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Threatens Data Protection Act?

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The government has set out its "vision" for helping the disadvantaged of British society by sharing intelligence about them across the public sector.

But it describes less a plan to help people or provide them with "customer-focused services" than to improve the government's powers of enforcement and control.

"The government wants to deliver the best possible support to people in need," said Catherine Ashton, under secretary of state for the Department of Constitutional Affairs in the foreword to the Information Sharing Vision Statement, published yesterday.

"We are determined that information sharing helps us better target support to the most disadvantaged in our society," she said.

She went on to say that "customer-focused services" would share information to protect and support society as a whole, which appeared to be more the point of the statement.

The government's plan to help the disadvantaged was outlined in its Social Exclusion Plan on Monday.

The moral basis of the Plan was "rights and responsibilities". That is, the right of the government to interfere in the lives of people it thinks don't know what's good for them, and the responsibility of these "customers" to acquiesce.

As it stated: "The parent of an at-risk child should be given support, but it is also incumbent on them to take this support."

Suggesting that the Data Protection Act was being applied too vehemently, the DCA and Cabinet Office were also looking at "what barriers exist to information sharing". The idea was to relax the barriers - i.e. relax the law - so it could do more information sharing, particularly to gather intelligence about people the government wanted to finger.

"The Government will explore how to extend data sharing in relation to the most excluded or at-risk groups, including any additional powers that may be necessary," said the Exclusion Plan.

A DCA spokeswoman refused to confirm whether this meant changing the Data Protection Act, perhaps removing some of the protections it offered.

But if someone at the DPA reckoned there was room under the Data Protection Act for more data sharing to be done, then that person must have had a clear idea of its boundaries. In referring to these boundaries as "barriers" they suggested that next April's declaration on data sharing by the DCA might relax the law.

The DCA has also said, however, that it was considering strengthening the DPA to include custodial sentences against people who abused information.

Yet it was also planning a marketing campaign to promote the idea that the DPA was already doing too much to prevent data sharing.

Puzzlingly, the Vision Statement failed to acknowledge the abuses of power by information sharers that had not been stopped by the Act. It gave instead the impression that all was ship-shape.

"The existing law ensures that appropriate safeguards will be maintained on the sharing of medical, taxpayer and criminal records information in particular," maintained the Vision Statement.

But these safeguards have done little to prevent the illegal persecution of ex-offenders using information shared between the Criminal Records Bureau, local authorities, hospitals and charities. Those agencies responsible for the illegal use of this shared information have not been brought to justice by the government, while those people who have served their terms have been stigmatised through the unjust use of shared government databases.

Then growing concerns among professionals over the sharing of medical data has stalled the core component of the NHS National Programme for IT yet again.

While the Police National Computer, one of the most urgent of the government's information sharing projects, is shot with errors.

The Vision Statement gave examples of how information sharing had achieved the noble ends declared by Catherine Ashton in its foreword.

The most common thread was prevention of fraud and other crime. It was hoped information sharing could also reduce the administrative burden for business.

Otherwise, there were some ideas about how information sharing could capture people's identities more soundly in government databases.

The Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency was used as an example of "customer focused public services". But the DVLA's information sharing is about saving the agency time and money when trying to spot people it thinks are cheating the system.

If the DVLA was "customer focused" it would allow people too poor to own garages to keep untaxed cars at a kerbside. As in business, "customers" with money are trusted implicitly.

There was a loose reference to how information sharing between "agencies" has helped get homeless people off the streets.

Otherwise, the Vision appeared to be of a system that pinched pennies. For example, the Department for Work and Pensions had been finding out which pensioners were liable for more money by sharing information with HM Revenue and Customs, ostensibly to remind them of their dues. Critics say the system is really designed to wheedle out those pensioners who are getting credits but don't deserve them. The same will be done with benefits claimants, said the document.®

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