had announced his early retirement.
A report containing the emails was sent to all 90 city councillors in May 2005, after the Liverpool Daily Post reported that the chief executive was demanding Councillor Storey’s resignation.
Mr Finnegan submitted his complaint to the Information Commissioner immediately after quitting his job last September, accusing the council of waging a vendetta against him for obeying the instructions of the council’s democratically-elected Leader.
The Information Commissioner has now upheld both complaints, ruling that the council acted illegally.
“It is therefore our view that Liverpool City Council has breached the First Principle of the Data Protection Act 1998 in this instance. Whilst it is acknowledged that this is perhaps an extraordinary case in terms of the nature of events which occurred, and the high profile of the individuals who were involved, the disclosure, having been circulated at such a premature time, was still unfair.”
The Commissioner warns that publication by the council of the report may also have compromised any further disciplinary proceedings it brought.
He adds: “Whilst it is unlikely that this specific situation would arise again in the future, we shall be pointing out to the Council that they do have a general duty to ensure that the processing of all personal data complies with the provisions contained within the Data Protection Act 1998.
“In light of this, the Council may wish to review the actions which were taken in this case and consider whether it may be appropriate to implement further measures in order to prevent a similar event from occurring again in the future.
“The Commissioner would hope that once this contravention of the Act has been brought to the attention of the Council, steps will be taken to rectify the situation.”
Mr Finnegan is now calling for the council to take legal action against Sir David Henshaw, currently chair of the North West Strategic Health Authority, for contravening the Data Protection Act and to suspend Mr Halsall, who is still employed by the council, pending a full investigation into his actions.
Mr Finnegan said: “These two men broke the law. There is no argument about that. At the time, Mr Henshaw even issued an astonishing public statement welcoming the illegal report and praising his own integrity! The council should now show that it is cleaning up its act by taking appropriate action against both men and any others who were party to this decision. Proven law-breakers such as these should not be in charge of any public service for a moment longer.”
Mr Finnegan added: “My complaint to the Information Commissioner was the first of 38 grievances which I had first submitted to the council, for breaching their own internal rules and procedures. The current chief executive, Colin Hilton dismissed them out of hand.
“I am pleased however, that the Information Commissioner takes a very different view from Mr Hilton and has not allowed such illegal actions by very senior employees to be covered up.
“I am also grateful to the Daily Post for making public the astonishing events in Liverpool at the time. In my view, there was an attempted coup by certain officers against the democratically elected Leader, using emails which had been illegally obtained.
“This is a small, if belated, victory for democracy and is a vindication of my actions in obeying the Leader of the Council. I never broke the law – Mr Henshaw and Mr Halsall did. The council will never again be able to get away with treating employees like me with such flagrant contempt for both the law and their own internal rules and procedures.
“If the council had any decency it would now issue an abject public apology to both me and my daughter for acting illegally. But we won’t be holding our breath.
“It has been a sorry and shameful little episode linked directly to the huge pension claim of Mr Henshaw. That began a train of events which have caused significant harm to the public image of the city of Liverpool and have damaged people’s confidence in public servants and public service. I hope the council now deeply regrets breaking the law of the land.”