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Govt climbdown on jail threat for hacks who breach data protection laws

The Government has backed down over its plans to introduce jail sentences of up to two years for those who breach the Data Protection Act by dealing in or obtaining personal information.

The Society of Editors has welcomed the lifting of the threat of jail after the Government tabled a last-minute amendment to the Criminal Justice Bill going through the House of Lords.

In a compromise with the information commissioner, Richard Thomas, the clause will remain in the bill but its implementation will be suspended.

The Minister of Justice would be able to implement the clause if a case can be argued for the need for custodial sentences.

Under the existing law, unlimited fines are available at crown court but very few cases have progressed beyond magistrates’ court.

That was one of the key arguments by the media in opposing the Information Commissioner’s call for jail sentences as a deterrent.

Media organisations said unlimited fines were a powerful deterrent and their availability for contempt of court cases showed their effectiveness.

The Information Commissioner’s office said the clause would still be a ‘sword of Damocles’ hanging over future wrongdoers who ‘blag’ people’s personal details for profit.

A spokesman said: “The prospect of unlimited fines has not deterred people from engaging in the illegal market in personal information. The Government had recognised that a custodial sentence – included in its Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill – was needed to deter those who steal data.

“Although of course we would have preferred the clause to have remained unchanged, we understand that the justice secretary will be able to introduce prison sentences if illegal activity continues.”

Society of Editors’ executive director Bob Satchwell said: “We are pleased the Government has been able to find an acceptable way forward that will include a stronger public interest defence for journalists.

“We believe there will never be a need for the justice secretary to introduce jail sentences because the media has and will continue to address the concerns the Information Commissioner raised in 2006.

“The Editors’ Code of Practice has been strengthened and detailed guidance about the Date Protection Act has been issued by the Press Complaints Commission.”