Westminster View: The secret data sharing gateway

Yesterday was the Queen’s Speech. Whilst the local and European elections show the depths of discontent with the direction of our country, which people increasingly feel does not work for them, the Queen’s Speech merely offered more of the same.


Yesterday was the Queen’s Speech. Whilst the local and European elections show the depths of discontent with the direction of our country, which people increasingly feel does not work for them, the Queen’s Speech merely offered more of the same.

Many of the measures have already been announced or indeed are simply watered down versions of things Labour has called for. For example, ministers have repeatedly promised to tackle the scandal of late payment hitting small firms, but yesterday decided on ‘encouraging’ firms to sign the Prompt Payment Code rather than the tougher ‘naming and shaming’ of late payers which Labour has committed to.

But then the fact that Parliament was prorogued a whole two weeks before the speech, and there are a record number of unfinished bills, carried over from the previous parliamentary session, demonstrated that, as Labour Party leader Ed Miliband puts it, “ministers have run out of ideas”.  

Or at least ones they wish to submit to parliamentary scrutiny...

One of the carry over bills is the Deregulation Bill – the government’s third deregulation bill in four years. It was debated on the last sitting day of Parliament 12th May. I was leading for the Labour Party on the bill – a hodge podge of various measures from deregulating knitting yarn to removing health and safety requirements from the self employed.

But one late addition caught my ‘digital government’ notice - a last-minute new clause to the bill to authorise data sharing between the Department for Business, HMRC and persons providing apprenticeships services to them.

This may be both necessary and useful — the actual data to be shared may be entirely harmless — but, as I said to the minister responsible – Tom Brake – it should be done transparently, with the right safeguards and accountability in place, and it should be done as part of a coherent strategy.

This was clearly not the case here. The “person providing services” could be anyone, from individual consultants to big multinational companies, yet there had been no debate, no publicity, indeed no detail whatsoever as to what it meant.

As part of our Digital Government Review we are looking at the opportunities and challenges associated with both data sharing and open data, which this Government deliberately confuses. 

The Open Data Institute says: “Data sharing is providing restricted data to restricted organisations or individuals...Open data is providing unrestricted data to everyone.”

As the chief technology officer of the Open Data Institute put it: “Confusion is understandable when the government tries to justify its data sharing as satisfying its wider open-data policy.”

With open data, everyone can see the data. However, the amendment was clearly not about open data but government deciding to share potentially sensitive data with people they choose, without explaining the what, why or who.

The government has been heavily criticised for their handling of health data in the care.data project as well as more recently with HMRC data sharing. It might be hoped that this had taught them to proceed with greater care and engagement. But not a bit of it.

The minister told me that the last minute amendment “provides for an information-sharing gateway between Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and the Secretary of State”.

An information sharing gateway? What did he mean by that? The minister did not seem to know himself. When I asked who will own and therefore be accountable for this new IT system, he said he was “not in a position to clarify precisely where the responsibility will lie, because the system is not yet specified”.

Should not there be an owner in order to specify the system, I asked. He replied that he was not in a position to respond but was ‘certain that the government will ensure that someone or a particular department is very clearly accountable’.

One of the top reasons for IT project failure in the public sector remains a lack of leadership and ownership and here we have the government making the same mistakes all over again.

This latest proposal on apprenticeships data makes it clear that there is not any kind of coherent data sharing strategy across government. The data-sharing policy unit in the Cabinet Office recently set out to map the current data-sharing landscape, following a meeting with concerned civil society groups. But we have not heard anything since. I will be asking questions in Parliament to try and clarify the situation.

Whereas one corner of government believes they need to legislate for data sharing, over in another corner they seem to be of an entirely different view.

When I called the Department of Health’s 24 hour line to replace my European health insurance card, I was surprised to hear an automated message saying that: “The NHS Business Services Authority has a data-sharing agreement with other government agencies. By continuing this call, you signal your awareness and agreement to data sharing.”

In one department they share your data if you do not hang up the phone, whereas down the road in another they are scurrying to enshrine it in law. Seeing as ministers have not been able to agree on much to do for the next nine months, perhaps the Queen’s Speech would have been a good opportunity to turn their attention to the chaotic and tangled mess that is their approach to data sharing.

 Chi Onwurah is Labour shadow Cabinet Office minister and MP for Newcastle Central

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