Monday, 14 May 2012

The Tyranny of Data Protection

My neighbour, at the weekend, became concerned about the whereabouts of his ex-wife. Although they have a history that doesn’t exactly endear him to her, or her him for that matter, nevertheless for the sake of their son he keeps in touch. She failed to call her son as she usually does and he rang the local hospital to see if she was there. There are reasons for his assuming the worse that we needn’t go into but the hospital informed him that she had been brought in after a fall but had since been discharged.

Since she hadn’t turned up and was nowhere to be found he looked into it further to discover she had not been discharged but moved to another hospital some fifty miles away. It was when he rang the second hospital that his problems really began. Explaining who he was he asked if she was still at the hospital and enquired about her condition. They refused to tell him. Of course, you don’t want to go giving out someone’s private medical details to a voice on the phone but they even refused to confirm that she was there.

In the face of such mindless intransigence he rang the police, explained the position and, genuinely not knowing for sure where she was, reported her as a missing person. Problem solved you might think but no! The police rang the hospital, explained the situation and asked if the “missing person” was, in fact at the hospital. Hospital staff refused to tell them. “How do we know that you’re the police?” They were invited to ring the police station and ask to speak to the person calling them, thus establishing that they were the police. They refused.

Meanwhile, this poor woman lay in a coma, covered in bruises and with a drain in her head because of a head injury suffered after a serious fall. Her son is worried sick, his dad is tearing his hair out in frustration and a mindless adherence to data protection is preventing anyone resolving the issue. So much for the caring profession.

“If you want to establish whether she is here,” police were told, “you must come to the hospital.” For my neighbour this is a one hundred mile round trip with no guarantee that it won’t be wasted, along with time wasted when he might be visiting her in a possibly different hospital. The police had to go to the hospital and only then would the hospital staff confirm the woman’s presence. My neighbour finally visited, along  with his son, and is now able to ring the hospital any time he wants to get updates and discuss further visits.

Such is the tyranny of the data protection mania and litigation paranoia that infects our society today. I looked up the Data Protection Act and it doesn’t in any way prevent hospital staff making a reasonable judgement and deciding to confirm whether someone is in hospital. It actually says:

“Data must not be disclosed to other parties without the consent of the individual whom it is about, unless there is legislation or other overriding legitimate reason to share the information (for example, the prevention or detection of crime). It is an offence for Other Parties to obtain this personal data without authorisation.”

I am so glad that a law is in place to prevent some third party having access to my personal details (though don’t hold your breath, tonight’s Despatches on Channel Four has a different and hair-raising story to tell) but if I was lying comatose in a hospital bed and unable to give my consent I would hope someone would have the common sense to decide there was a legitimate reason for at least telling my family I was there. What if my neighbour wasn’t who he said he was? Who else would he be? A body snatcher? Surely the correct course is to give minimal information – “Yes, she is here in ward X” – then be prepared to deal with whatever comes of that.

This is what happens when Tony Blair and every minister and Prime Minister after him, reaches for the law to solve social issues. We’ve got to stop this madness and stop looking suspiciously at each other, because there are enough real villains out there without making villains out of family friends and neighbours, and we’ve got to start learning to trust each other and trust the sense we are meant to have been born with. We can’t go on allowing the State to tie us up in legislative knots, making us fearful at every turn.

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