Crime records 'too inaccurate' to vet job-hunters

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The Independent Online

Plans to allow companies to vet their would-be employees using information from the Police National Computer (PNC) could be blocked by the watchdog on data privacy because too much of it is inaccurate.

Elizabeth France, the information commissioner, has warned the Home Office that current records contain too many errors and she has set an autumn deadline for the mistakes to be corrected.

Otherwise, she said, she would use her powers under the Data Protection Act 1991 to prevent the PNC being used to vet those who are applying for jobs, for example, working with children, on the basis that the current data is so inaccurate it "may be unfit for the purpose".

Britons are increasingly concerned at the volume of data being stored about them by the Government and commercial companies. According to the information commissioner's annual report, published today, the concern is greater among women and those aged over 45.

The report also found that the workload of the information commissioner's office has risen four-fold since 1991-92, with 8,875 complaints of alleged breaches of data protection.

The introduction of "Criminal Records Certificates", which will let employers ask the police for details of relevant criminal records for anyone applying for certain jobs, is certain to cause more work and, perhaps, more problems.

The Home Office faces the task of cleaning up the 400 gigabyte (400,000 megabyte) database – containing more than five million criminal records, including convictions, aliases, and last known addresses, as well as the vehicle database.

The Metropolitan Police makes an audit of the PNC's data every two years; the last one, done between January and April 1999, found errors in 86 per cent of details – up from 52 per cent in 1997 – ranging from simply having the wrong colour of someone's eyes to omitting a criminal conviction. Last year, a survey by the chief inspector of constabulary found an error rate of between 15 and 65 per cent, and criticised "substantial" delays in bringing records up to date.

"We could use our enforcement powers under the Act to prevent this use for so-called Criminal Records Certificates," Ms France said. "I have written to the Lord Chancellor about this and told Jack Straw when he was Home Secretary about my concerns. The big issue is data quality.

"I'm banging the drum about this because these big, old systems are being stretched beyond their limits. The Data Protection Act requires that data should be accurate and up-to-date. When the Home Secretary says he's going to take that data for new purposes, we have to ask if that data meets the requirements."

Roger Bingham, of the civil rights group Liberty, said: "It's hugely important that the data should be accurate. You wouldn't want crucial convictions to be missed, nor to be saddled with inaccurate records."

He said that he had "real concerns" over the proposals to produce Criminal Records Certificates, which might include hearsay information about people. "It's not clear whether you will have any opportunity to challenge that, and it could be really damaging."

A spokesman for the Metropolitan Police said: "If an inaccurate piece of data is brought to our attention, we will go back to the court records and check it directly."

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