The Information Commissioner Richard Thomas hit out at companies and services for hiding behind the "smokescreen" of the Data Protection Act (DPA) and engaging in practices that "no reasonable person would ever find acceptable" last week.
He was responding to criticism of the data protection regime in the wake of controversies over the Soham murder trial and the deaths of two South London pensioners whose gas had been cut off.
"We've had some very unfair criticism, but now I feel that it's very important to set the record straight," Thomas, the former head of public policy at Clifford Chance, told The Lawyer in an interview, which will be run next week (26 January). He revealed that he subscribed to the Court of Appeal view that the 1998 act, as expressed last year, was a "cumbersome and inelegant piece of legislation". In fact, he was more dismissive, describing it as "convoluted and stuffed full of jargon".
However, Thomas was concerned that the legislation's positive role in resisting the powers of "a surveillance society" might becomes lost in the midst of all the bad press. "In particular, I want to make sure that no one loses sight of the fundamental importance of privacy and safeguarding personal information," he said. "People's lives can be seriously damaged when inaccurate information is used or falls into the wrong hands, or when there's a lack of security. I was very concerned that the benefits of data protection were being sidelined, but we now feel we're getting widespread recognition as to its benefits."
He was speaking on the day after Sir Michael Bichard opened his inquiry into how Huntley got his job with children despite having been accused of nine sex crimes, including four rapes and the indecent assault of an 11-year-old girl. Consequently, he was limited in what he could say about the tragedy, but he did point out that the Association of Chief Police Officers has its own data protection code of practice, which was published with the approval of his office and came with a foreword by his predecessor Elizabeth France. Under the guidelines, information about alleged sex crimes can be retained by forces even if someone has not been convicted. The Information Commissioner was reported to be "astonished" when the chief constable for Humberside David Westwood claimed at the time that the legislation required forces to delete information about individuals that had not led to a conviction. "Frankly, we couldn't understand what the chief constable was saying," he said.
Thomas spoke about the other high-profile case concerning British Gas, where the legislation was blamed following a recent inquest into the deaths of George Bates and his wife Gertrude, who were both over 80. They were found dead at their home a matter of weeks after British Gas cut off their supply after the couple had failed to pay their £140 bill.
Harry Metcalfe, general manager of communications at British Gas, told the inquest that 10 attempts were made to contact the couple before the supply was switched off. He argued that, since the DPA was passed, the company was prohibited from passing information on to social services, as it was not allowed to disclose information on debt without the customer's consent.
As Thomas pointed out, British Gas was wrong and the point was conceded by the utility company after the inquest. "If big organisations want us to help them establish criteria, then so be it," Thomas said. "But the act simply requires 'fair processing'. Now, how could it possibly be fair to leave someone without any assistance when they've been disconnected?"