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SIC tightens policy following data breach

Angry members of the Urafirth parent council. From left: Clare Pottinger, Robin Sinclair, Pamela Ruddick, Liane Anderson, Charlene Johnston and Claire Herridge - Photo: Pete Bevington/Shetnews

A “BLATANT” breach of data protection has resulted in Shetland Islands Council announcing that it will no longer publish individual responses to school closure proposals from members of the public.

Last month council chief executive Mark Boden commissioned an investigation after parents in Northmavine accused the local authority of “failing to ensure our privacy is taken seriously”.

Parents said they were left furious when – during consultations on plans to shut North Roe and Urafirth primaries – confidential details including children’s names and the distance they lived from their school were made available on the SIC website.

Council staff subsequently removed the information after complaints were made. In a statement on Wednesday, the local authority said it would end the practice of publishing “redacted” written responses and transcripts of public meetings.

Instead summaries, which “will not disclose the source of the comment or any other content which could identify individuals or personal data”, will be included within the consultation reports.

The new approach will start with consultations on Mid Yell Junior High and Whalsay’s secondary department. It will also apply to future school closure consultations.

Production of consultation reports will be overseen by council monitoring officer Jan Riise and his staff “so that the absence of personal information can be verified throughout the process”.

Asked if the change of tack meant council management did not trust the previous system for recording responses, Boden replied: “The system we’ve had in place up until now required a lot of work and judgements as to what should and shouldn’t be redacted, at a point in the process where everyone was really busy, so it built in the possibility for error.

“Under the new system, which fully complies with the law, we’ll say from the outset that we’re not going to publish [full responses], and will start writing summaries. It creates a little bit more work but it takes out that judgement that you can get wrong.”

SIC chief executive Mark Boden has acted following complaints from Northmavine parents.

Councillors are due to meet early next month to determine the fate of the North Roe and Urafirth primary schools. The education and families committee meets on 4 November, followed by the Full Council a day later.

At the 5 November meeting, Riise will present a report to councillors “regarding breaches of data protection which occurred within the consultation report” on North Roe and Urafirth, published on 19 September.

Later that month the SIC issued an apology after personal details relating to “a small number of individuals” were inadvertently published online.

But Urafirth Parent Council subsequently unearthed information which it said showed the breach was much more serious and widespread – affecting “every child in school, nursery and pre nursery in the entire Northmavine area”.

A notice under the 2010 Schools (Consultation) (Scotland) Act will be issued on 31 October amending the proposal papers for Mid Yell and Whalsay. As a result the consultation period for the two secondaries will be extended.

Submissions during the consultation will still be valid, and it will not require additional public meetings to be held.

Boden said it meant the timetable for Mid Yell and Whalsay closures to be considered by councillors will “slip by about a month”, but it will still happen in early 2015.

He added: “I commissioned a full investigation into the alleged breaches of data protection.

“I can reassure anyone who has already responded or who is contemplating submitting a response to the Mid Yell and Whalsay secondary department consultations that this is an issue which we take extremely seriously and they can be confident that personal data will not be published.”

Claire Herridge of Urafirth Parent Council said Northmavine parents, whose children would be taught in Ollaberry from August 2015 if the closures go ahead, were focusing on lobbying SIC councillors ahead of the vote in a fortnight’s time.

But she said that if members vote in favour of shutting the schools “we would certainly challenge it”.

Regarding the data protection breach, she said Urafirth was “not the only place they’ve made the mistake”.

“Every time it’s been the same kind of letter of apology that it’ll never happen again,” she told Shetland News. “You can’t trust them at all.”