Headlines: July 13th, 2006

The Data Protection Act should not be seen as a barrier to personal information being shared across the public sector, according to the Information Commissioner, Richard Thomas, in his annual report today. In it he sends a clear message that data protection offers a valuable framework for information to be shared.

In response to the Government’s renewed focus on projects to share personal information among public sector bodies, Mr.Thomas says this could bring clear benefits in safeguarding the public, improving services and reducing costs but he stressed that public bodies had to retain public trust and confidence. This would be achieved only if they shared information in a secure, lawful and responsible way.

“I do not want data protection to be wrongly blamed for preventing sensible information sharing, for example to detect crime, protect children at risk or prevent fraud. Electronic government initiatives which improve public services, such as online car tax renewal, show that information can be shared in entirely acceptable ways,” Mr. Thomas said.

With more and more information being passed from one database to another, he said, it was important to get the basics right. Trust and confidence would be lost if information was inaccurate or out of date, if there were mistakes about identification or if information was not kept securely and expectations of privacy were not met. There should, he said, be clarity of purpose fore the sharing and it should not be done simply because technology allowed it to happen. People must be told how their personal information was being shared and given choices about that where this was possible.

Mr. Thomas was keen that data protection should be seen as part of the solution, not as the problem. The eight core principles underpinning the Act provided a framework to ensure personal information was collected in ways which are necessary, justified and proportionate.

His office, he said, would contribute constructively to government thinking and feed in data protection expertise. “There is too much uncertainty and misunderstanding within the public sector about what can or cannot be done. We can provide help and authoritative answers. It is our job to promote good practice and we will be exploring ways – for example through information-sharing guidelines and promoting statutory codes of practice – to bring greater certainty and clarity to help government achieve the right balance,” he added. He was also determined to champion respect for personal information with a common sense approach to ensure that increased information sharing served worthwhile goals and did not result in unacceptable intrusion.