Public officials’ names must usually be released in response to requests under the Freedom of Information Act, a new ruling by Information Commissioner suggests.

The independent watchdog, who has been criticised for making few significant rulings on FOI appeals so far, ruled that Calderdale Council had innappropriately applied the “personal information” exemption in the FOIA when it refused to disclose the names of council officials who went on a trip to Australia in 2003.

Decision Notice FS50068973, which was issued on 24 November, said that while the names constituted personal data, disclosing them would not be a violation of the Data Protection Act:

The Commissioner has taken the view that the request for these employees’ names is a request for professional personal information. It specifically relates to their employment and their duties in carrying out that employment. Secondly, whilst he is mindful of the fact that the employees have not given their consent to disclosure or been informed disclosure would take place, he has taken into account the public nature of their role. The nature of their role and the task they undertook means that they should expect to be the subject to some public scrutiny. Whilst appreciating the council’s view that they do not consider these employees senior enough to justify the disclosure of their names, seniority is not necessarily the only factor to consider — the nature of their role, the extent of public money incurred in carrying out that role and indeed the level of responsibility they were given by the council to carry out this particular task should also be taken into account.

The Commissioner has also considered the Council’s arguments as to the effect disclosure would have on these employees and in particular the negative media attention that may be directed at them. However the Commissioner is not persuaded this argument merits withholding the names of the Officers. The fact they were carrying out their official duties has a significant bearing on this.

One of the biggest irritations journalists have faced using the year-old Freedom of Information Act is public bodies’ habit of routinely blacking out all the names of officials that appear in a document — a practice which undermines the law’s very purpose of enhancing officials’ accountability.

This practice has become commonplace despite long-standing guidance from the Information Commissioners’ Office that the names of officials acting in their official capacity should be disclosed in many circumstances (PDF). Now the principles outlined in that guidance leaflet have been applied to a ruling to force a public body to reveal information.