Data sharing consultation fails

Out-Law News | 26 Mar 2003 | 12:00 am | 2 min. read

The Government has admitted that its consultation into data sharing across the public sector has been a complete failure.

In a report published yesterday on the results of its consultation on "Data Sharing and Privacy: the way forward for public services", published by the Strategy Unit of Cabinet Office, the Lord Chancellor's Department (LCD) states that "the very small scale of response on what is such an important issue, which directly impacts on everyone in society, is disappointing".

Consequently, it adds: "we have to conclude that the result of the consultation cannot confidently be used as a firm basis for taking forward policy".

The LCD report claims that only 60 responses were received, three of which were from members of the public and, in relation to Government Departments, only the Department of Education and Skills bothered to respond.

This contrasts with the thousands of responses received in connection with the data sharing proposals associated with the Entitlement Card scheme as published by the Home Office, also last year.

Data sharing initiatives are important to the success of the Government's policy towards the electronic delivery of services. The basic idea is to have a one-stop shop in relation to the delivery of such services, so that any government agency could be a point where other public services could be accessed; for instance a citizen waiting for a driving test could also deal with a passport application at a terminal in the driving test centre.

However, for this kind of activity to succeed, data sharing has to occur and there has to be a reliable way of identifying the individual uniquely; this in turn needs something like the Entitlement Card.

Commenting on the failure of the consultation process, Dr. Chris Pounder of Masons, the firm behind OUT-LAW.COM, and Editor of Data Protection & Privacy Practice, said that he was "not surprised at the outcome."

He explained that, in reality, there have been two consultation processes into data sharing in the public sector – "and this has been confusing".

He continued:

"The first consultation was commenced by the Cabinet Office which recommended that consent to data sharing was the prime objective of policy. Unfortunately this report had serious drawbacks - for example, although Privacy and Data Sharing referred to the need for the obtaining of consent of individuals, it did not deal with the withdrawal of consent. Additionally, it failed to deal satisfactorily with the situation whereby public authorities could disclose personal data, obtained with consent, for a number of other purposes without consent.

"The second exercise which is associated with data sharing is linked to the Entitlement Card scheme. As the obtaining of an Entitlement Card will be a requirement sanctioned by law, it follows that the issue of seeking individual consent for any related data sharing does not arise; additionally it will be an offence in many circumstances not to obtain a Card (and thereby provide personal details to public authorities so they can be shared). My assessment of the situation is that if the Government will then hope that any further consent elements to facilitate data sharing can be bolted on".

Dr. Pounder concluded:

"In summary, if the Government decides to implement an Entitlement Card, in effect, a data sharing policy which started in the Cabinet Office with the concept of consent will end up being driven by the Home Office using the concept of coercion, especially if refusal to obtain a Card is an offence".

Details of Data Protection and Privacy Practice (and a free copy) can be found among our Data Protection, Freedom of Information and Human Rights Acts Services.

The LCD's report is available at:
www.lcd.gov.uk/consult/piu/piuresp.htm

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