Information Commission calls conference and delays workplace e-mail code

This week the government's Information Commission will send out invitations for a Privacy at Work conference aimed at thrashing...

This week the government's Information Commission will send out invitations for a Privacy at Work conference aimed at thrashing out a workplace e-mail privacy code of conduct.

The new code is intended to steer a course between the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, which permits e-mail monitoring by employers, and the Human Rights and Data Protection Acts, which protect the individual's right to privacy.

The conference will take place on 28 June in Manchester, but the final formula will not be published until the end of the year.

The Information Commission has already come under fire for delays in publishing the code of conduct. After consulting on a draft code earlier this year, the Information Commission decided it needed more input from employees. Some 90% of initial responses came from employers and organisations.

The slow progress has led to accusations that there is presently a legal vacuum with no clear guidelines as to the extent of employers' powers to monitor staff in the workplace.

Iain Bourne, strategic policy manager at the Information Commission, said: "It is often useful to get people together so that a debate can develop in a way that e-mail doesn't always allow. If we can form a consensus we will end up with a better product."

He added: "It is an important piece of work and will impact on many people. It is an area where there is an imbalance of power. If standards aren't set, new technology makes it easier to intrude on workers lives in a way that is disproportionate to the need to monitor what goes on in the workplace."

Nigel Hickson, head of e-business at the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) said:

"We look forward to debating the issues because we have severe concerns about the code. There is a misunderstanding of how new technology changes our lives. If employers have no rights to monitor content of messages sent in a business environment, then it is likely that employees will be refused access to systems for private purposes at work.

"The majority of employees arrange to see people for a drink using the company telephone or e-mail system. One of the implications is that people who work will have to go off premises to an Internet cafe instead. Is that what we really want?"

Hannah Reed, employment rights officer at the Trades Union Congress (TUC) said: "We welcome the fact that the Information Commission is having further consultation on the code. Bringing both sides together is the way forward."

She added: "We need clear guidelines that are easily applicable that protects the privacy of workers. The TUC will be encouraging people to attend."

Lisa Kelly

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