Whistleblowers: Policy broke data act

July 4, 2003

Bath University has been told to change its procedures for destroying student records after the information commissioner ruled that its policy breached the legally enshrined principles of "fairness and adequacy".

The information commissioner's compliance officer, Andrew Damms, concluded after an investigation this week that although the university adhered to its document retention policy when it destroyed its file on complaints by PhD student Neil McDougall, the policy itself does not comply with the Data Protection Act. This is because it allows documents to be destroyed before a student might have exhausted all his avenues for complaint.

In a letter to Mr McDougall, who complained that his records had been destroyed unfairly, Mr Damms says: "I have indicated to the university that we intend to take the record retention policy issue forward as a compliance issue. We are of the view that a retention policy regarding records of grievance that seemingly curtails an individual's ability to appeal fails to meet the requirements of the Data Protection principles on grounds of adequacy - the period of retention does not appear to be adequate - and fairness."

The university generally keeps records for six years, but its record retention policies allow for the destruction of documents relating to a student's grievance or complaint as soon as the university's visitor - its final arbiter of complaints - has made a ruling, even if it comes before the six-year period is up.

But Mr McDougall successfully argued that this left no room for further representations or a formal appeal to the visitor or further legal challenge.

Mr Damms says: "If put into practice, it would appear that this retention policy in particular circumstances may preclude an individual from challenging such a decision through appropriate channels."

A spokesman for Bath said the information commissioner was satisfied that the university had destroyed the records in accordance with its records management policy.

"As we have indicated to Mr Damms, the university is in the process of undertaking a review of record-keeping policies, and his comments will be taken into consideration as part of that process."


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