King’s College London fight for pay secrecy costs £250,000

Legal battle overturned landmark ruling that may have led to routine disclosure of senior staff salaries

May 12, 2016
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A UK university has spent almost £250,000 on its three-year legal battle to prevent the salaries of high-earning professors and senior managers from being published, it has emerged.

King’s College London ran up the substantial legal bills after its decision not to disclose the salaries and job titles of 125 staff earning £100,000 or more – as requested via the Freedom of Information Act – was referred to the Information Commissioner’s Office in 2013.

The regulator, which adjudicates on data protection, privacy and freedom of information matters, initially ruled that King’s was wrong to refuse the request, citing a “legitimate public interest in transparency and openness” given the large amounts of public money that it received.

King’s successfully overturned the July 2014 ruling later that year after the appeal court judge Anisa Dhanji agreed that there was a “real and significant risk of prejudice to its commercial interests” if the information about academic staff was published.

However, Ms Dhanji did not believe that some professional support staff who earned more than £100,000 a year should also be exempt from FoI requests.

Salaries for eight staff were eventually released last month, of whom the university’s head of administration and college secretary was the highest paid at between £180,000 and £190,000 a year.

Having to publish such a small subset of salary data marks a victory for the university given that there are now 260 staff at King’s who are paid more than £100,000 a year, according to their latest accounts.

But the total cost of the university’s legal fight to prevent disclosure has run to almost £250,000, Times Higher Education can reveal.

Figures obtained via an FoI request show that it has paid solicitors Mills & Reeve £150,307 since the initial request for salary data was made in 2013, while payments to Timothy Pitt-Payne QC came to £53,175.

Once expenses of £4,642 and VAT payments on the legal bills are included, the total cost of the legal case totals £249,750, THE has calculated.

Although the King’s appeal against the landmark case means that a US-style system of pay transparency, in which state universities reveal the salaries of all their higher-paid staff, will not proceed, universities will be required to disclose the total cost of their senior management team from next year under more stringent reporting guidelines.

A King’s spokeswoman said that the university had “pursued the appeal process over the last three years to protect the rights of our staff" and it had been "partially successful”.

“Vice-chancellors’ salaries are published in the annual financial accounts, and they are aware of this when they accept the position, but it hasn’t been the norm for universities to disclose the salaries of other senior staff,” she added, saying that salaries were “personal information and can be commercially sensitive”.

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