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MPs back more powers for ICO

Watchdog needs sharper teeth, says committee

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The Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) should have the power to issue custodial sentences for breaches of the Data Protection Act, going further than its current powers of issuing fines to organisations which breach the act, Parliament's justice committee has said.

In a report titled Referral fees and the theft of personal data, the committee says: "Currently the only available penalty is a fine, which we feel is inadequate in cases where people have been endangered by the data disclosed, or where the intrusion or disclosure was particularly traumatic for the victim, or where there is no deterrent because the financial gain resulting from the crime far exceeds the possible penalty."

It adds: "We urge the government to exercise its power to provide for custodial sentences without delay."

The report also claims that the ICO is being prevented from investigating, identifying problems and preventing data protection breaches adequately. After hearing evidence from Christopher Graham, the information commissioner, the committee believes this is a particular problem in the healthcare and insurance sector.

"The audits he [information commissioner] offers are free and operate on a risk-based approach and in the last year he has only carried out three or four a month," says the report. "We call on the Ministry of Justice to work with the information commissioner to assess how the current system is working, and to consider why he has not formally requested the power to compel audits in any additional sectors and whether this process is unduly cumbersome."

This should be done in a "timely manner" while minimising the regulatory burden on the public and private sector. The committee recommends that the ICO should also become directly responsible to and be funded by Parliament.

The committee and Graham have also both said that the points raised should be dealt with by Parliament, and that the ICO should not have to wait for the outcome of Lord Justice Leveson's inquiry into issues of media regulation before a decision is made on the extension of the watchdog's powers, which the government has indicated is its preferred approach.

Welcoming the committee's report, Graham said: "We shouldn't have to wait a further year for the 2008 legislation to be commenced when today's highly profitable trade in our data has little if anything to do with the press.

"The commissioner recently called for stronger powers of audit. The ICO is building a business case for the extension of assessment notice powers to parts of the private sector, such as motor insurance and financial services as well as to the NHS and local government."

Last year David Smith, the deputy information commissioner, said the ICO was no longer a "toothless bulldog" after it was given the power to issue fines of up to £500,000 for data protection offences. The ICO has repeatedly stated that it wants to take a firmer stance on data protection.

This article was originally published at Guardian Government Computing.

Guardian Government Computing is a business division of Guardian Professional, and covers the latest news and analysis of public sector technology. For updates on public sector IT, join the Government Computing Network here.

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