A cynic would see in recent media reports a concerted campaign of spin to discredit the idea of data privacy laws, firstly by urging us to think of the children (when Humberside Police misinterpret the law, apparently the law is to blame), and secondly by appealing to our natural sympathy for those friendly people at British Gas, who let an elderly couple freeze to death rather than inform social services that they had cut off their gas supply. In the latter case, the excuse is apparently that sharing information about their customers' billing status would have breached their privacy.
The British Gas case is a particularly offensive example of a company trying to wriggle out of its responsibilities to the public. It's worth noting first that none of the Data Protection principles appear to prohibit the sharing of data in question; in particular, you might imagine that Schedule 2, part 4 of the Act, which allows processing of any personal data `in order to protect the vital interests of the data subject', would apply here. In any case, even if British Gas retained doubts about whether it was appropriate to pass on information to a third party, such as social services, they could have asked for consent from their customer to do so, for instance by putting a section on the supply-of-gas contract like,
Tick this box if you do not want us to contact social services if/when we cut off your gas supply. If you tick this box you may freeze to death this winter.
If they really expected to inform social services about customers in the unlucky position of Mr. and Mrs. Bates, then they would have thought about this beforehand, and added such a clause to their contract. Or actually read the Act. Either works for me.
My suspicion here is that British Gas fucked up real bad, and the Data Protection Act is a convenient (and topical) scapegoat. Idiots.