Council remains confident over files

COUNCIL bosses are this week maintaining their position that there has been no leak of sensitive staff information, despite the fact that the practice of dumping personnel files in paper recycling bins had been going on for possibly as long as seven years.

Last week we reported the reaction of elected members at Scottish Borders Council, including leader David Parker, who felt the £250,000 fine levied earlier this month by the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) for a data breach last September was “too harsh”.

The council was adjudged by the ICO to have failed to seek appropriate guarantees on how the personal data contained in more than 800 files would be kept secure and did not make sufficient attempts to monitor how the data was being handled by the contractor hired to carry out the job.

The files, some containing bank and salary details, were found by a member of the public in a recycling bin in a supermarket car park believed to be in West Lothian.

On discovering the breach, SBC reported the matter to the ICO and terminated the contract. But Ken Macdonald, assistant information commissioner for Scotland, described it as a classic case of an organisation taking its “eye off the ball” when it came to outsourcing.

At last week’s meeting of SBC executive, Mr Parker (Leaderdale and Melrose, Ind) said he felt the size of the fine was unreasonable.

“I think the size is disproportionate – there was no identity theft involved. It was a very harsh judgment,” Mr Parker had told the meeting.

However, while the particular incident referred to involved 848 files dumped in September last year by the contractor hired to digitise the documents, the ICO also highlighted the fact the practice of disposing of the files had been going on since 2005 and involved 8,000 more files deposited in recycling bins.

This week, a council spokesman gave the following assurance: “The recycling banks are contained and the disposal process is secure.

“While we can’t absolutely guarantee it, we are very confident that no information has been disclosed at all.

“We have had no reports of any incidents that have come about as a result of the way in which files were disposed by this particular contractor.”

Councillor Michelle Ballantyne (Selkirkshire, Con), leader of the Conservative opposition group on Scottish Borders Council, said she was “extremely frustrated” that a monetary fine was seen as a solution to a breach of this kind.

She told TheSouthern this week: “Fining a public body just means there is less money to fund services – it doesn’t punish those who have been negligent or address the failure of systems.

“There needs to be real accountability and transparency to reassure the public that we are not wasting resources or operating with a cavalier attitude, and that is what we are seeking from the administration.”