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Last Updated: Wednesday, 14 January, 2004, 09:30 GMT
Data protection guidance pledge
Humberside Chief Constable David Westwood
Humberside Police shredded key information on Ian Huntley
Plans to make data protection laws easier to interpret have been unveiled to try to stop them being misunderstood by police and other bodies.

Information Commissioner Richard Thomas has pledged to give better guidance on the use of the Data Protection Act.

Humberside Police said data protection laws meant it could not keep records of unproven claims against double Soham murderer Ian Huntley.

But Mr Thomas says officials must not use the legislation as a smokescreen.

Clarification

He has promised an improved service on the data protection helpline and that every effort will be made to use plain English and avoid confusing legal jargon.

He also stresses that data protection laws are there for a reason - to ensure that people's lives are not damaged because of excessive or inaccurate infomation held about them.

However, the Information Commissioner does acknowledge that data protection guidance can be confusing.

"I do accept that the Act itself is a rather convoluted piece of drafting... the Court of Appeal has described it as inelegant and cumbersome," said Mr Thomas

"I am very keen indeed to put out much more practical, down to earth, plain English guidance so that people can never again use the excuse of hiding behind data protection," he told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

Humberside Police shredded information on a string of sex allegations made against Huntley.

Ian Huntley
Records on Huntley were deleted over data protection fears
Chief Constable David Westwood blamed it on their understanding of how the data protection laws were meant to work.

The omission of Huntley's past from police records was one reason why the double murderer was not prevented from getting a job as a school caretaker when he moved to Cambridgeshire.

Department of Constitutional Affairs Minister Lord Filkin, speaking in the House of Lords on Wednesday, said there had been "clearly no lack of advice" available to the Humberside force.

Guidance from the Association of Chief Police Office was "absolutely explicit that unproven allegations of sexual crimes can be retained on file and divulged in the circumstances of Soham", he said.

"It spells that out in words of one syllable," he added.

The Act itself is a very convoluted piece of drafting
Richard Thomas, Information Commissioner
And British Gas said it was prevented by the Act from passing on to social services details of an elderly couple whose gas supply was cut off for non-payment of a 140 bill.

George Bates, 89, and his 86-year old wife Gertrude were found dead in October in the south London house they had shared for 64 years.

Both cases sparked calls for clarification of the data protection laws aimed at guarding an individual's personal privacy.

The public inquiry into the Soham murders is expected to lead to a change in the way police handle intelligence about individuals and share it with other organisations.


WATCH AND LISTEN
Richard Thomas, Information Commissioner
"It's my job to use plain language"



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