Data laws hamper prisoner study

The BBC is reporting that the Data Protection Act has prevented researchers from finding out how many forces veterans have served time in civilian prisons.

Clearly this is a very legitimate and socially important piece of research, since too little is done for veterans in this country. But blaming the DPA? I’m having some difficulty with that as an excuse. There are numerous mechanisms available for working with sensitive statistical data. For example, the Office of National Statistics – a public authority that pretty much invented the concept of Data Protection in the UK, and which doesn’t generally worry about DPA because its own privacy standards exceed the Act’s requirements by such a huge margin – processes sensitive data in ‘safe havens’ within its own offices (generally standalone PCs which are wiped once each analysis project is complete).

Furthermore, surely the researchers could request consistent indices for the various data sets so that they can match and track the individuals concerned without risk of a privacy breach?

This seems like a cop-out, yet another chance to blame the DPA for failings elsewhere. I’d like to see a statement from the Information Commissioner to set the record straight.