Reporter loses £84k Southern Cross FoI appeal

A freelance reporter asked to pay more than £84,000 for a Freedom of Information request seeking details of complaints made against collapsed care home provider Southern Cross has had his appeal against the decision rejected.

Kevin O’Sullivan made the FoI request to care home regulator Social Care & Social Work Improvement Scotland last month, requesting details of individual complaints made against Southern Cross and its subsidiary Ashbourne.

Earlier this month SCSWIS information governance co-ordinator Caroline Rose told him he could have the information – but at a cost of £84,720.40. She claimed the time involved in gathering, reviewing and redacting information on the 841 complaints would take 7,898 hours, or 329 days.

Yesterday he was told his appeal had failed and that he would still have to pay to access the information.

The SCSWIS’s professional adviser for information governance, Amanda Wright, blamed the high costs involved on compliance with data protection laws.

She told O’Sullivan: “The reason the cost of providing the information is high is because of the amount of paper and electronic records you have requested and all the personal information about people who use the services, staff, and relatives etc has to be removed prior to releasing it into the public domain to ensure SCSWIS complies with the Data Protection Act 1998.”

The reporter was offered anonymised information about the complaints but claimed these came under “broad category headings and offers little valuable insight into the actual nature of the complaint”.

“From the outset I have believed, and still do believe, that the public has a right to know about the individual complaints tabled against the now defunct Southern Cross care homes provider,” he said.

“It is a great concern to families of relatives who have lived under the administration of that company that it was ‘fit for purpose’ for the often complex needs of the elderly.

“My intention was to review the individual complaints in order to ascertain whether Southern Cross was indeed living up to expectations as a care provider and to establish what exactly the deficiencies were.”

O’Sullivan will now appeal against the SCSWIS decision to the Scottish Information Commissioner.

In a letter to the commissioner he said: “I believe the attempt by a public body – in this case the SCSWIS – to charge £84,000 for providing information demonstrably in the public interest fails miserably to live up to the spirit of that [Freedom of Information] Act.

“As a journalist who regularly uses the Act in the course of my work, I have never come across such an arbitrary and grossly-inflated figure.

“To put it in context I have recently asked the Health and Safety Executive to carry out similar data extractions, which may require extensive redactions, and I was told that it was happy to do so.

“I fail therefore to comprehend how two public bodies can be so vastly at odds with each other and hope you will also consider this in your appraisal of the situation.”

Yesterday, Press Gazette reported on how data protection laws were preventing Scottish newspaper The Courier from publishing allegations of alleged corruption at Perth and Kinross Council.

Reporter Alan Richardson was denied an FoI request relating to the scandal on the same grounds as O’Sullivan, with the council arguing that data privacy laws would be breached.

The Information Commissioner agreed the story was in the public interest and “raised matters of serious and genuine concern relating to the conduct of council employees”, but said this was outweighed by the right to privacy and compliance with the Data Protection Act.