The UK’s information watchdog has taken action against Virgin Media and six public bodies over their repeated failures to respond to members of the public when asked to hand over personal information.
The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) said the seven public and private sector bodies had repeatedly failed to respond to Subject Access Requests (SAR) within the required one-to-three-month timeframes.
The seven entities – including Virgin Media, the Home Office, three London boroughs, Kent Police, and the Ministry of Defence (MoD) – were identified following a series of complaints over multiple failures to respond to requests for copies of personal information by the required deadlines.
Members of the public told the ICO specific failures to hand over information had in one case risked hindering a child’s asylum application.
Another individual said SAR failures had jeopardised their ability to defend themselves against serious allegations, whilst one member of the public said delays in accessing information risked damaging their credit score.
Two other members of the public complained they were unable to obtain personal information relating to their childhoods, including adoption and care records, as one individual said a file containing “sensitive details of trauma” had been lost during a cyberattack.
Information Commissioner John Edwards said SARs and requests made under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) 2000 are “fundamental rights and are an essential gateway to accessing other rights”.
“Being able to ask an organisation ‘what information do you hold on me?’ and ‘how it is being used?’ provides transparency and accountability and allows the person to ask for changes to be made or even for the information to be deleted,” Edwards said.
The ICO said public bodies including the Home Office and MoD had major backlogs containing thousands of SARs that had not been responded to within the required timeframe.
It noted that Virgin Media had also failed to respond to 14 per cent of the 9,500 SARs it received over a six-month period in 2021.
A Virgin Media spokesperson said: “We apologise that our handling of subject access requests last year was not to the standard it should have been. We have since put measures in place which have significantly improved our performance and will continue to carefully monitor this.”
The watchdog said it now plans to launch an SAR tool to help members of the public identify where their personal information is likely held, as part of its three-year plan to better inform the public of the ways in which their information is used and accessed.
The actions come after the ICO this month vowed to make “greater use of its powers” by cracking down on those failing to comply with Freedom of Information (FOI) requests.