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The European Commission has told the UK government to beef up data protection in order to bring safeguards for British citizens up to European standards.

We now have two months to improve the situation and bolster the powers of the Information Commissioner's Office. This is the second stage of the infringement process taken against countries which are failing to follow European law.

Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding said: "Data protection authorities have the crucial and delicate task of protecting the fundamental right to privacy. EU rules require that the work of data protection authorities must not be unbalanced by the slightest hint of legal ambiguity. I will enforce this vigorously. I urge the UK to change its rules swiftly so that the data protection authority is able to perform its duties with absolute clarity about the rules."

She added, "Having a watchdog with insufficient powers is like keeping your guard dog tied up in the basement."

European data protection is covered by the 1995 Data Protection Directive. But the Commission believes that current UK law fails on several issues.

Firstly the Commission said the ICO had inadequate powers to check other countries' data protection practises - it needs to check this before international transfers of data happen.

Secondly it cannot perform random checks on people or data processing organisations, nor can it enforce penalties after such checks.

The Commission is also unhappy with court powers to refuse the right for people to have information about themselves corrected or deleted.

A spokeswoman for the ICO said: "It is important that we have effective data protection regulation to help protect individuals' personal information. We look forward to discussing the Commission's detailed concerns with the Ministry of Justice and providing input into the UK Government's response."

The Commission's infringement process has three steps, the first being a Letter of Formal Notice requesting information. Second comes a Reasoned Opinion - today's step. Finally the Commission can refer the UK to the Court of Justice.

The ICO asked for more powers in the wake of the loss of 25 million child benefit records, and on many occasions since, but political interest waned. In March the ICO asked the Tories to grant it more powers should they win the election.

Information Commissioner Christopher Graham also campaigned for custodial sentences for data breaches.

The Commission statement is here. ®

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