Failure to protect

Is it time to scrap the Data Protection Act 1998 and start again?
The flaws and inadequacies in this piece of legislation have
recently been thrown into sharp relief by the murders of Holly
Wells and Jessica Chapman in Soham in 2002 and the death of two
pensioners in London recently.

Humberside Police and British Gas have tried to shield themselves
from criticism using the Data Protection Act. Humberside Police
destroyed vital information on Ian Huntley that, if shared, could
have prevented the girls’ deaths. British Gas failed to notify
social services that they had cut off the gas supply to a couple in
their eighties for non-payment of a £140 bill. Both pensioners
were later found dead, one of hypothermia, one of heart

In both instances, the suggestion that the DPA was at fault has
been rejected by the information commissioner Richard Thomas, whose
job it is to oversee the implementation and interpretation of the
act. Essentially, he argues that “the act requires the exercise of
judgement” and that in these cases, the judgement was wrong.

But the fact that these organisations could get it so seriously
wrong with such tragic consequences is a symptom of a badly worded,
ill-conceived piece of legislation which simply leaves too much to
the discretion of individual authorities. Things have moved on and,
though the act is relatively recent, there is already a strong case
for revisiting the concept of data protection.

Consider the government’s new identification, referral and tracking
initiative, which has already ground to a halt in some pilot
authorities because it has proved impossible to get social
services, health and police authorities to agree on what
information is “shareable” under the act, and what is not.

True, home secretary David Blunkettt has just launched a review of
the DPA’s implementation. And education secretary Charles Clarke
has promised to sort out the problems it creates in children’s
services with the publication of the new Children Bill, expected in
February. But tinkering around the edges is not what is needed. It
is to be hoped that one of them will have the courage to repeal the
act and try again.

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