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Almost 1,000 data offences recorded at DWP in 10 month period

Staff at the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) were disciplined a total of 992 times for unlawfully or inappropriately accessing individuals' social security records between April 2011 and January this year.22 May 2012

The figures were obtained following a freedom of information (FOI) request to DWP by Channel 4's 'Dispatches' programme.

Last week Dispatches reported on the 'blagging' of personal data by private detectives and reported on the number of data offences recorded by DWP.

The FOI figures also revealed that in the past year the Department of Health had recorded 158 instances of unlawful accessing of medical records, according to a report by the Daily Telegraph. DoH said not every such instance is recorded though.

Under the principles of the Data Protection Act (DPA) organisations processing personal data must do so fairly and lawfully. They must take "appropriate technical and organisational measures" to protect against "unauthorised or unlawful processing of personal data and against accidental loss or destruction of, or damage to, personal data".

Under section 55 of the DPA a person is generally guilty of an offence if they "knowingly or recklessly ... obtain or disclose personal data or the information contained in personal data, or procure the disclosure to another person of the information contained in personal data" without consent from the 'data controller'. A person is not guilty of an offence if they can show that unlawfully obtaining, disclosing or procuring of the personal data was justified as being in the public interest.

The DPA also defines "sensitive personal data" as including personal data relating to an individual's "physical or mental health or condition". Because information about such matters could be used in a discriminatory way, and is likely to be of a private nature, it must be treated with greater care than other personal data, the ICO has said in guidance on sensitive personal data.

Under the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act the Justice Secretary has the power to introduce new regulations that would allow a custodial sentence penalty to be available for offences under section 55 of the DPA, but those powers have yet to be used. The current penalty for committing a section 55 offence is a maximum £5,000 fine if the case is heard in a Magistrates Court and an unlimited fine for cases tried in a Crown Court.

The ICO does have the power to issue monetary penalty notices of up to £500,000 for serious breaches of the DPA, but that is in relation to civil cases.

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