Senior officials do not have an automatic right to anonymity when their salaries are published, the government’s transparency watchdog has ruled.
The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) has ordered the Cabinet Office to release the names of 24 civil servants earning more than £150,000 who requested that their identities were not released when the government published the identities of more than 300 individuals a year ago.
The decision could have implications for local government staff after communities secretary Eric Pickles called for councils to publish the names of all staff earning more than £58,200.
The Cabinet Office had initially refused a Freedom of Information request for the names of the 24 senior civil servants who had refused permission for the government to identify them.
However, following a complaint to the FOI watchdog, Information Commissioner Christopher Graham said: “If you are earning over £150,000 working for a body that is funded by the public purse then there is now a legitimate expectation that your name and salary details will be disclosed. Being open and transparent is an integral part of being accountable to the taxpayer and, like it or not, this level of disclosure goes with the territory.”
As part of the government’s transparency drive, and following the Cabinet Office’s decision to name high earning civil servants, the Department for Communities & Local Government (DCLG) has suggested that councils should publish the salaries names, job descriptions, responsibilities, budgets and numbers of staff of senior council officials.
Set out in the draft Code of Recommended Practice for Local Authorities on Data Transparency, published in February, the guidance defines senior salaries as “all salaries which are above £58,200 (irrespective of post), which is the Senior Civil Service minimum pay band”.
The draft code, a final version of which is due to be published soon, allows for individuals to refuse consent for identification, but the ICO’s ruling now casts that right in doubt.
A spokesman for the ICO said: “We’re supportive of the approach DCLG is taking on the disclosure of salary information, which we believe is fair.”
However, the ICO’s own guidance on balancing an individual’s right to data protection and the public right to know had to take into account how senior an individual was including “whether they are responsible for major policy decisions or expenditure of public funds”.
Tim London, senior associate at Eversheds law firm, said the ICO’s ruling to identify the 24 civil servants earning more than £150,000 could be a precedent that would apply to local government.
“The ICO has made reasonably clear that the higher you are up the organisation the less likely that rights under data protection will be appointed applied.”
The Cabinet Office, which looks set to comply with the ICO’s discolsure order within the 35 days allowed, welcomed the clarification of the law.
A spokesman said: “We welcome this decision. The government is committed to releasing as much data as possible. Today’s ruling by the ICO has given an important and much-needed clarification on the balance between transparency and the protection of personal data.
“The government is absolutely committed to being the most transparent in the world in order to drive better, more efficient public services as well as to enable comparisons and choice in public services, stimulate economic growth and support the Big Society.”
The head of the union representing senior officers in local government expressed support for salary disclosure, particularly when applied to “the much less open and transparent government departments”.
Mary Orton, honorary secretary of the Association of Local Authority Chief Executives, said: “Too often it is one rule for us and a completely different set of rules for them.”
Ms Orton also called for central government to “support and respect” public servants against attacks at the same time as it supported the drive for transparency
“ALACE regrets that he current climate of anti-Council media hysteria, which sometimes seems to be both condoned and even encouraged by some in Whitehall, can lead to inappropriate and unfair targeting of individual council employees - the completely inappropriate and deeply personal attacks on Andrea Hill in some tabloids and local papers is a case in point,” she said.