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Government sets legal landscape for data sharing



Digital Economy Bill includes clauses on sharing personal information, access to civil registration data and fighting fraud

The Government is aiming to loosen some of the restrictions on sharing personal data in the public sector, with clauses in the new Digital Economy Bill focused on promoting its use while protecting people’s privacy.

The Department for Culture, Media and Sport has highlighted a number of points, saying they will allow limited sharing of data between public authorities where there is a clear need and benefit.

The move is part of an effort to clean up what the Government sees as a confusing legal landscape around the issue, and follows years of often heated debate about the appropriate limits of data sharing.

Three strands have emerged in the measures: improving the outcomes of services for people in need; reducing fraud in public services; and using data for research.

Measures for the first strand include supporting the Troubled Families Programme by enabling public authorities to see information held by others to identify families in need of help, and spotting vulnerable people who will need help retuning their TVs in 2018-19 when the 700Mhz band will be cleared for mobile broadband.

Energy support

Another clause makes provision for sharing data with energy companies to apply fuel discounts for pensioners, while a further feature of the bill will allow for electronic verification of civil registration information to prove someone’s eligibility for public services.

Before using the powers a minister will have to show the information is needed to provide a benefit, consult with the information commissioner and HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC), and seek Parliament’s approval.

Public authorities will have to follow a code of practice and ensure they do not illegally disclose any data – on pain of being prosecuted for a criminal offence.

On the anti-fraud front, the Government plans to create a legal gateway for public authorities to disclose and use relevant information and recover debt. This is aimed at providing a simple and fast route for the relevant data sharing, and to improve cross-government debt management.

A series of pilots with supporting business cases and including principles on fairness will be run to support the effort, They will be reviewed after three years and if judged to be effective will be given the green light to continue.

Minister for the Cabinet Office Matt Hancock said: “Our goal is to transform and improve the relationship between the citizen and the state. Increasing citizens’ confidence in the government’s use of their data while simultaneously making better use of that data to deliver services they need will help us to build a more prosperous society.”

Statistical measures

There are also clauses in the bill to support research and the compilation of statistics. They include a gateway through which HMRC can share general data for research and analysis, specifying conditions for linking de-identified data and ensuring that anyone who accesses or processes the data has been accredited to do so.

In addition, the Office of National Statistics (ONS) will have a right of access to new sources of data and a right to be consulted where owners make changes to their data or how it is collected and processed. This is aimed at improving the quality of statistics and enabling the ONS to develop new sets.

The proposals in this area have won the support of the Economic and Social Research Council, which said: “New legislation that will facilitate better access to de-identified data for research purposes has the potential to be of great benefit to the research community … and can place the UK at the forefront of the international scientific landscape.”

A Government statement said the bill will enable it to make the most of progress in technology and data management in supporting public services.

Protection retained

It is also confident that the new provisions will not weaken the Data Protection Act, and has been careful to prevent the scope for indiscriminate sharing of data and to ensure they will not lead to the building of any new large databases.

The bill was published on the same day as the Cabinet Office released the summary of responses to the Government consultation on data sharing. These showed that there was general support for most of its proposals, but that there were criticisms from some quarters and calls for stronger safeguards.

Other elements of the bill include giving everyone a right to fast broadband, automatic compensation for consumers when telecoms companies do not deliver services as promised, and tougher penalties for nuisance callers.


Image by McKay Savage, London, CC BY 2.0 through Wikimedia Commons

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