Hidden away at the back of the Coroner’s and Criminal Justice Bill published in January 2009 (Sections151 – 154) are amendments to the Data Protection Act 1998. The new powers reverse the data protection principle that information supplied to one government department or agency cannot be used by another for a different purpose. Ministers and government departments will be able to share data across government by issuing an “information sharing order”.

These orders could be seen as fast-track powers to remove barriers to bulk-sharing of data throughout the public sector. Human rights campaigners fear this could lead to the widespread sharing of data including medical records, tax returns and any other sensitive information. The Government could now do this whenever they see fit without coming back for another Act of Parliament. The Government, in the guise of Jack Straw, recognises there is a problem of public trust in data processing. On publication of the Bill, he accepted that it was an imperative that personal data be protected but noted that, at the same time, people do not want to give the same information time and time again to government departments if it can be transferred safely. We are asked to note the following about this proposed change in the law:

  • It is designed to allow Government departments to share basic data about us (name, address etc) to provide us with “one-stop” services. For example, it is designed to stop us having to tell each agency separately when we move.
  • Ministers will have to undertake formal consultation before getting an information sharing order, which must then be laid before and approved by Parliament.
  • The Information Commissioner (IC) is to report to Parliament and consider the impact on privacy whenever ministers propose an order. The IC can advise that the order goes too far and requires additional safeguards or should not be made.
  • The IC is to provide a data sharing ”Code of Practice” – though it is unclear whether public bodies will be required to take account of this.

In theory, it seems the orders could be used to transfer and release all sorts of data – including medical information – between public agencies. In reality, it is said, such an order would not get the backing of the Information Commissioner and would, therefore, be very unlikely to succeed in the face of the inevitable criticism from the media, public and Parliament.