Thousands of people whose personal data was illegally targeted by a private detective will not be informed, the Information Commissioner said yesterday – claiming his overstretched office does not have the resources to cope.
Christopher Graham said it "just isn't possible" to notify those who may have been affected by Steve Whittamore's activities, echoing the inaction that followed the police's 2003 Operation Motorman investigation into the widespread illegal access of personal data.
MPs and civil rights groups are expected to challenge Mr Graham's position, which he laid out at the Leveson Inquiry. Labour MP Denis MacShane, one of scores of phone-hacking victims who have settled their claims with News International, insisted he did not have the authority to make such a decision.
The former Foreign Office minister said: "Ordinary citizens should be given full access to information that has been obtained by organisations who have spied on their private lives. Mr Graham should understand that the climate of fear once generated by parts of Britain's press no longer exists."
A number of leading Conservative MPs told The Independent yesterday that they would shortly announce their opposition to the Information Commissioner's decision.
Mr Graham told the Inquiry that the documents held in the Motorman files were often "deeply obscure" and claimed it would be a "phenomenal undertaking" for the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) to notify all the potential victims.
In often heated exchanges with the inquiry's leading counsel, Robert Jay QC, Mr Graham said that his office would need to take on a "veritable army of people" and that there was currently "no smoke" to suggest serious wrongdoing. "All regulators have to pick their battles, prioritise their resources, and I just need some evidence of there being a problem before I divert resources to it," he said.
But Martin Moore, director of the Media Standards Trust, said Mr Graham may have to reverse his decision, pointing to next month's judicial review of the Metropolitan Police's decision not to inform all possible victims of phone hacking by the News of the World. "If the court finds that Scotland Yard should have notified more victims, it will put more obligation on the ICO to explain why it is not," Mr Moore said.
Documents obtained from the 2003 police raid on the offices of Whittamore during the Motorman investigation identified 17,000 requests for private information from British newspapers and magazines. The Leveson Inquiry has been told it would be "surprising" if all the requests were legal.
The scale of Whittamore's files involve many of the UK's national newspaper groups.
They include criminal records checks, vehicle registration checks, private addresses and other information "blags".
Phone hacking criminality has so far been confined to News International and the News of the World, but if civil actions concerning the illegal access of private information were brought using evidence from the ICO's files, many leading newspapers would find themselves in the dock.