Data protection system needs to be overhauled

Data protection was a thorn in the side for HR in 2003, but there are
ominous signs that the New Year could see the pain getting worse.

The Durant v FSA ruling (see pages 1 and 10) means that when an employee asks
to see data held on them, you do not have to disclose every document in which
they are mentioned. You only have to reveal information where it affects their
privacy rights, such as personal or family life, and their business or
professional capacity. While you are less likely to be sued, there is still an
onus to sift through the paperwork and make the right judgements about its

The Information Commissioner, Richard Thomas, is determined to find ways of
simplifying the regulations. Conscious of the complexity and red tape
surrounding data protection, he is inviting employers to come forward with
ideas on how to make it more effective.

This promise was made long before the minefield of regulations came under
scrutiny with caretaker Ian Huntley’s conviction of the murder of two Soham
schoolgirls. His credentials were checked when he applied for the job at the
school but police checks and the Criminal Records Bureau revealed nothing. In
fact, he had a history of previous claims of rape and burglary, which the
vetting procedure failed to highlight.

Inevitably, this tragedy brings to a head questions about the release of
so-called "soft information", unproven in court, which could be made
available to employers when recruiting into sensitive posts. Public sector
employers are quite right to demand a more rational and balanced system to help
them find out about applicants for jobs where children and vulnerable people
are involved.

The question is how long should such information be kept on file and what
categories of people should be subject to background checks? Certainly, all HR
professionals working in these environments should be more vigilant. It seems
that none of the child protection charities have a policy of asking potential
staff if they have ever been accused of an offence, possibly because of the
Human Rights Act. Certainly, clearer guidance is needed about the kind of
information employers are entitled to seek.

Home secretary David Blunkett’s inquiry about the vetting of Huntley should
lead to an overhaul of the system. It is long overdue and will go some way to
stopping managers and recruiters being put in an invidious position. Recruiting
well is difficult enough without the concerns of being duped by the occasional
fraudulent applicant and the inadequacy of police records.

By Jane King, editor

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