Privacy chief given another chance to seek new powers

The Information Commissioner will have the chance to lobby MPs for greater powers in the wake of the HM Revenue & Customs data loss scare when he is grilled by the House of Commons Justice Committee today.

This afternoon Commissioner Richard Thomas will appear before the committee to give evidence about data protection and his powers, which he is known to believe are too limited.

Last month HMRC lost 25 million names and addresses from the child benefits database when two CDs were lost in transit between government offices.

In the aftermath of that crisis Thomas was given a small measure of the extra power he has been seeking, but he is known to believe that a tougher data protection regime is essential.

Following the HMRC scandal, Gordon Brown announced that the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) would have the powers to audit the data protection policies and practices of public authorities without their permission.

Thomas had argued that he should have the power to raid any organisation, not just governmental ones, without permission in order to enforce better data protection. Currently he must seek the agreement of an organisation before carrying out an audit.

"In the light of the admitted mishandling of private personal data by Her Majesty's Revenue & Customs, the Committee will hold a one-off evidence session with the Information Commissioner," said a statement from the Justice Select Committee.

"The Committee will explore issues connected with data protection generally, as well as the Information Commissioner's enforcement and supervisory powers."

Thomas told the Home Affairs Select Committee earlier this year that it was vital that he be given powers to search organisations.

"People now understand that data protection is an essential barrier to excessive surveillance," he said in May. "But it is wrong that my office cannot find out what is happening in practice without the consent of each organisation."

Prime Minister Gordon Brown told the House of Commons in the wake of last month's scandal that "we will give the Information Commissioner the power to spot check departments, to do everything in his power and our power to secure the protection of data". The ICO said that the details of the arrangements were unclear and would be negotiated with the Department of Justice

The ICO also recently demanded the power to conduct a privacy impact assessment of new surveillance and to be consulted before new surveillance is carried out.

"It is essential that before new surveillance technologies are introduced full consideration is given to the impact on individuals and that safeguards are in place to minimise intrusion," he said.

The depth of the problems facing the ICO were underlined late yesterday when it emerged that Thomas was investigating evidence supplied to him by The Times newspaper that more than 100 websites are able to offer live credit card details of Britons for sale.

The data includes PINs, passwords and credit card numbers for as little as £1 per card, and the ICO has said that the information it has seen would be sufficient for a crook to spend money in someone else's name.