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Friday, 01 August 2014

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Parents’ distress at Government files blunder

A couple have accused Government officials of incompetence after being sent private, “hurtful” information – about themselves.

Joyce Ferguson photo
Joyce Ferguson

Joyce and Ian Ferguson, of Glasson, near Port Carlisle, say they are devastated following the blunder.

They received papers from the Department of Education in the post containing confidential information about vulnerable children and references to what others had said about them, including that they had acted unreasonably.

But officials initially insisted they had simply sent information requested by the couple, which correctly blacked out confidential information.

Documents seen by The Cumberland News, however, proved otherwise. The department has now launched an investigation.

The mix-up came following a long-running dispute with their daughter’s former school over alleged bullying. They claimed staff at Bowness-on-Solway Primary School did not do enough to stop it.

The claims were investigated by the school, Cumbria County Council and the Department of Education and were found to be unsubstantiated.

Mr and Mrs Ferguson revealed how during the investigation they sent files of evidence outlining their side of the story to the Department of Education.

Despite repeatedly contacting the department, they heard nothing back for months and resorted to submitting a Freedom of Information request, which confirmed the files had been received.

Mr and Mrs Ferguson asked for their files to be returned but were stunned when they received the bundle of papers. As they pored over them they realised they had been sent information which the school had supplied to the department.

Mr Ferguson said: “The papers contained a lot of information about a lot of other children at the school, what other parents had said about us, and what the head teacher had said to others about us.

“There were names of children, details of their personal circumstances – many of whom are vulnerable.”

The couple now claim their complaint has not been investigated properly, as they believe Government officials never had their evidence in the first place.

“It’s as though one side of the table where our evidence should be was completely empty and never used and the other side was the information from the school lambasting us,” Mr Ferguson said.

“People in the village have stopped speaking to us, some have even turned their backs on us, but to get this through your door there in black and white was really damaging and hurtful, and very stressful.

“We still find it very hard to read through the papers and we feel as though we haven’t had a chance to put our point of view across because the Department of Education never looked at our side of the story.”

Mrs Ferguson added: “It just shows the incompetence of the department.”

A Department of Education spokesman said: "We take our responsibilities for managing personal data very seriously. We are aware of claims that information was inadvertently released.

“An internal investigation is already underway to find out what has happened and how. We will then decide what action, if any, needs to be taken. We will take all necessary steps to ensure that this does not happen again.”

Mr and Mrs Ferguson’s MP Tony Cunningham confirmed he was aware of their situation and said he would contact the Department of Education on their behalf if requested to do so.

Bowness-on-Solway School declined to comment.

The incident follows a series of blunders by Cumbria’s children’s services where the wrong people received confidential documents.

First, in May 2012, a man was sent a letter containing brief details of a child welfare meeting about a different case, and in September that year Stacey Brown also received private details about a teenage girl.

Also in May 2012 a woman was handed a file containing private information about a vulnerable child who was nothing to do with her.

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