Freedom of Information: The supermodel and the right to family history

Information from the 1911 census will not be released in full until 2012. Robert Verkaik, Law Editor, examines a new ruling that grants limited disclosure to the public
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The Independent Online

Historians owe an unlikely debt of gratitude to Naomi Campbell after Richard Thomas, the Information Commissioner, relied on the supermodel's recent privacy battle to force the National Archives to release information from the 1911 census. The Campbell case was central to a decision this week which supported a member of public's bid to see the census entry for a house in Bottesford, Leicestershire.

The National Archives had blocked the request on the grounds that the information had been given to the census collector in confidence and, although the occupants were probably both dead, that confidence must be protected. If the decision had been allowed to stand, it would have greatly restricted the public's right to access valuable material held on the census.

Instead, Mr Thomas said that, under the House of Lords ruling in Campbell v Mirror Group Newspapers, in which the supermodel went to court to protect her right to privacy over pictures and information about her drug treatment, the law of confidence had been "reshaped" so that disclosure must not lead to a misuse of the information held in confidence.

Since the census details for 12 High Street, Bottesford, were already available through other public records, there would be no breach of confidence. In effect, all that the unnamed member of the public was seeking were names, occupations and relationships of the residents at the Bottesford address.

But, on 27 May 2005, he was advised by the National Archives that the requested information was exempt by virtue of section 41 of the Freedom of Information Act which protects information obtained from any other person or public authority where disclosure would constitute a breach of confidence actionable by that or any other person.

In relation to the requested information, the census schedule contains information relating to two individuals who were aged 10 and 43 at the time of the census schedule. This information comprises the names of the individuals, their relationship to the head of the family, age, occupation, marital status, birthplace and nationality. If still alive, these persons would now be aged 105 and 138 respectively.

The Information C o m issioner said the National Archives had confirmed to him that it is unlikely these persons are still alive but he was aware that the 1911 census captures a range of personal information, including that relating to an individual's health or "infirmity" which would be covered by the exemption. After seeing the schedule Mr Thomas confirmed that, in this particular case, information of that nature was not recorded for 12 High Street, Bottesford.

And in an important ruling, he said that he was not satisfied that an expectation of confidence wouldnormallyexistinrelationto less sensitive personal information, whose disclosure would not infringe any individual's privacy. But the Commissioner stressed that that his ruling must be confined to the circumstances relating to the requested information. "This is not - and cannot be - a decision that the entirety of the 1911 census must now be disclosed," said Mr Thomas. "Nor does it create any precedent in the sense that all other requests for specific information within the 1911 or other census schedules must succeed." In future, the National Archives must supply some information from the 1911 census in response to Freedom of Information (FOI) requests.