Government FOI Act chief trails Data Act 'reform'
By John Lettice
Published Monday 18th October 2004 17:39 GMT
Government constitutional affairs secretary Lord Falconer has described the
Data Protection Act as "almost incomprehensible" and says that there are
"medium term" plans to simplify the Act and its treatment of personal
information. The Act was brought in in 1998 by the then-new Blair
government, but its near incomprehensibility seems not to have been a major
issue at the time.
Today, the Information Commissioner's Office issued a statement saying it
was unaware of any specific government plans, but that it would welcome any
steps to to make it simpler to understand. A spokeswoman told The Register
that describing it as almost incomprehensible was perhaps "putting it a bit
Although Falconer, who was speaking in an interview with Patrick Wintour of
The Guardian, stressed the need to make the Act easier to understand, the
government has repeatedly indicated that current legislation covering
personal information and the sharing of data between government departments
is out of date, and needs reform. Falconer says: "There are constant
difficulties about what information you are allowed to share between
departments", but do these difficulties arise because departments do not
understand what they are allowed to share, or because they are not allowed
to share what they want to share?
It's clearly a bit of both, but government IT schemes in the works (not
least, the national identity scheme) will result in a far higher level of
inter-departmental data sharing. The Information Commissioner's response
(available here) to the identity scheme draft bill says the draft has
numerous areas where it is inconsistent with the Act's data protection
principles. One might therefore speculate that at least some of these
inconsistencies could be ironed out by a 'simplification' of the DPA.
Prior to the publication of any proposed changes the ICO clearly cannot
comment on Falconer's reform plans, however the spokeswoman said it would
welcome efforts to clarify the position on data sharing. She also pointed
out that in many cases restrictions on sharing in the DPA are supported by
similar restrictions in other legislation, for example with reference to
personal financial data.
The comprehension issue with the DPA came to the fore in the wake of the
Soham murders, where a misinterpretation of the Act led to police erasing
data on killer Ian Huntley. And last year, after an elderly couple whose gas
had been cut off were found dead, British Gas claimed that the DPA had
stopped it passing on information of the disconnection to social services.
British Gas too was entirely wrong, but the "incomprehensible" DPA does seem
to serve as a handy whipping-boy for organisations whose data protection
some senses save organisations money. Generally, it's cheaper to have a
wider ranging blanket policy than to have to consider whether or not a
particular record should be retained, or whether there is good reason for it
to be passed to another authority. So although organisations may have some
justifications for complaining about the Act, these may not be quite as
extensive as they would have us believe.
The widely perceived and supported need for reform, however, does give the
government the opportunity to introduce modifications at the same time.
Falconer himself, a former flatmate of Tony Blair's, became a peer shortly
after Blair took power in 1997, and was solicitor general prior to moving to
the Cabinet Office in 1998, the year the DPA came in. In addition to DPA
reform, the implementation of the Freedom of Information Act from January is
also in his safe hands.
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