Labour’s Chi Onwurah urges government not to lose sight of data ethics in post-Brexit turmoil

Chi Onwurah, shadow minister for the digital economy, has called on the government to establish a joined-up data ethics framework – and not to lose focus because of Brexit. 

Chi Onwurah, shadow minister for culture and the digital economy – Photo credit: PA Images

Speaking to PublicTechnology, Onwurah said that the UK was facing a real “21st century challenge” in maintaining public trust in its use of data.

“We should be getting the foundations of data sharing right now, because otherwise we’re going to be building on sand,” she said.

Onwurah stressed that a lack of pubic trust in the way both the private and public sectors handle data makes it difficult for either to operate.

“It’s like in the Middle Ages before people trusted in money or banks – you’d keep your valuables in your home. You needed trust in the system before people were comfortable,” she said. “I’m worried we’re in the Middle Ages for data.”

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In May this year, the Cabinet Office published an ethical framework for civil servants carrying out data science projects, and is working to create a data ethics council – but it is clear Onwurah wants the focus to be on making sure people understand their rights.

Onwurah acknowledged the government’s actions, but said her version of a framework would make it “very clear that citizens and consumers own and can have access to their own data and control it”. 

Asked about the Digital Economy Bill, which is set to make it easier for public bodies to share data with each other and with researchers, Onwurah suggested that the government had loose ends to tie up.

“It enables data sharing ‘in the public interest’, which governments can use to justify just about everything,” she said. “I’d like to see citizens with clear ownership over their data.”

Meanwhile, the national data guardian for health, Fiona Caldicott, recently published her third review of health and care data, which set out recommendations for the government when designing data-sharing initiatives. But Onwurah says the problem “isn’t only about health data”, adding: “We really need some joined-up government on this.”

And Onwurah would like to see this joined-up approach going beyond central government and being applicable to local government, too.

She noted that a lot of the advances in the way data is managed, shared and analysed – for instance smart cities and the Internet of Things – will play a big part in the empowerment of local communities.

However, they would need an ethical framework to ensure sustained public trust, and this shouldn’t involve the wasted effort of having every local authority creating its own.

Such a framework would also benefit business, too, she said. “It’s pleasantly surprised me that a lot of private sector companies say to me that they want the boundaries defined – they feel a data ethics framework would be helpful to them.”

Beware of Brexit

But Onwurah’s calls for focus on data sharing are running alongside the spectre of the UK’s historic vote to leave the European Union. A month after the vote, the shadow minister remains concerned it will be an issue.

“In some ways, the key areas are the same as they were before Brexit, but a lot has changed,” she said.

“I know [new prime minister] Theresa May has said she doesn’t want Britain to be defined by Brexit, but it seems that the shape of government is being defined by it.”

Onwurah pointed to the extra resources needed for Brexit negotiations that will be lost from other areas of the civil service, affecting a range of policies.

“Is there going to be the headspace and civil service resource to think meaningfully about digital industrial strategy and digital transformation, when everything is focusing on Brexit?” she asked.

Indicative of the distracting quality of Brexit and the cabinet reshuffle is the long-awaited digital strategy, which was delayed until after the referendum, but is still unpublished – the Cabinet Office is still unable to offer a potential launch date.

There are also questions about digital inclusion and digital infrastructure. With many targets being set at the EU level, along with investment from European funding pots, Onwurah said that these issues risk slipping off the agenda.

Meanwhile, local government has a new communities secretary representing it in Whitehall. Is Sajid Javid cut out for the job?

“His past indicates he has no enthusiasm for government intervention, which might be a good thing for devolution,” Onwurah said.

“But he also needs to be able to champion local government in talks with Treasury and I can’t see him doing that. But hopefully I’m wrong.”


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