Dartington Hall Trust and the dodgy dossier

In their first response to complaints submitted, the Information Commission Office (ICO) has ruled that Dartington Hall Trust violated data protection laws in their creation of a list of campaigners.

Nearly a year ago now, the BBC and then the Times reported on a ‘Black List’ that Dartington Hall Trust (DHT) had created of people from a group called ‘Save Dartington’. DHT clearly believed that Save Dartington members were critical of the Hall and therefore saw them as opponents.

People who found themselves on the list appealed firstly to DHT and then to the ICO. It’s taken a long time for the case to be handled, but now the verdict from the ICO is in and it’s damning for Dartington Hall Trust.

‘Save Dartington’ had been set up by local residents to discuss the future of DHT after the Trust had announced their financial predicament and plans to sack staff and sell land for housing. It was a Facebook page at first, intended to share information and ideas; over a thousand people joined the group in its first week. People wanted to help, they wanted information and they wanted to complain, as one might with any Facebook page. At this stage it was not a campaign group, but DHT seemed to have concerns and someone (assumed to be a member of the executive) decided to compile a list of active Facebook members to – by Dartington’s own explanation – inform those trustees attending meetings with members of the group.

There are three main problems with this, as the ICO has recognised:

Firstly, the very act of putting people on a list defined them as members of an organisation that DHT found problematic. At the point the list was made, members of the Facebook group consisted of interested staff members, Dartington Hall members, alumni, local residents, employees, collaborators etc. Their inclusion on the list defined them as being in opposition to the Trust, which could therefore affect their relationship with the Trust. The list seems to have been created by taking the names of anyone who had commented on the page, so people who had discussed waste bins, had asked about art classes, or wanted to connect with other alumni of Dartington school, as well as those calling for accountability had all been included, then collated with personal information attached. 

Secondly, the information collected on these people and contained in the list was not just taken from Facebbook profiles but – illegally as it turns out – also from DHT membership forms and some public realm sources (though we do not have information on which these were).

Jonathan Cooper, a Dartington alumnus, described his disquiet with the situation,

“DHT’s tactics on collecting information on those they considered to be protesting against them is deeply troubling. It seems designed to have a chilling effect on the right to protest.” He continued, “Dartington should have been engaging with Save Dartington and addressing their concerns. Instead, they devoted their energies to finding out personal information about those who they consider opposed them and then circulating this information across the Dartington Hall estate. I am not really involved with Save Dartington and even I was made aware of the list. I was shocked to see the number of people on it and the information that it contained. Why would DHT want to compile a list which included people’s political affiliations such as their membership of XR? Sinister is the only word to describe it.”

A member who found their name on the list, but wants to remain anonymous told me,

“You don’t give your personal details when joining an organisation expecting that information to later be used for other purposes, especially when those purposes are to highlight you as potentially problematic. The information included personal details like where people educated their children, what organisations they were members of their jobs and the areas they lived in. That’s a serious breach of trust.”

Thirdly, the list was then made accessible to staff. The list was attached to a newsletter which was sent to all staff personnel on an internal server and therefore staff who opened it saw the names and details of more than 20 people, several of whom were their colleagues. The inclusion of staff members and employees on that list meant that this could have caused real issues for them at work and professionally. They had been ‘outed’ as members of a group that DHT had decided was hostile.

When the list was first discovered in February 2020, the Trust was informed and asked for comment and redress; unfortunately, they took no meaningful action. Therefore, people who had been put on the blacklist had no choice but to appeal to the ICO. The first case was successful in establishing that DHT had unlawfully processed their data. Other cases will follow.

Jonathan Cooper says,

“DHT has handled this matter in a cavalier and disrespectful manner from the start. As soon as the Trust was made aware that there was a potential breach of data protection law, the Trust should have contacted all those affected and referred the Trust to the ICO, for the ICO to make a determination on what had occurred. Individuals should not have been forced to bring their cases to the ICO. The Trust should have made a meaningful apology to all affected and not just those on the list. That apology should have included explaining what measures the Trust was taking to mitigate any harm caused and to make sure such a breach can’t happen again. None of that happened. In effect the Trust treated those who were upset by their inclusion on the list as a nuisance, thus compounding the harm caused. The Trust has consistently tried to minimise and play down the seriousness of their actions.

We’ve now had the first case resolved by the ICO. In that case the ICO held that sensitive as well as personal information was unlawfully processed. That’s really serious. Apparently, the Trust has made a general apology, but they haven’t apologised to the people involved. The Trust has unlawfully violated the most protected data protection rights. Their lack of action in response suggests that they don’t think this matters. It does matter. Those responsible for the Trust need to be held to account. A very serious human rights violation has occurred. Those in power must answer for it. The victims need appropriate recompense.” 

People on the list that I have talked to (and who mostly want to remain anonymous for obvious reasons) have said things like, ‘I feel completely bullied’, ‘this just shows what the Trust is like, keeping tabs like this smacks of the paranoia that dictatorships normally show’. Several people on the list have spoken of the discomfort they now feel when visiting the Estate as they feel exposed. The staff members who first showed the list to the core team behind ‘Save Dartington’ speak of their conviction that if they were found out, they would be sacked. Ben Piper, now mayor of neighbouring Totnes, who was also included on the list, speaks of his upset that Dartington would act more like a predatory corporation than a place working for change. “This shows” he said “real paranoia at the heart of Dartington”

It’s all very concerning and highlights, of course, the reason why Save Dartington was set up in the first place. Places like Dartington that trade on their past reputation as ground-breaking artistic and progressive centres should be as transparent and open as possible. You can’t project and sell yourself to the wider world as the epicentre of social justice research and act like this behind the scenes.

For decades now, Dartington has reflected and led societal change. Maybe it still does. Maybe Dartington is still a microcosm of what is happening in the wider world, where what goes on behind closed doors is rarely reflected in what is said or done – and how depressing that is. There are still brilliant, dedicated and wonderful people working at Dartington and they need supporting and encouraging, but that shouldn’t stop those at the heart being held accountable, indeed it is essential that they should be. Local campaigners are determined that Dartington will emerge the bright beacon it could and should be, and we look forward to changes being made to make the Trust more accountable and trustworthy. As the person who received the first ICO ruling said, “We need to be able to trust the Trust”.