Information Commissioner to Clarify Data Protection Guidelines

21 January 2004

Britain's Data Protection Act has been used as a "smokescreen" for the mistakes of bureaucrats and civil servants, accused Information Commission boss Richard Thomas in Tuesday's Financial Times.

He was referring to recent high profile cases in which a police force and a consumer gas supplier, among others, claimed the act's requirements prevented them from taking essential commonsense actions with lifesaving implications.

Said Thomas: "I am determined to get across the message that data protection is there for the protection of individuals and it makes me very cross when people use it as a false excuse -- whether that is deliberate or through laziness or excessive fear, I don't know."

“It is ridiculous that organisations should hide behind data protection as a smokescreen for practices which no reasonable person would ever find acceptable."

The greatest public outrage was caused by Humberside Police force which erroneously claimed that the act prevented it from retaining on file previous allegations of sexual assault on children by a recently convicted child-murderer.

Yet more fury was triggered when British Gas cited the act as its (inaccurate) excuse for not informing social services it had disconnected the supply to two elderly pensioners who subsequently died of hypothermia.

And in yet another instance of bureaucratic torpidity, a pharmacist whose shop had been raided was told the act prevented him from using his confidential prescription records to aid a police investigation.

Thomas now aims to provide clearer guidance on how companies -- especially smaller businesses -- should interpret the act and in what circumstances citizens' personal information can be divulged. He also intends to beef-up the Commission's telephone helpline.

"The initiatives I have announced today will help organisations to comply with data protection principles in sensible ways and stop anyone ever again using data protection as a false excuse for their own short-comings."

Commissioner Thomas says his aim is to "cut through the crap and get to the essentials". He once wrote a book entitled Plain English for Lawyers.

Data sourced from multiple origins; additional content by WARC staff