Gov't plans law to increase data-sharing

Proposals to give the secretary of state more powers to remove obstacles to data-sharing, have been described as 'incredibly opaque'

The government has announced that it is to seek greater powers for secretaries of state to permit or require data-sharing.

As part of the Ministry of Justice Response to the Data Sharing Review Report, published on Tuesday, the government laid out plans to give secretaries of state fast-track powers to permit or require data-sharing between organisations.

"We intend to bring forward legislation to confer upon the secretary of state a power to permit or require the sharing of personal information between particular persons or bodies, so long as a robust case can be made to use that power," the report states. The power will also be used to simplify the data-protection framework and remove any "unnecessary obstacles to data-sharing".

Rosemary Jay, who leads the data-protection team at law firm Pinsent Masons, told ZDNet UK on Wednesday that this statement is "incredibly opaque". Jay said that the only legal obstacles to data-sharing are common-law precedents relating to sharing medical records and data-sharing between the police and private sector.

"When I went to one of the consultation meetings about this, there was no clarity about statutory barriers to data-sharing, other than those in genuine policy debate," Jay said. "Medical records and access to those records, public-sector policing bodies sharing data with the private sector — these are issues which need discussion. I'm not at all sure where this fast-track gateway is going to bite. It is an inappropriate measure for changing barriers to medical records."

The data-protection expert said it was unlikely that the government would use the fast-track powers to amend the Data Protection Act (DPA), as UK law would still have to be in harmony with EU law.

"This is not a carte blanche to change the DPA," Jay said. "The government couldn't do anything, as it has obligations to comply with the [EU] Data Protection Directive."

The Response to the Data Sharing Review Report was published in reply to a review of data-sharing by information commissioner Richard Thomas and Dr Mark Walport of the Wellcome Trust. That Data Sharing Review Report, published in July, recommends that government be given powers to remove and modify barriers to data-sharing.

"Where there is a genuine case for removing or modifying an existing legal barrier to data-sharing, a new statutory fast-track procedure should be created," reads recommendation eight of the report. "Primary legislation should provide the secretary of state, in precisely defined circumstances, with a power by order, subject to the affirmative resolution procedure in both Houses, to remove or modify any legal barrier to data-sharing."

At the time of writing, the Ministry of Justice had not responded to a request for comment about exactly what new powers were to be given to secretaries of state.

However, in a statement, the Ministry of Justice did say: "Sharing data is essential for the delivery of efficient and effective joined-up public services, tackling crime and protecting the public. The new power will lead to a more streamlined process for policies requiring data-sharing, whilst, at the same time, allowing fuller parliamentary scrutiny."

"Any draft order would require parliamentary approval and a privacy impact assessment. Additionally, the information commissioner would have been invited to comment on the proposals. This will ensure that any potential privacy issues and risks are identified and examined. The power will be exercised only in circumstances where the sharing of the information is in the public interest and proportionate to the impact on any person adversely affected by it," the ministry said.