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Last Updated: Thursday, 18 December, 2003, 17:55 GMT
Clarity urged over data act

Jon Silverman
Home Affairs analyst

The outcome of the Soham trial has led to calls for the government to clarify urgently how the Data Protection Act should be applied and interpreted by all those agencies responsible for public protection.

The Liberal Democrats' Home Affairs spokesman, David Heath, said: "The home secretary should ensure that every police force today receives clear guidance on its responsibilities under the act.

"This follows what appears to be an idiosyncratic interpretation of the act by Humberside police.

"But an examination of the act itself makes Humberside's policy of deleting information about serious allegations after a month very hard to understand or defend."

David Westwood
Humberside's police chief faced the media after the Soham trial

It is true that one of the eight data protection principles which underpin the legislation says that "information should not be kept for longer than is necessary".

That begs the question: how is "necessary" defined?

The act makes it clear that data held "for the prevention or detection of crime and the apprehension or prosecution of offenders" is exempt from some of the general principles about the length of time governing retention of data.

It is true, as Humberside's chief constable David Westwood said, that on this precise issue the act is silent on what to do about allegations rather than convictions or cautions.

But lawyers point out that elsewhere in the 1998 statute, the words "alleged commission of an offence" are included.

Ian Huntley
Police checks failed to reveal Soham murderer Ian Huntley's past

And other experts, such as Dr Terry Thomas, of Leeds Metropolitan University, believe that this would be ample justification for the police to keep so-called "soft" intelligence which could have been so vital in the Huntley case.

It is not merely the retention of information but the ability to access it which has bedevilled the criminal justice process.

After the abduction of eight-year-old Sarah Payne in July 2000, Sussex police contacted every other force in the country for urgent information about possible paedophile suspects.

Some forces said they had filing cabinets full of paper documents which would take days to wade through. Others did not keep such information at all.

The home secretary should ensure every police force today receives clear guidance on its responsibilities under the act
David Heath, Liberal Democrat MP
Since then, a standardised database of violent and sex offenders called ViSOR (Violent Sex Offender Register) has been developed and is gradually being rolled out across England and Wales.

If a paedophile has used a red van to abduct a child on one occasion, then switched to a white one, that information can be called up on computer and could be of critical importance in making an arrest.

But while we continue to have a structure of local policing, the input of such data is going to vary from force to force. And human error can undermine even the most robust of child protection systems.

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