Council Secrecy Over Drugs In Schools

Cardiff council has slapped a secrecy ban on parents knowing which city schools have excluded pupils for drugs offences. A decision by the authority’s top lawyer Kate Berry NOT to release the information to the Echo – even though it has done previously – has been condemned as a cover-up.

And the ruling Liberal Democrat council was today accused of being gutless and soft on drugs. We appealed to the council after Freedom of Information officers at County Hall refused last December to release the details. But in a five-page judgement Ms Berry upheld their decision.

Ms Berry warned of ‘potential prejudice to the rights and freedoms of children’, if the information was released. She said the argument that the information should be disclosed was not ‘sustainable’. The council argues that the release of details previously had been made in error because data protection issues had not been properly considered.

She ruled:

  • The information requested by the Echo did constitute a request for personal data.
  • Condition six of the Data Protection Act is not met. The processing of data is both ‘unnecessary and unwarranted’ and will cause prejudice to the data subjects.

The Echo said the release of the information was in the public interest because parents had a right to know and the council had provided no evidence to show that individuals had been identified previously. We also argued that the naming of the schools could been seen as a positive, showing that the school operated a zero tolerance approach to drugs. We will be challenging the council’s ruling by appealing to the Information Commissioner.

South Wales Central Conservative AM Jonathan Morgan said: ‘Once again the Lib Dem council demonstrates its incompetence and contempt for the wishes of Cardiff residents. This ridiculous cover-up shows how councils are willing to cite the Date Protection Act as a way of avoiding scrutiny.’

Mr Morgan, who is a governor at Bishop of Llandaff Church in Wales High School, added: ‘If no personal data, except for broad figures, are released then the council has no grounds for being so gutless.

‘It is high time that the Assembly had some guidance on releasing this sort of information to parents who have the right to know how schools are dealing with drug offences. We always knew that the Lib Dems were soft on drugs but being politically motivated in this way is a step too far,’ said the Tory Assembly election candidate in Cardiff North.

Labour councillor and school governor Ramesh Patel, of Canton, who submitted his own Freedom of Information request on the same issue, said: ‘I’m staggered at this decision.

‘I would like to see evidence produced by the council showing that the publication of the information last time led to the identification of an individual pupil. I don’t believe that happened. When there was a disturbance at Fitzalan High School, children were expelled and it was reported, so what’s the difference with the drugs issue? The public has a right to know and this should not be swept under the carpet.’

Independent councillor Jayne Cowan said: ‘The Liberal Democrats talk about openness and transparency but when it comes to keeping parents involved about such serious issues as drugs in schools they try to bury the information.

‘I think the Lib Dems got the legal advice they wanted and we know from the past that different lawyers come up with different advice. Parents will remember the double standards that this council operates. I trust the Information Commission will rule this information should be released in the public interest – because it is in the public interest.’

Richard Williams, editor of the South Wales Echo, pledged that the paper would fight the decision tooth and nail on behalf of readers. He said: ‘I am deeply disappointed that Cardiff council is taking this stance to deprive our readers and the people of Cardiff this information. This goes against every move to make local government more transparent and will put doubt in people’s minds as to what they are trying to hide.

‘Cardiff council is wrong to say that this is a data protection issue. That is politically-correct claptrap. We are not asking for data about individuals – we are asking, on behalf of our readers, about our schools. Parents have the right to know about any potential drug issues at their schools. That is the crux of this matter. And that is why we won’t let the matter lie.’

Council leader Rodney Berman said: ‘It is obvious from the tone of Jonathan Morgan’s comments that there is an election on. He can play to the gallery all he wants, but this judgement is not the judgement of the Liberal Democrats but of the council’s most senior lawyer.

‘If he is unhappy with this situation, then I would suggest he concentrates his efforts in calling for a change in the law, rather than making the issue a political football in a desperate attempt to gain electoral support.’

A spokeswoman for Cardiff council said: ‘This is a very serious issue and one which rightly is being debated and we will be interested to see what the Information Commissioner rules in this respect.

‘But as far as Cardiff council is concerned our duty of care as a public body is to ensure that personal data is protected particularly when its release could have a harmful impact on the lives of children and parents which is why we are upholding the original decision. In this case the legitimate interest in asking the question cannot be balanced against the harm the release of personal information might cause.’