Government seeks to dispel ‘myths’ about use of the Data Protection Act

The Department of Constitutional Affairs and the information
commissioner have expressed concerns that public bodies are being
over-cautious in their interpretation of the Data Protection Act

Information commissioner Richard Thomas told the Bichard Inquiry
there was a perception that there is a “mystique” about data
protection, adding that “we have to work hard to dispel the myths”.

Thomas was speaking after David Westwood, chief constable of
Humberside Police, had blamed complying with the act for the
force’s decision to delete its records of previous sexual offence
allegations against Ian Huntley. However, Thomas expressed relief
that Westwood now accepted “neither the act nor my office were
responsible for the deletion of those records”.

Thomas said the act did not prevent individual items of information
being kept on file for some time in order to see a pattern emerge.

“Retention is a black and white issue. If you can no longer justify
the retention then at that point it should no longer be

He accepted there might be scope to keep sexual allegations on
record longer than others, with the reliability of the source and
quality of the information being key to decisions.

The DCA’s head of information rights Paul Boyle also told a
conference this week that misconceptions about the act had led many
social care professionals to assume it automatically prohibited
them from sharing client information.

He said the act allowed data sharing as long as actions were
carried out in the public interest and decisions took human rights
and common law into account.

“There is a mass of issues around data sharing -Êincluding
organisational and cultural barriers -Êand professionals try
and put it down to the act,” Boyle said. “Anything to do with
personal data will tend to be referred to lawyers and
understandably they will err on the side of caution.”

He said a lack of case law on applying the act meant councils still
needed to seek legal advice. But he called on lawyers to take a
more pragmatic approach rather than focusing on what was “safe” and

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