The Ministry of Justice has recently published its response to the Data Sharing Review Report (the report) drafted by the Wellcome Trust and the Information Commissioner. Its purpose was to review the framework for the use of personal information in both the public and private sectors. The full response is available here.

The proposals for change include primary legislation to place a statutory duty on the Information Commissioner to publish a code of practice. The aims of the code of practice will be to provide practical guidance and promote good practice. There is also a proposal for a new procedure to enable amendments of primary legislation to be made quickly if there is any legal barrier to data sharing. We will need to wait and see how this works out practically in the future.

There are also fundamental changes proposed in respect of the Information Commissioner’s inspection powers which are to be contained in the Justice and Coroners Bill. Richard Thomas, the Information Commissioner, has said that the new powers will increase their inspection powers especially in relation to public sector bodies which will include NHS hospitals. Currently it is unclear on what basis these inspections will take place and new legislation will need to be examined in detail.

The report also recommended the introduction of fines for serious breaches of the principles of the Data Protection Act (DPA) by data controllers. In response, the Criminal and Immigration Act 2008, which is not yet in force, inserts section 55A into the DPA which enables the Information Commissioner to issue a civil monetary penalty for serious breaches of the data protection principles which are likely to cause “substantial damage or distress” to the data subject – the level of those fines has yet to be determined.

Also of interest to our NHS clients is the recommendation of the establishment of “safe havens” for researchers. This has been accepted and in relation to health the DH is now working with the Information Centre for Health and Social Care to develop this further. The aim is to provide a secure environment in which suitable investigators and research professionals can work under conditions of confidentiality, with expert support from health professionals and staff who owe a duty of confidentiality equivalent to that of a health professional. The Government plans to commission a code for the use of safe havens, and a scheme for accrediting researchers.