Reforms will crack data monitor codes

The
Information Commissioner has pledged to reform his package of advice to
employers, following widespread confusion over the practical workings of the
Data Protection Act (DPA).

Richard
Thomas has promised to develop more practical and user-friendly advice for
employers and overhaul the existing Data Protection Codes that guide employers
through the Act.

However,
Thomas, speaking to Personnel Today, hit out at some employers, claiming several
organisations had been using the legislation to cover up their own mistakes.

"It’s
ridiculous that organisations should use data protection as a smokescreen for
practices that no reasonable person would ever find acceptable," he said.

Last
year, British Gas claimed it could not inform social services before
disconnecting vulnerable pensioners because it would be in breach of the DPA.

Thomas
said the completed employers’ guidance – which has codes on staff monitoring,
medical records, records management and recruitment and selection – should be
finalised by the spring.

A
new employers’ helpline will also be introduced to advise businesses concerned
about specific problems with the interpretation of the DPA.

Thomas,
who is also the author of a book Plain English for Lawyers, is determined to
make guidance more accessible by removing the jargon – such as ‘data subject’ –
that has led to confusion in previous advice.

"New
guidance must be as clear as possible because it needs to be understood and
consistent with a common sense approach," he advised.

Ben
Willmott, employee relations adviser at the Chartered Institute of Personnel
and Development (CIPD), welcomed the reforms but said they needed to happen
quickly.

"The
decision to review advice and clarify what has been a complex and unwieldy Act
is good news. There has been genuine confusion because of problems during
consultation and the delays that have often left employers in the dark,"
he said.

Mark
O’Connell, HR director at financial services company Skandia, said Thomas
seemed much more aware of the problems faced by employers than other officials.

"He’s
right to simplify the codes. HR is having serious problems interpreting the
advice and this commitment to improved communication should greatly help the
whole process. It’s imperative that employers are able to interpret the Act
consistently," he said.

By
Ross Wigham

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