Council claims ‘inconsistency’ in State advice on recordings

Meath County Council ‘trying to rationalise’ instruction by Information Commissioner

A county council said there was an “inherent inconsistency” in having to make available video and audio recordings of development plan meetings, claiming the Data Protection Commission had advised it not to release them.

Meath County Council said in internal emails that a decision made by the Information Commissioner that it must release the recordings was something it was “still trying to rationalise”.

Officials said it was difficult to understand how “two arms of the State [can] provide very different advice on the same records”.

In an email to the Department of Public Expenditure, a local authority official said: “It is very difficult for a public body, such as this council, to navigate these choppy waters.”

Meath County Council was told late last year it had to release the recordings of the development plan meetings, which had caused considerable controversy among councillors.

The council had originally said release of the tapes would involve the disclosure of personal information, which would be in breach of GDPR, and had proposed deleting them.

Far-reaching implications

However, the Information Commissioner disagreed and ordered their release in a decision with far-reaching implications for other local authorities and public bodies.

Internal emails detail confusion in the council over the decision and how it had earlier sought the advice of the Data Protection Commission (DPC) on what to do with the recordings.

In the correspondence, it cited an email it had received from the DPC saying that audio and video recordings would be considered personal data and should be treated accordingly.

That email said there was no mechanism for journalists or other individuals to obtain the personal data of other individuals and that the council would need a “clear and specific legal basis” to release the recordings.

However, when it later asked for further clarification from the Data Protection Commission, the DPC said it was not in position to provide any comment on decisions of the Information Commissioner.

Data requests

In emails to an information-access consultant – who provides training to public bodies on dealing with data requests – the council said it was hard to understand the decision.

An email said: “It’s very unlikely that the council will appeal the decision to the High Court, but it is a case that we’ll forward to [the central government policy unit on Freedom of Information], especially in the context of the current review of the FoI legislation – there is an inherent inconsistency between GDPR/DP [data protection] and FoI.”

In response, the consultant wrote: “I discussed this with the team and to be honest, we’re as perplexed as you guys.

“Can I ask – if you were holding your normal public council meeting, would you have signs up saying that nobody should record it? I just wonder how you would normally conduct these meetings?”

The decision from the Information Commissioner had said because the meetings were held in public, nobody who attended could have any expectation they would be treated as confidential.

In addition, members of the public had not been allowed to speak at the meeting, meaning the only voices heard were those of councillors and officials.