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Gov slams critical database report as opaque, flawed, inaccurate

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The Government has slammed as opaque, inadequate and riddled with factual errors a think tank report that claimed that a quarter of Government databases were operating illegally. The Government has said the report was methodologically flawed.

In March independent political reform body the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust published 'Database State', a report which said that 11 of the UK's 46 databases were almost certainly operating in breach of data protection and other laws.

The report assigned each database a status based on traffic lights. Only six of the 46 databases were assigned the 'green' status that indicated they worked properly and legally.

"In too many cases the public are neither served nor protected by the increasingly complex and intrusive holdings of personal information invading every aspect of our lives," said the report. "A quarter of the public-sector databases reviewed are almost certainly illegal under human rights or data protection law; they should be scrapped or substantially redesigned."

But the Government has hit back, tackling the report's conclusions on each database in turn and claiming that the report had an inadequate methodology that rendered the report useless.

"The methodology used to address these research questions is not stated; indeed, there is no methodology section," says the Government's response. "There is no information on how the databases were identified, screened and selected for inclusion in the report; where the majority of the information about the databases came from and how the evidence obtained was validated and checked for factual accuracy; or the factors used in the traffic light assessment, how these were applied, how consistency in use was tested, the relative importance of the different factors and how the various factors were combined to give an overall rating."

"Where legal judgements have been made about compatibility with legislation, no legal arguments are produced to support them. It is not possible to assess whether the methodology is robust and appropriate," it said.

"The methodology underpinning its judgements is opaque and inadequately substantiated," said minister of state at the Ministry of Justice Michael Wills. "In such a fast changing environment, the Government is happy to change policy in response to well founded criticism but it needs to be clear about the basis on which any criticism is being made. The report also makes errors of fact and makes unjustified assumptions which do not encourage faith in its conclusions."

"Without a clear methodology and basis for this research it has been difficult for Government to see how accusations of illegality were reached, assess their validity and so respond to them effectively," says the Government's paper. "When referring to the Human Rights Act (HRA) and the Data Protection Act (DPA), the report seems to confuse legal issues with policy considerations and conclusions drawn from them appear to reflect the opinions of the authors rather than legal advice."

The Rowntree report contained 10 recommendations for Government. The Government has responded to each. The Rowntree report said that data should only be gathered when necessary and with full consent.

The Government was scathing about the recommendation. "It is not clear why the report felt it necessary to make it as it is simply a statement of principle and practice and an accurate summary of the law," its response says. "The report claims that the vision of Transformational Government is to collect all data about everyone and keep it forever. This is not the case nor is it clear why the report asserts that it is."

The Government rejected the idea of funding all legal challenges to the databases and the proposal that a full review of the databases should be carried out. Its report says that other recommendations, such as establishing the right to access public services anonymously or the deletion of all data after six years, are impractical.

The Government did, though, partially accept criticism of the ability of the civil service to procure and manage large and complex systems.

"It is accepted that the procurement and delivery of Government IT programmes needs to improve," says the response. "But it is wrong for the Rowntree Report to imply that nothing is being done about this and the Government is complacent about the need for improvement."

"Insofar as [one recommendation] suggests the need for cultural change in the way Government IT projects are procured and delivered, the Government accepts the needs for this and is taking action to secure it," it says.

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