Justice junior minister tests data law in call for volunteers

Chris Philp, the Tory MP for Croydon South, sent out a pandemic emergency email to his constituents last week which provided contradictory advice and bends data protection laws to breaking point, as PEARL LEE reports

MP Chris Philp: mixed message and some dodgy data practices

Chris Philp, the MP for Croydon South, on Friday evening became the latest of the borough’s three MPs to issue constituency-wide advice and attempt to help coordinate efforts during the covid-19 emergency.

But the email from Philp – a junior minister at the Ministry of Justice in the Conservative Government – includes links to a data-scraping form which may even be breaking the law.

Despite reminding residents that “we need to work together”, unlike Labour MPs Steve Reed and Sarah Jones, Philp’s public plea for volunteers appears to ignore Croydon Voluntary Action, the council-backed charities group which is trying to put together a borough-wide response.

In his email to constituents, Philp wrote: “The global coronavirus outbreak will be one of the biggest challenges we face as a community and a country – we need to work together to get through this.

“It is likely that opportunities to volunteer to help the community will come up in the near future. I am building a database of volunteers who could help, or who might need help, which I will pass on to local charities.

“In the meantime, if you would like to do something to help people on your road who have to self-isolate, then please do.”

Philp then goes on to actively encourage his constituents to go against the government advice about not going out to reduce the spread of the coronavirus. Instead, the MP provides a downloadable pdf file which can be printed off with a nice little note to pass on to neighbours with an offer of help.

The slip with offers of help has, oh so conveniently, a message from the Tory MP on the back. Distributing this form appears to go against government advice on quarantine

The slips come, oh so conveniently, with a personal message from the Tory MP. Even in a global pandemic, it seems, some politicians cannot kick their lifelong habit of getting others to push stuff through people’s letterboxes.

“I have created a template note that you can deliver to homes on your road saying that you would be happy to help them if needed,” Philp writes. “Please feel free to download it and print off copies.”

This directly contradicts the advice of government health advisors, which Philp quotes elsewhere in his email.

Under a heading “Government Advice”, Philp quite properly repeats what Public Health England has been saying for more than a week: “Now is the time for everyone to stop non-essential contact with others and to stop all unnecessary travel.”

Many might consider that delivering leaflets from their MP falls under the heading of “non-essential contact”.

But Philp’s missive does include some useful helpline telephone numbers, so if the MP’s mixed-message email has been confusing, at least constituents can call up someone who knows what they are talking about.

It is elsewhere in Philp’s email that there’s more than a suspicion of cynical opportunism. Philp’s email includes an online link where people can sign up as volunteers, or to seek help. In filling in this online form, people may be unwittingly allowing their details to be passed on to third parties, or even the Conservative Party.

The form provides no means for the respondents to opt-out of receiving further communications from Philp, or the Tories – as is a requirement of General Data Protection Regulation,  GDPR.

Instead, the small print at the bottom of Philp’s dodgy form states: “By submitting your email address, you choose to opt-in to receive further updates from Chris Philp, and Chris may pass your details to third party charities who are working on the Coronavirus response in Croydon.”

And it adds: “Please note that Chris Philp is not liable for the actions or further communications you may receive from these third parties.”

Phone helpline numbers are useful, though Philp avoided any mention of the borough-wide coordinating efforts of the council-backed CVA

Compare this approach to the message in Sarah Jones’s email to people living in her Croydon Central constituency last week.

That said (with her own added emphasis in italics): “I want to be clear at the outset that in line with GDPR laws, I will never pass your personal information to third parties. This database will only be used by me and will help signpost you to organisations and community groups who have requested support or are mobilising in hyper-local groups.”

Jones’s email continued: “Likewise, I will not be sharing details of individuals who need support to ensure proper safeguarding of vulnerable people.”

Inside Croydon approached Philp to question him on the absence of any opt-out on his form, but had not had any response by the time of publication.

Of course, Philp inhabits the world of Croydon Conservatives who have been reproached more than once by the Information Commissioner’s Office for breaches of GDPR laws.

This includes occasions when Mario Creatura was working at No10 Downing Street as Theresa May’s special adviser on digital communications.

But those breaches pale by comparison to a junior minister at the Justice Ministry apparently breaking the law with such alacrity.

Even if Philp can pass this off as a “genuine mistake” (the Croydon Tories’ usual fall-back position in the past), and that his email to constituents was sent with the best of intentions during an international emergency, there will be some who regard it all as a cynical exercise at a time of tragedy and suffering.

About insidecroydon

News, views and analysis about the people of Croydon, their lives and political times in the diverse and most-populated borough in London. Based in Croydon and edited by Steven Downes. To contact us, please email inside.croydon@btinternet.com
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