Decision to stop milestone birthday and wedding information challenged

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By Sam Whyte

 

THE UK’s Information Commissioner is challenging a decision by Scotland’s national archives to stop passing out details of milestone birthdays and weddings.

National Records for Scotland (NRS) said they would no longer give councils information about 100th birthdays and 60th wedding anniversaries because it breached the data protection act.

The information was used by  councils across Scotland to arrange special events for the individuals involved, such as a visit by the local Lord Provost or the delivery of flowers.

 

But the NRS’s decision to stop passing on the details has been condemned by the London-based Information Commissioner’s Office in a strongly-worded statement.

The commissioner, Christopher Graham, who deals with data protection across the UK, said: “We are surprised at suggestions that data protection legislation might prevent National Records of Scotland from informing local authorities about the upcoming anniversaries of residents.

“The Data Protection Act plays a very important role in protecting our personal information but ought not to be a barrier to sensible information sharing.

“Sometimes organisations misunderstand the law or simply use data protection as a duck out.

“However the law has not changed in this area and it is important that data protection legislation is not used as justification for withdrawing a long held tradition in the UK which many people continue to enjoy.

“We will be contacting the National Records of Scotland to address this apparent confusion.

The NRS’s change in policy was revealed after Fife couple Irvine and Louise Rae were confused when no councillor showed up to their diamond wedding celebrations.

The Raes raised a glass to their 60-year-anniversary nearly a month ago on September 6 – but had to wait more than a fortnight before a council representative showed up.

Mr Rae, 88, who fought at Dunkirk during the Second World War, said it was a “great pity” that the council was no longer informed of upcoming dates.

He said: “It annoyed Louise and I a bit that it was late. You’d think the council would be told. Sixty years is a long time.”

A friend of the couple then wrote to their local councillor Liberal Democrat Tim Brett asking why the elderly couple had not been acknowledged.

It was at this time that he discovered the NRS announced their refusal to share information.

Mr Brett said: “It is a very sad reflection on society that we deem congratulating people for reaching such impressive milestones ‘a breach of data protection’.

“It is completely over the top and I am quite upset about it. In my nine years as a councillor, I have only come across a handful of people who did not want a visit on their special day – most people really appreciate it.

“I just think it’s a great shame that some are missing out and I’m hoping common sense might come into this somewhere along the line.”

A spokeswoman for Age Concern Scotland said: “My view is that they are using this as an excuse to save money. If they can still send cards out from the Queen, then they must have the money somewhere.

“They have the funds for the Queen, so they surely have the funds to send out flowers and cards to other people celebrating their wedding anniversary.

“It all seems a bit over the top – it can’t possibly be data protection, it’s all about money cut backs.”

The NRS, who are responsible for Scotland’s archives, issued the notice to all local authorities saying it will no longer give out the information of up-and-coming anniversaries.

Helen Bunyan, a team leader at the NRS local organisation unit, wrote a letter to Fife Council that said the archive body would “no longer provide your office with details of special birthday or wedding anniversary celebrations notified to us by a third party.

“The reason for this instruction is that by providing this information we are in breach of the Data Protection Act.”

A National Records of Scotland spokesman added: “With regard to Buckingham Palace, the process of distributing anniversary cards provides a direct communication between the Monarch and her subjects.”

A spokesman for the National Records of Scotland issued a later statement apparently blaming the birthday ban on Buckingham Palace.

He said: “In line with Buckingham Palace’s request, National Records of Scotland no longer provides details of significant celebrations to Lord Lieutenants in local authorities.

“We would be happy to consider ways in which we could assist Lord Lieutenants to continue the unique Scottish tradition of local community celebrations of significant birthdays and anniversaries.”

A Buckingham Palace spokeswoman then suggested they may U-turn on the ban.

She said: “This practice of sharing information predates the data protection laws and we are now looking into the matter.”

 

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