UK govt to rethink data-sharing plans

Justice secretary requests further consultation on a clause in the Coroners and Justice Bill that critics said could undermine democracy.
Written by Tom Espiner, Contributor

The U.K. Ministry of Justice has said it wants to rethink a clause in a bill that critics have said could have undermined the rule of law.

Justice secretary Jack Straw has approached the cabinet to withdraw the clause from the Coroners and Justice Bill, a Ministry of Justice spokesperson told ZDNet Asia's sister site ZDNet UK on Monday.

"The justice secretary has asked cabinet colleagues to withdraw the clause from the bill and launch further consultation," said the spokesperson. "The public and parliamentary concern in the clause as drafted was very wide. Parliamentary and public scrutiny turned up justifiable concerns with the clause."

Clause 152 of the Coroners and Justice Bill gives a minister (or "designated authority", according to the bill) the power to sign an order to allow the sharing of information between any two agencies in the public and private sector. "Subject to the following provisions of this Part, a designated authority may by order (an 'information-sharing order') enable any person to share information which consists of or includes personal data," clause 152 states.

The clause has caused widespread concern, both within and outside parliament. In February, the British Computer Society said the clause could allow a non-benevolent government to debilitate U.K. democracy, as personal data given for one purpose could be used for another.

Lord Erroll told ZDNet UK in February that the law could mean people suffer as a result of personal information being shared freely between government agencies that are "helpers" and those that are "enforcers". Erroll said that public trust in both types of institution would be eroded, leading to people being less likely to use services provided by the "helper" agencies.

On Monday, the Ministry of Justice spokesperson denied that Straw's move was a reversal of its position, saying instead that removing the clause was a "rethink".

In February, the Ministry of Justice said that the Coroners and Justice Bill does not relax data protection in any way. However, on Monday the spokesperson said the reason for the "rethink and a re-consultation" is to "try to strike a balance between the positive elements of data-sharing and ensuring that sensitive data is protected".

Privacy campaigner Phil Booth, director of No2ID, welcomed the move, but said that the cabinet might still decide to keep the clause, despite Straw's reservations.

"What a phenomenal turnaround," said Booth. "People realized that their information could be taken and used and abused for other purposes. But I'd be reluctant to be gung-ho--it's conceivable that the cabinet might hang Jack Straw out to dry."

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