Soham inquiry prompts data protection act review

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The Independent Online

New guidelines on the Data Protection Act are being drawn up to ensure police forces store and use information on suspects properly, it emerged today.

The plan was published by the Home Office as part of evidence submitted to the Bichard Inquiry into how Soham murderer Ian Huntley got a job as a school caretaker despite facing previous accusations of rape and indecent assault.

After Huntley was convicted of the murders of Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman at the Old Bailey in December last year, Humberside Chief Constable David Westwood said that the Data Protection Act, as his force then understood it, had prevented officers from keeping details of a string of sex allegations against Huntley in the Grimsby area.

They included four allegations of rape and one of indecent assault on an 11-year-old girl, yet he was still able to get a job as caretaker at Soham Village College when he moved to Cambridgeshire.

Senior Humberside officers revealed they had adopted a policy of "weeding" out or deleting Huntley's records because they thought they were required to do so by the Act, a misunderstanding described by one MP as "catastrophic".

Humberside Police said data protection laws meant they had to delete computer records of sex allegations against Huntley, convicted in December last year of the murders of Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman.

In a memorandum to the inquiry, published on its website this morning, the Home Office said: "The Huntley case has suggested the need for additional, and clearer, guidance to forces on the implications of the Data Protection Act on the retention and use of criminal conviction and local intelligence information.

"To this end it is proposed to establish a working group to review the Association of Chief Police Officers' code of practice on data protection."

The working group will be chaired by the Home Office and will include representatives from the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) and the Department for Constitutional Affairs.

Sir Michael Bichard's views will be sought before it is circulated to police forces, the memo said.

The inquiry also published information received from other groups including the Association of Police Authorities, the Audit Commission, the Department of Constitutional Affairs, Department of Health, Department for Education and Skills, Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary, the Law Society, civil rights group Liberty, the Police Federation, the National Union of Teachers and the NSPCC.

Information has also been received from Humberside Police, Cambridgeshire Police and the ACPO but that has not yet been published.

The victims' families have not been asked to submit information and have not done so.

The organisations requested to provide written information were asked to give chronological details of any contacts with Huntley.

The inquiry also asked them for a general statement on their policy on using and retaining information relating to alleged offenders.

They have also been asked for suggestions on how to handle such information in future.

Counsel to the inquiry James Eadie will make a lengthy opening statement, which is expected to last a day, on February 26 and live evidence will begin on March 1.

The inquiry will hear around seven days of live evidence which is expected to focus on the specific events in Humberside and Cambridgeshire.