FOI Man reports on a Tribunal decision that could change the way that public authorities treat requests for salary information of senior officials.

A new decision from the First Tier Tribunal threatens to overturn conventional thinking on disclosure of salary information by public authorities. In the decision, which relates to NHS Surrey, the Tribunal upholds an appeal against the Information Commissioner’s decision which supported the right of the public body to provide salary information relating to their Chief Executive only within a £5,000 band.

The decision contradicts the Commissioner’s current guidance which promotes the £5k band approach. The key issue in cases like these is that of balancing the requirement for openness in FOI with the protection that the Data Protection Act gives to individual employees.

The Tribunal cannot see how expressing a salary as an exact figure is any more risky than expressing it within £5k bands. It agrees that even very senior public employees are entitled to a private life, but comments:

“The Tribunal simply cannot accept that anyone in such a role would feel the slightest distress, or consider that there has been any intrusion or that they would be prejudiced in any way by such information. From the perspective of the individual such information is essentially trivial; indeed, in other European societies, such information would be routinely available.”

When FOI first came into force, even publishing in £5k or £10k bands would have seemed radical, so this is just the latest development in the evolution of transparency around salaries. Secrecy around salaries has always seemed odd to me – after all most jobs are advertised with some indication of salary, and certainly if you can publish information within £5k, I can’t see what possible harm could result from publishing an exact salary in most cases. In my view a decision along these lines was inevitable at some point.

That doesn’t mean that there won’t be some resistance to disclosure of exact salaries of senior officials in the coming months. And there may well be circumstances in which it is justifiable. But I suspect that sooner or later this will become the accepted norm.