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Straw bends on Coroners & Justice data-sharing proposals

Legislation dropped - but are proposals really dead?

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Comment Justice Minister Jack Straw has bowed to the inevitable and announced the withdrawal of provisions for data-sharing from the Coroners’ and Justice Bill, presently before parliament.

This occured at some point in the last seven days. Lack of a precise date for this act of Ministerial euthanasia may be attributed to the lack of a formal statement, and the government’s grudging, foot-dragging approach to disengagement from this measure.

It has been a long time dying, but concerted opposition over the last few weeks from bodies such as the British Medical Association (BMA) and British Computer Society (BCS), not to mention large numbers of Labour backbenchers and the Scottish Government, finally saw it off.

Like so many of this government’s scarier schemes, there are some positive arguments for data-sharing. The Cabinet Office’s e-governance unit noted some years back that the complexity of modern government meant that many people spent a disproportionate amount of their lives giving the same data many times over to different government departments.

Public opinion on the subject oscillates, but in general, if asked whether they would prefer not to have to fill out different forms for every significant aspect of their daily lives – from passport to benefits to tax – the public tend to be positive about the idea.

Unfortunately for government, attitudes tend to reverse when people are reminded of the opportunities for abuse: either positive abuse, by government using data to model our lives in ever greater detail; or just accidental abuse, as government "misplaces" data.

This was the view of the LibDems spokesman on IT, John Pugh MP. "There are enormous theoretical benefits to be had from data sharing," he said. "The problem, as with any granting of powers to government, lies in the implementation. People would happily entrust more of their data to government – if they felt confident it would not be abused. But they have no such confidence."

The data-sharing proposal emerged from a review of the Data Protection Act carried out by Information Commissioner, Richard Thomas, and Dr Mark Walport, a Director of the Wellcome Trust. This report looked explicitly at the problems raised by the need to balance the use of data for maximum social benefit, with individual needs for security and privacy.

In the end, it felt that greater use could be made of the ability to share personal data safely, particularly in the field of research and statistical analysis, and came down on the side of removing "unnecessary barriers". This was seized on by Government and turned into "Clause 152" of the Coroners and Justice Bill.

Balance went out the window, to be replaced by provisions which can be summed up as "a designated authority may by order (an "information-sharing order") enable any person to share information which consists of or includes personal data".

There follow many more clauses, setting out what a "designated authority" is (effectively, any Minister), and what safeguards there are (essentially, none: the Information Commissioner’s opinion may be sought, but not necessarily followed).

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