Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2009/03/09/coroners_and_justice_bill/

Straw bends on Coroners & Justice data-sharing proposals

Legislation dropped - but are proposals really dead?

By Jane Fae Ozimek

Posted in Government, 9th March 2009 12:53 GMT

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).

Since then, it has been downhill all the way. The BCS was first off the mark, claiming in December 2008 that the bill "runs counter to the intentions and provisions of the Data Protection Act (DPA)" and "severely curtails the independence of the Information Commissioner". More recently a group of eight influential health care organisations, including the BMA, wrote to the Ministry of Justice. They said: "In our view the Bill will undermine the presumption of confidentiality, corrode trust in the doctor-patient relationship and could have a disastrous impact on both the health of individuals and the public."

At base, they were seriously concerned that, fearing confidential information could be passed on from GP to government, patients would start to clam up.

Things got worse, as respected public body GeneWatch weighed in against the measure, briefing MPs to the effect that it would create a DNA database by stealth.

Clearly under pressure – and perhaps looking for a quick PR win in advance of the Convention on Modern Liberty - Jack Straw let it be known, at the end of February, that he would be tabling several amendments to build in safeguards to the Bill when it reached its report stage in the Commons (March).

The final straw (ahem), however, may have been the announcement by the Scottish Government (pdf) that it would no longer be supporting the measure. Or perhaps it was the Facebook Group that finally proved too much.

After reviewing so much hostile data, a spokesman for the Ministry of Justice said this morning: "Jack Straw let it be known last week that he will be asking Cabinet Members if it is OK to remove clause 152 from the Bill and launch a further consultation."

Clause 152 is dead - but be warned, that doesn’t mean it won’t sneak back in the autumn under some different guise. ®