Behind the headlines

The Data Protection Act 1998 was designed to protect people
against any improper use of personal information But two recent
headline stories – the Soham murders and the death of two older
people who had not paid a gas bill – have raised questions as to
whether the legislation is fundamentally flawed or being
misinterpreted by those using it. Home secretary David Blunkett has
called for an inquiry into the way in which police handled
information on allegations against Ian Huntley prior to the
murders. Humberside police claimed the act obliged the force to
delete computer records of unproven allegations after 28 days. In
the second case an 89-year-old south London man died of hypothermia
and his 86-year-old wife suffered a heart attack after their gas
was cut off for non-payment. British Gas stated that in the past it
would notify social services of disconnections of vulnerable
clients. But he claimed that restrictions under the Data Protection
Act meant that this could now only happen when the disconnection
took place without the customer’s consent.   

Bill Badham, development officer, National Youth

“My hunch is that the law is not to blame but the people who make
judgments like those in these two cases could well be. Yet, current
political fashion will probably risk unnecessary encroachment on
our civil liberties under the guise of promoting public protection.
As the massive, mysterious billboard message that appeared in
Washington DC reminds us: ‘Read Orwell’.”

Karen Squillino, children’s service manager,

“There have certainly been failings in the sharing and processing
of information concerning Huntley and his background. But one can
not lay blame at the door of the Data Protection Act and its
misinterpretation. From my understanding of the case, information
was collated and shared in accordance with the eight principles of
the act. As I see it the act falls short where there are child
protection concerns. Decisions need to be made as to how “soft”
information is used and shared in such cases, bearing in mind that
human rights legislation has to be upheld. Here we have another
example of different acts failing to work in harmony.”

Martin Green, chief executive, Counsel and

“These terrible cases have brought into sharp focus the ignorance
that exists about the Data Protection Act. The government must take
some responsibility for the fact that there are just too many sets
of complex laws and regulations, many of which contradict each
other, and not enough support and guidance on how to balance the
contradictions. The sensationalist reporting of both these cases in
the media is also very unhelpful and does not lead to a rational
debate on how to improve the situation.”

Felicity Collier, chief executive, Baaf Adoption and

“These cases have certainly exposed flaws in the interpretation of
the act. The act does not say you should never share information,
but rather you should share it and store it appropriately. At first
sight the police in the Soham case did neither – they wiped the
computer copies but kept hard copies which were too difficult to
access in a useful timescale.”

Julia Ross, social services director, London Borough of
Barking and Dagenham

“The dilemma of how to protect the good citizen from a big brother
state without helping alleged paedophiles – or over-officious gas
personnel come to that – is an enduring one. The gas company’s
argument doesn’t wash. It would have been common sense surely to
have notified social services – it was clear that nobody was being
accused of anything. Soham is harder because one arrest or one
suspicion that goes nowhere could besmirch someone’s record. It’s
all a matter of how often it happens. Why not ‘three strikes and
you’re in’? Anyone who has three accusations and starts to be a
worry to the professionals, should stay on the record and be
circulated because they may well be a danger to others”.

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