Russell speech recording emailed across Glasgow

23rd November 2012 at 00:00
Ramsay's covert recording is `possible breach of Data Protection Act'

Former Stow College chair Kirk Ramsay shared his recording of a meeting of college officials with education secretary Michael Russell with fellow chairs across Glasgow, TESS has learned.

Mr Ramsay is understood to have emailed a transcript or an audio file of the recording to a number of other Glasgow college chairs, suggesting they could share it with their board members - potentially making it accessible to as many as 100 people.

Mr Ramsay resigned last week after what he described as an "unwarranted personal attack" on him by Michael Russell over his recording of the education secretary's speech to chairs and college principals without seeking prior consent. Mr Ramsay originally said he had made the recording "for my own use and for others who could not attend the meeting".

It has also emerged that Mr Ramsay's actions could be in breach of the Data Protection Act, as he attended the meeting in his capacity as leader of the college, not as a private individual.

While it would be "almost impossible" to prosecute such a case, Mr Ramsay's recording was "covert surveillance that has not been justified in any way", William Webster, director of the Centre for Research into Information, Surveillance and Privacy at the University of Stirling, told TESS.

If this had not been an apparent one-off, but had happened regularly, Mr Ramsay's actions would constitute "blanket surveillance on anyone in attendance, not just the minister", Professor Webster said.

"It sounds like there is no regard for the `data subject' and that the covert surveillance was targeted as well as indiscriminate and purposeful.

"If he was doing it regularly, then it is part of his working practice, and the college's working practice, and as such it should be registered with the Information Commissioner's Office as a data process," he added.

In an appearance on the BBC's Newsnight Scotland programme last week, Mr Ramsay said that because he suffers from tinnitus, he sometimes struggled to hear what was being said in big auditoriums, and using his smartpen to record proceedings had been a big help. "In big meetings and big speeches, I would do that," he said.

Whether it was a recording or a transcript that was distributed makes no difference from a data protection perspective, Professor Webster said. "If anything, the transcript shows that the surveillance was premeditated and organised."

However, Professor Webster said the Data Protection Act was "sometimes difficult to enforce", especially in the case of covert surveillance of individuals.

Minister's apology

Michael Russell has apologised to the Scottish Parliament for using incorrect figures on college funding. His apology came only days after first minister Alex Salmond also tendered a public apology in the chamber for using the same statistics.

Scottish Liberal Democrat education spokesman Liam McArthur said Mr Russell now had to demonstrate his willingness to respond positively to the concerns raised by the college sector.

"As well as looking again at his funding cuts, Mr Russell should reconsider the pace at which he is requiring colleges to merge, cut staff and remove courses. If not, today's apology will strike many as hollow."

Labour education spokesman Hugh Henry called on parliament to ensure Mr Russell would not be given powers to hire and fire college chairs and board members.

Mr Russell came under fire last week after allegations that he had put pressure on the chair of Stow College to resign. Opposition MSPs serving on the education committee have called for an enquiry into the issue.

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