Checks and balances

A while ago, I was asked by a prospective client to provide a criminal records check before getting a big piece of work. Given that I wouldn’t be handling any personal data or getting access to children or other vulnerable people, it seemed like overkill. The awkward part of me wanted to suggest that the requirement was close to being an enforced subject access request, which would be a criminal breach of Data Protection law. Enforced subject access requests occur where a person is obliged to provide a data controller with the result of a subject access request for criminal records in return for employment or a service.

Then I looked at the number of days’ work they were offering and the pragmatic part of me kicked in. I don’t have a criminal record, so I applied for and sent them a disclosure certificate saying so. It occurred to me that if I tried to make an issue of principle out of it, it might look like I had something to hide. I imagine it’s a terrible situation to be in if you have got a record and are trying to move on, but to be selfish, I don’t and it seemed odd to create the impression that I might have. And I wanted the work.

Last week, a prosecution by the Information Commissioner against the insurance company Hiscox for the enforced subject access offence collapsed. A customer, Irfan Hussain, was attempting to claim on a £30,000 watch he had lost, and Hiscox wanted to see his criminal record before paying out. He refused, and complained to the ICO. The case collapsed when the unlucky horologist was too unwell to give evidence.

I can’t help thinking that this was an odd choice for a prosecution. Even if Hiscox tried to force their customer to provide his information, was this unreasonable? He had already stated that he had no criminal record (according to the FT), so all Hiscox were apparently asking him to do was prove that what he had said was true in the light of his claim. The means by which they proposed to do it might technically have been an enforced subject access request, but there’s surely a difference between something technically being an offence and it being worth mounting a prosecution on it. The provisions contain a public interest defence, and Hiscox’s public comments after the trial suggest that this was their strategy. I suspect it might have worked. Especially as this seems to be the ICO’s first attempt at an enforced subject access case, was this really the best place to start?

The business of criminal records checks overall works in mysterious ways. Hiscox are reported to have asked Mr Hussain to make a subject access request to the Criminal Records Office, which is run by the National Police Chief’s Council. This is not the same as applying to the Disclosure and Barring Service or Disclosure Scotland for a certificate or a disclosure, but having been through the process, I have to admit that I am somewhat confused at the difference.

To get my disclosure, I made a written application, proved my identity and then paid a fee to receive a copy of personal data that related to me, or confirmation that no such information was held. The basic check comes through faster than a subject access request (about 2 weeks, although mine came in matter of a few days) but it’s also more expensive (£25). In my case, nothing was held but that’s neither here or there. There is statutory provision for access to this information via the Criminal Records Bureau set out in the Police Act 1997, replaced by the Disclosure and Barring Service in 2006 via the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act 2006. Someone is going to tell me that applying for a certificate is different to applying for subject access, but that raises some questions. If Hiscox had told Mr Hussain to apply for a certificate like I did, it’s exactly the same outcome – a person is obliged by a data controller to obtain information about their criminal history and then cough it up – but if it’s not subject access, no prosecution could be possible.

An individual can obtain a basic check that shows their unspent convictions and cautions, both of which are listed as a relevant record in the DPA section that creates enforced subject access. The ICO’s guidance doesn’t explain the position if a person was forced to ask for a basic check. That check might not give everything that a data controller might want, but it’s full information about a person’s recent criminal history. If obliging someone to ask for a basic check isn’t enforced subject access, it’s a loophole. But if a basic check is essentially a subject access request by another name, it shouldn’t be £25 now, and it should be free after May 25th.

It’s clear that the DBS doesn’t think that forcing an individual to ask for a basic check would be enforced subject access or illegal in some other way because their website says this:

You can’t carry out a basic check as an organisation – you must ask the person to request their own basic DBS check. A basic check shows unspent convictions and cautions.

This implies that asking a person to carry out a basic check when you can’t make an application yourself is acceptable, even though these are very likely to be circumstances where a person can’t meaningfully refuse. There are no warnings about compulsion during the application process via the DBS website. So why is a subject access request to ACRO magic, acceptable only when uncontaminated by duress, but a basic check isn’t? The amount of data disclosed isn’t exactly the same, but the outcome – being forced to disclose your criminal history when it might be unnecessary or excessive to do so – might be identical.

It took a long time (from 1998 to 2015) for enforced subject access to be fully enacted. Now it’s in force, the Hiscox case doesn’t give cause for optimism that anything will change. I have doubts about whether it was a good idea to prosecute Hiscox, but I have heard first hand terrible stories over the years about data being demanded when it should not have been. Having used the system, the way in which criminal records are made available gives me little confidence that such unnecessary and unfair demands for personal data are properly prevented. After the failure of the Hiscox case, even if only because of an ill-timed illness, the ICO needs to go in again and draw a line somewhere.