British lobby groups lead attack on EU privacy proposals: Junk mail companies are misleading the public about a plan to protect sensitive data, writes Leonard Doyle

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A FAR-REACHING directive aimed at protecting the citizens of the European Union from the vast information-gathering capabilities of governments and marketing companies is being strenuously opposed by the British government with the backing of an unlikely alliance of Labour Party members and charities.

The draft EU law which would, for example, outlaw National Westminster Bank's policy of compiling information on the political affiliation and religious beliefs of its 6.5 million customers without their consent, is aimed at easing the flow of information across EU borders, while at the same time protecting the privacy of individuals from electronic snooping.

The directive would impose strict privacy restrictions on companies and government agencies but would not cover information contained in police files or other intelligence reports. Britain has even requested that an explicit reference be inserted in the directive denying individual citizens the right to check the accuracy of information in the many EU databases being established to enhance police co-operation, anti-terrorism, the fight against drugs and immigration work under the inter-governmental aspects of the Maastricht treaty. These aspects of the EU are administered by the secretive 'K4 committee' of government officials who answer neither to member parliaments nor the European Parliament. Human rights and civil liberties groups have protested in vain at the 'democratic deficit' which has been built into the new system.

Opposition to the directive, on the grounds that it does too much for individual privacy, has been fiercest in Britain, because of the scaremongering tactics of the Direct Marketing Association and big banks, according to Britain's Data Protection Registrar, Eric Howe.

According to Mr Howe, Commission officials and MEPs familiar with the detail of the proposal, the direct marketers have led opposition to the directive by spreading misleading information about its scope. Political parties that collect data using the electoral register have been told that the practice will be prohibited, as have charities that raise tens of millions of pounds a year from direct mail shots.

The latest example of the efforts of the anti-privacy lobby was a claim by the Labour MP Peter Hain this week that political parties could be banned from canvassing door-to-door and sending direct mail to voters before the next general election. Mr Hain, who is sponsored by the Postal Workers' Union, said in a letter to the Home Secretary, Michael Howard, that 'the political process would be thrown into absolute turmoil' by the directive. This was challenged by Labour's European Parliamentary Party spokeswoman, Christine Oddy MEP.

'It's not true, from my understanding,' she said. She was supported by her colleague Geoff Hoon MEP, who complained of the 'unholy alliance' formed between the junk mail industry and charities in opposition to the directive. Direct marketers and banks have lobbied the government, and charities the Labour Party, he said.

'What the directive will require,' said a Commission official, 'is the consent of individuals before 'sensitive' information about them gets added to databases. Thus the Conservative Party could not sell a list of their wealthy members in Kent to Harrods department store without getting permission.'

By bringing the EU closer to Germany and France's strict privacy laws, the directive would restrict the use by government agencies and private companies of computer data links to swap information at the speed of light.

It will impose strict conditions on the way firms, as well as many government agencies, collect and use names and addresses, spending patterns and other 'sensitive' data. Crucially, companies would be prohibited from using information to draw up profiles of individuals for sales or credit reference purposes.

The legislation, as drafted, would prevent the gathering of information on race, ethnic origin (including skin colour), political and religious beliefs, trade union membership as well as health or sexual orientation, but would allow discretion for the use of election registers. Lobbying organisations ranging from American Express to Reader's Digest magazine have ensured that the directive contains numerous loopholes.