Tony Blair has proposed a relaxation of the data protection laws to allow greater sharing of personal information on individuals between government departments.
The move was signalled in a September “vision statement” on data sharing, produced by the Department for Constitutional Affairs, which outlined work already under way on data sharing in different public service areas.
The prime minister said greater data sharing would improve public services by reducing the amount of form filling for individuals, who would no longer need to supply details such as a change of address to a string of separate government departments and agencies.
Increased data sharing would also allow delivery of more joined up public services, he said.
But the proposals brought a warning from the Information Commissioner's Office and were sharply criticised by privacy campaigners and opposition parties. "A cautious approach to information sharing is needed in order to avoid the dangers of excessive surveillance and the loss of public trust and confidence," the ICO said.
"There must be clarity of purpose and some limits to sharing — information must not be shared just because the technology allows it," said the ICO.
But a spokesperson for the ICO refused to be drawn on whether the data protection watchdog would oppose any legislation aimed at amending the Data Protection Act.
Shami Chakrabarti, director of human rights campaign Liberty, said: “This is an accumulation of our Government's contempt for our privacy. This half-baked proposal would allow an information free-for-all within government - ripe for disastrous errors and ripe for corruption and fraud.”
Shadow constitutional affairs secretary Oliver Heald said the government was creating a “database state”. He added: “Labour plans to weaken the data protection laws must be resisted. For all of Labour's talk of human rights, it is clear they have no respect for the privacy of law-abiding citizens.”
In a bid to secure public support for the plan, the prime minister said the move would be discussed by a “citizen’s panel” – a beefed up focus group – which would weigh up the balance between public sector efficiency and the need to protect privacy.
The DCA is due to produce concrete proposals on data sharing in April, but its vision paper, which cited the potential for data sharing between the Department for Work and Pensions and local authorities to speed council tax benefit payments, added: "Legislation may be needed to enable these changes.”