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Data watchdog relaxes regulatory function to prioritise guidance on complying with law during coronavirus public health emergency

The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) will stand down audit work, issue fewer fines and generally use fewer formal powers against organisations that are struggling to meet data protection standards as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Slow responses from public authorities to freedom of information requests will also be looked upon “empathetically” during the crisis.

Formal powers that require organisations to provide the ICO evidence will be used less, and organisations will be allowed longer periods to respond. The organisation also expects to conduct fewer investigations, focussing their regulatory attention on “circumstances which suggest serious non-compliance”.

Public authorities that may have to suspend their information access function completely will also be given leeway by the Commissioner’s Office.

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The ICO said: “We understand that there may be extreme circumstances where public authorities have no option but to temporarily reduce or suspend elements of their information access function.

“We encourage public authorities to proactively publish information they know will be of importance to their communities.”

According to the ICO, the application of flexibility in their regulatory response is part of an effort to prioritise services that provide additional guidance for organisations about how to comply with the law during the crisis.

A Data protection and coronavirus information hub has been launched with guidance for employers on workplace testing, advice for health and social care organisations, insight on how the ICO plan to regulate FOI requests alongside other useful information for authorities.

As to how long the Commissioner’s Office will be flexible in its regulatory function, the organisation said: “We will continue to apply this flexible and pragmatic approach to our regulatory response during the crisis and will also be aware that some effects will be felt for a significant time at the conclusion of the emergency.

“This means that some flexibility will continue to be necessary in some areas for many months to come.”

Adam Carey

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