Government to review privacy Act

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The Independent Online

A law intended to protect privacy is to be reviewed after it was blamed for the deaths of two pensioners whose gas was cut off and for making the hunt for the Soham murderer more difficult.

John Reid, the Health Secretary, said a fresh look at the Data Protection Act was needed because it had been designed "to protect people's privacy ... not put their lives in danger".

Mr Reid said the Act should not be used to excuse failures on the part of private firms, such as British Gas, or public agencies. A review would be conducted to see if the law's terms could be clarified to prevent problems. "If there are data protection regulations that prevent people's lives being saved there's obviously something wrong," Mr Reid said.

Lord Filkin, minister at the Department of Constitutional Affairs, said that he would consult the Information Commissioner on whether "more guidance" should be given about the law's implementation.

An inquest at Westminster coroner's court heard on Monday that George and Gertrude Bates, aged 89 and 86, had been found dead at their home in Tooting, south London, in October, 13 weeks after British Gas cut off their supply. The company said it had been unable to tell social services of the disconnection because the Data Protection Act prevented the disclosure of such information without consent.

Dr Paul Knapman, the coroner, said he would bring the "very tragic story" to the attention of the Information Commissioner, who is responsible for enforcing the Act. British Gas told the inquest that it could have made an exception to the Act. But it said the disconnection - because of an unpaid bill of £140 - had happened in August, so staff did not think there was a need to inform social services of a potential risk.

Gordon Lishman, the director general of Age Concern, said: "Older people are as entitled to their privacy and data protection as anyone else, but the law must be re-addressed to ensure this kind of situation doesn't happen again."

David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, has ordered a review of the way in which police forces retain, share and destroy data arising from their investigations. Humberside Police had deleted intelligence reports that would have identified the Soham murderer Ian Huntley as having a history of sexual violence and an obsession with underage girls. The force said it had interpreted the Act to mean that data about inconclusive investigations could not be retained.