Data protection rules should not stop police releasing details of on-the-run prisoners to journalists, the information commissioner has ruled.
After it emerged yesterday that almost 1,000 criminals are still at large when they should be behind bars, forces were deluged with requests for offenders’ details.
But at least two in England and Wales said data protection rules meant they would not publish the names and pictures of local criminals who breached the terms of their release from prison and have absconded.
Merseyside and North Wales police said they would refuse to release names in some circumstances because of the Data Protection Act.
But the information commissioner said the Act “does not require” names of convicts to be kept secret.
A spokesman for the information commissioner’s office (ICO) said: “The Data Protection Act plays a very important role in protecting our personal information but ought not to be a barrier to sensible information sharing.
“We realise that there may be operational reasons for not disclosing the details of escaped convicts, for example to protect ongoing investigations.
“However, the Act does not require the names of escaped convicts to be kept secret.”
Another force, West Yorkshire Police, referred inquiries to the Ministry of Justice, which said it was up to the police which criminals to identify.
Hampshire Police said it had to balance the human rights of offenders with the human rights of the public.
Only Derbyshire Constabulary published the details of all the offenders recalled to prison but still at large.
Today, the Ministry of Justice released a breakdown of what type of offences were committed by about two-thirds of the 954 offenders recalled to prison but never found by the police.
Only broad categories of offence were included, so the public is unable to tell if there is a murderer or paedophile from their area on the loose.
A spokesman said: “The Data Protection and Freedom of Information Acts do not stop the Ministry of Justice or the police from publishing the names of wanted criminals if it would help in apprehending them.
“MoJ regularly provides this information to journalists.”
“However, once a police investigation to find the offender has begun, they must take a view on what information to release and when.
“If the police are hunting for someone whose face appears in the newspaper, he/she might go into hiding – making it harder to catch them.
“Where publishing offenders’ details is the most appropriate way to help the police to catch criminals, then the law would not prevent them from doing so.”