The government has quietly dropped plans to jail personal data thieves, frustrating the Information Commissioner and arousing criticism of the Data Protection Act as toothless.
Ministers had planned to grant judges stronger powers against unscrupulous private investigators and journalists from April.
In a private briefing to the CBI last week, however, Ministry of Justice officials said that there will not be time to introduce new sentences before the general election, according to people at the briefing. An official announcement is expected soon.
The news marks an embarrassing defeat for Christopher Graham, the recently-installed Information Commissioner.
Soon after taking over the job in the summer, he lobbied for harsher sentencing, branding current penalties "pathetic", and giving TV interviews to publicise a large personal data theft at T-Mobile.
In the wake of his revelations and amid a Parliamentary inquiry into alleged voicemail hacking by The News of The World, justice minister Michael Wills announced proposals to activate part of the Data Protection Act that would jail those who knowingly or recklessly misuse personal data for up to two years. Currently, those in the often lucrative trade are only threatened by small fines.
A public consultation on the proposals, which require Parliamentary approval, closed last month.
The decision not to go ahead marks the second time the current government has shelved plans to attack the black market in personal data. When the necessary legislation was originally passed in 2008, a surprise intervention by the Ministry of Justice blocked its implementation.
The Information Commissioner's Office declined to comment on the failure of its latest campaign to send data criminals to jail.
The Ministry of Justice said: "We are considering responses to the consultation and will make a decision in due course." ®