The Information Commissioner has shown where her sympathies lie by slapping a massive £120,000 money penalty on the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea for accidentally revealing the names of owners of empty homes in the Borough, along with the addresses of the homes concerned.
The Commissioner's ruling describes how the details were sent to Guardian journalists who had requested statistical data. The information was sent in the form of an Excel pivot table without the council officer(s) involved apparently realising that the underlying individual data records on which the pivot table relied were also still embedded in the worksheet.
The ICO had previously issued warnings about the danger of data lurking underneath pivot tables and the commissioner therefore took a dim view of the technical incompetence displayed by the Council in its accidental release of the data.
Lessons for local authorities
The first lesson for local authorities is to continue to be vigilant about any releases of data about empty homes, and particularly bearing in mind that if empty homes addresses are disclosed then owner details can often be readily be discovered from sources such as the Land Registry. In the RKBC case the 'liable person' names were directly revealed, but it should not be imagined that the ICO would have been much less concerned if only the property addresses had been released. If there are any local authorities releasing lists of empties - only one has come to light in recent times - they would be advised to pay very careful attention to this case.
Lessons for citizens
Central to the Commissioner's assessment of the severity of the breach was that it occurred in the wake of the Grenfell fire, when public concern about the large numbers of long-term empty homes in the borough was being widely expressed. The 'Background to the Case' starts with exactly that scenario.
In the Commissioner's view, the poor baby oligarchs, royalty, and other empty homes owners - one of whom, we are shocked to learn, was 'distressed' to be approached by a journalist! - deserve urgent protection from the assorted proletarians, Momementum supporters, Guardian readers, anarchists and other undesirables who might think keeping homes empty was not quite the right thing in the context of homeless Grenfell surivors. An example had to be made and the people of Kensington and Chelsea have paid the price. So that's £120,000 no longer available for services to the poor and needy in the Borough - we don't imagine the plutocratic empty homes owners will be too much affected.
In a case where the Information Commissioner seems to have been disproportionately concerned about protecting the rich and privileged from exposure, it is no great surprise to find that public interest in the ownership of empty homes does not figure in her list of mitigating circumstances. If you would like to be reminded of some of the guilty parties, you will need to refer back to the Guardian article of 1st August 2017.
If you want to enjoy the Information Commissioner's solemn pronouncement on the issue, you can follow the link in our Information Library.