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  • GM crop mix-up site to stay secret

    Posted on June 11th, 2010 admin No comments
    GM foods does have something of an image problem

    GM foods do have something of an image problem

    In 2008 at a farm somewhere in Somerset a GM modified strain of rapeseed was accidentally sown by a farmer alongside a normal strain of the plant.

    The concern was that the GM variety – or the Frankenstein food as we journalists enjoy calling it – had been modified so that it was resistant to weed killers.

    Why scientists would want to develop a plant that can’t be controlled with weed killers is beyond me, it’s a little like deliberately developing a strain of disease that can’t be killed with medicine, and we call that germ warfare!

    Anyhow news of this “accidental spillage” as it is called leaked out and somebody asked DEFRA for the grid reference of where it had happened.

    Now on the face of it this didn’t seem an unreasonable request to me. If the food chain is being put at risk by cross pollination with a freaky science strain of plant which can’t be killed by a good dose of RoundUp I think we should be told.

    The request for the location was made to the Department for Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) under the Environmental Information Regulations.

    But it was rejected on the basis that disclosure would be a breach of the farmer’s rights under the Data Protection Act and therefore under Section 13(1) of the EIRs.

    DEFRA had revealed the incident took place in the parliamentary constituency of Somerset and Frome, which covers 900 square miles.

    The Commissioner said that he was minded to rule it should be further refined to the outbound section of the postcode (the first half), which covers an area of about 18 square kilometres.

    But this potential compromise agreement was not enough for the applicant who wanted the full grid reference, which it was said can be more detailed than a full postcode and which could easily lead to the identity of the farmer.

    The Commissioner was told the farmer thought he was carrying out trials on what he believed to be conventional rapeseed and was later told the seed was contaminated with a GM version.

    He was asked by DEFRA if he was prepared to be identified and unsurprisingly he said he’d rather not as it could affect the price of his farm and his reputation.

    So unless this case goes on to the Tribunal we shall never know where this incident took place as the Commissioner ruled the grid reference should not be disclosed [FER0260420]. But if I were a journalist in Somerset I’d be on the lookout for any weird botanical happenings down in the land of the scrumpy drinkers – and I’d like to know if cider sales are falling in Wilmslow.

    Anti GM activists on an undercover operation

    Anti GM activists on an undercover operation

  • What became of the drink-drive policemen?

    Posted on August 12th, 2009 admin 1 comment
    Should police stick with coffee and doughnuts?

    Should police stick with coffee and doughnuts?

    The Scottish Information Commissioner Kevin Dunion has issued an interesting decision notice which could provide scope for a more relaxed interpretation of S.40(Personal Information) south of the border.

    The case in question relates to the results of disciplinary hearings held on police officers found guilty of drink-driving.

    Dumfries and Galloway Police told Guardian reporter Ian Cobain how many officers were convicted but refused to state what had then happened to them. The police force said the disciplinary hearing information was covered by S.38 of the Freedom of Information Scotland Act – the rough equivalent of S.40 in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

    The police force admitted two officers had been convicted of drink-driving but refused to state what had become of them. However, following an internal appeal the police stated that neither officer now worked for them – but didn’t state how they came to have left the force.

    As a matter of contrast between the systems north and south of the border it is interesting to note that the original question was sent on February 1, 2008 and the Scottish Information Commissioner was already in contact with Dumfries and Galloway Police Force on March 18.

    In summary Dumfries and Galloway Police said the release of the information would be a breach of the first Data Protection principle, there was no ‘legitimate interest’ under the act and that officers had a right to privacy under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights. It also stated that it was common knowledge within the force that these two officers had been the subject of misconduct hearings and if the information was released people would know exactly what had happened to them.

    The Commissioner accepted that the information was ‘personal data’ under the terms of the Data Protection Act but he also accepted that Mr Cobain had a ‘legitimate interest’ in obtaining the information.

    The reporter had argued the offence of drink-driving was a serious crime and guidance in England stated that convicted officers should be dismissed while in Scotland the policy was not as clear cut.

    The Commissioner then stated how he had to conduct a balancing exercise to see if  the “legitimate interests of Mr Cobain outweigh those of the police officers” and if so the information of what became of the police officers could be disclosed without breaching the first data protection principle.

    In summary he said: “The Commissioner accepts the police officers may have had a certain expectation that the outcome of the disciplinary hearing would not be disclosed. Indeed, he accepts that it is uncommon for the outcome of disciplinary hearings to be disclosed. However, given the special role which police officers play in society, and the seriousness of the offence, the Commissioner considers that in this case the rights and freedoms or legitimate interests of the officers involved are outweighed by the legitimate interests of Mr Cobain.”

    Because disclosure would not be a breach of the Data Protection Act the information was not covered by S.38 of FOISA.

    We have seen few decisions where the protection afforded an individual under the Data Protection Act can be waived so this has important ramifications. High profile public servants have had to come to terms with the fact their salaries will become public knowledge now if they fall out of line they can no longer expect a complete blanket ban on how they were dealt with.

    The decision notice can be seen here [link] and if you are interested in the fate of the two officers I have asked the question here [link].