U-turn puts coalition and data law on collision course

By Graeme Burton
08 May 2012 View Comments
Minister of the Cabinet Office Francis Maude

When Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude first proposed improved data sharing between government departments and public-sector bodies, he justified it in terms of tackling fraud, error and debt. “The public sector loses £21bn a year to benefit fraudsters, tax cheats, [and] dishonest employees. On top of this we estimate that we are losing nearly £10bn from payments made in error – made by customers, suppliers and officials,” he said in a speech in February 2012.

Further reading

That coincided with a report, entitled Tackling Fraud and Error in Government, from the Cabinet Office’s Fraud, Error and Debt Taskforce. “We will relentlessly pursue organised criminals using information and data from across government and the private sector to reduce the space between organisational boundaries where it is possible for them to go undetected,” it concluded.

At the heart of his plans is a proposal for improved “data linking”, which will appear in a Cabinet Office white paper that will be published in June 2012. On the surface, it may sound like common sense, joined-up government.

Yet the extension of data sharing powers in this way were explicitly criticised by his own party just three years ago when it was in opposition. In his paper, Reversing the Rise of the Surveillance State, then shadow justice secretary Dominic Grieve criticised Gordon Brown’s Labour government for its reliance on “mammoth databases and wide powers of data sharing”.

Furthermore, Grieve promised fewer centralised databases under a Conservative government, keeping fewer personal details, and “held only by specific authorities on a need-to-know basis only, and for limited periods of time”. He also promised “greater checks on data-sharing between government departments, quangos and local councils”.

Slamming the Labour government’s record on personal privacy as “intrusive, ineffective and enormously expensive”, he also promised that an incoming Conservative-led government would:

• require privacy impact assessments on any proposals for new legislation or other measures that involve data collection or sharing at the earliest opportunity; and,

• require new powers of data sharing to be introduced into law by primary legislation, not by order.

Just one year later, the Conservative Party’s election manifesto was equally clear: “We believe that personal data should be controlled by individual citizens…we will take steps to protect people from unwarranted intrusion by the state.”

What a difference an election victory makes. In his speech in February, Maude outlined how the Cabinet Office would lead the charge against fraud and error. “At the heart of our new collaborative approach – and underpinning everything we do – will be a new intelligence sharing architecture,” he said.

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