Following the first “hung parliament” since 1974, the UK is facing considerable legislative reform under the newly formed Conservative - Liberal Democrat coalition government. Although the parties appear to have differing opinions on a number of legislative issues, one issue that unites them is their commitment (at least in theory) to strengthening the current data protection regime implemented under the Labour government.
Each party’s manifesto states that, should it be elected, it will enhance the audit powers of the Information Commissioner (the UK data protection regulator). Currently, the Information Commissioner may audit government departments and public authorities suspected of violating data protection principles without their prior consent. The Conservatives and Liberal Democrats propose to extend the Information Commissioner’s audit powers to private sector organizations. This could be achieved in theory by secondary legislation.
The proposals set forth by the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats are not the only voices calling for reform. The European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (“FRA”),recently has criticized several countries, including the UK, for the limited enforcement powers available to data protection authorities. In particular, the FRA has focused on the limited capacity of data protection authorities to investigate, intervene and enter into legal proceedings against data controllers who violate data protection laws.
The Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats also propose the abolition of central government databases containing sensitive personal information, such as ContactPoint, a database containing details of all children under 18, and the proposed ID card scheme and National Identity Register.
The Conservative Party manifesto contains proposals to extend the scope of the Freedom of Information Act to include taxpayer funded institutions such as Northern Rock, National Rail and the Local Government Association. In addition, the Conservatives have proposed the implementation of the “Right to Government Data” scheme, modeled on the “Right to Data” policy initiated by President Obama in the United States. Under this scheme, details of government spending, for example, government contracts (including contract value and performance indicators) and salaries and expenditure of government officials and civil servants will be routinely made available to the public without the need for a Freedom of Information request. The scheme is likely to expand the range of publically available data that may, in turn, be used by the private sector for commercial purposes.
Following the appointment of this historic coalition, we wait to see how many of the aforementioned campaign pledges will be converted into legislation.