Government may revive data-sharing plan

The government may try to give itself more data-sharing powers through primary legislation, according to justice secretary Jack Straw
Written by Tom Espiner, Contributor

The government may introduce legislation to enable it to share more citizen data across government departments.

Justice secretary Jack Straw said that the government was consulting on the issue, and would introduce primary legislation if a consensus was reached.

"We are consulting at the moment, and if we get to a consensus position, we will go for legislation — and decent drafting," Straw told ZDNet UK at a data protection conference on Wednesday.

In March, Straw sought the withdrawal of Clause 152 from the Ministry-of-Justice-initiated Coroners and Justice Bill, following widespread criticism of the data-sharing powers the clause would have given the government. At the time, the British Computer Society said the clause could allow a non-benevolent government to debilitate UK democracy, as personal data given for one purpose could be used for another.

At the event, Straw said that the government would not attempt introduce a similar clause via secondary legislation.

"I'm very happy to consult further on this, bringing a wider consultation," said Straw. "This is not a matter of slipping information into an [unrelated] bill; we will have a proper process."

Speaking to ZDNet UK at the event, shadow home secretary Dominic Grieve questioned whether the government needed more data-sharing powers. "The fact is, the system isn't broken at the moment, but it may be broken later," said Grieve. "Clause 152 was completely excessive. If the state thinks it needs more data-sharing powers, then it needs to use primary legislation [as the vehicle]."

The government has argued as part of its 'transformational government' policy that increased data sharing would prevent citizens having to inform multiple government agencies of changes of circumstances, such as bereavement. However, Grieve said that an increase in data-sharing could lead to an erosion of privacy.

"I have no doubt that the system could be improved to prevent multiple contacts with authorities," said Grieve. "But if the price of that multiple notification is privacy, it's not a price worth paying."

Shami Chakrabarti, director of human rights organisation Liberty, told ZDNet UK at the event that any primary legislation to increase data-sharing powers would have to be worded very carefully, and that citizens should be able to consent to their data being used for purposes other than it was originally collected.

"The danger is umbrella powers," said Chakrabarti. "Haven't we learnt the dangers of sloppy, overboard measures? If the government, through an act of parliament, shares data for other purposes, those purposes should be clear, and dealt with by consent."

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