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Charity fundraisers believed they were “above the law”, says Information Commissioner

October 21 2015
Charities in the UK considered themselves to be a special case when it came to data privacy rules and sought a trade-off with regulators, the Information Commissioner Christopher Graham has claimed.

Mr Graham was giving evidence at a House of Commons Select Committee when he said that charities had tried to negotiate a trade-off with the data protection watchdog regarding the use of personal data for raising funds.

He also revealed that the Institute for Fundraising resisted new guidelines introduced in 2013, and didn’t update its website until August 2015.

“I felt in early contacts with the Institute of Fundraising and some of the major charities that they were concerned not to comply with the law but to see whether there was some wiggle room and whether I would accept that there was a balance to be found between the privacy of individuals and the manifest needs of the charity,” said Mr Graham.

“I had to explain, sometimes in blunt terms, to leading charities that I’m sorry, there isn’t a trade-off here, this is the law and you’ve got to stick to it.”

Mr Graham claimed that financial penalties were not enough of a deterrent and asked the Committee for powers to imprison individuals who sell or trade personal data, as well as to make current guidance statutory.

During his evidence the Information Commissioner also referenced the case of 92-year old poppy seller Olive Cooke, who committed suicide after receiving hundreds of cold calls and letters from charity organisations.

“It wasn’t the first time that we’d heard of this type of case, I have to admit,” he said.

The Committee also heard evidence from Daphne Harris, the chairman of the RSPCA; Karen Brown, chairman of Oxfam; and Mark Wood, chairman of the NSPCC.

Ms Harris apologised “unreservedly” for the RSPCA’s involvement in the case of Samuel Rae, a dementia sufferer who was scammed out of thousands of pounds after his personal details were traded between dozens of organisations over a 20-year period.

Mr Graham also criticised the government for “dragging its feet” on new rules for helping to stop charities taking advantage of vulnerable people, and said that it was only when he “threw all of his toys out of the pram” that action was taken.

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