Digital Economy Bill lays path for greater public data sharing

Written by Rebecca Hill on 6 July 2016 in News
News

Public authorities will be granted more powers to share their data with other bodies through proposals set out in the Digital Economy Bill, which was laid before Parliament yesterday.

New legislation will improve access to the masses of data held by public bodies - Photo credit: PA Images

The bill, which also sets out provisions to create a Broadband Universal Service Obligation to give everyone access to broadband of at least 10Mbps, has three main aims surrounding data sharing.

These are: to improve public service delivery, help detect fraud and debt owed to government, and make it easier for researchers and statisticians to access public data.


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In a statement, the Cabinet Office said: “Valuable opportunities to help people are often missed because of the way in which government stores, manages and uses data. This means we are falling behind on the services we are able to provide, and wasting public money.”

The publication of the bill follows a two-year open policymaking process and an eight-week consultation, which received 282 responses. The government published its response to that consultation alongside the bill.

The government said there had been a broadly positive reaction to the proposals, particularly from local authorities and bodies that deliver front-line services. These groups said the powers would simplify the legal landscape and allow more coordinated interventions.

The bill will establish a permissive gateway for public authorities to disclose information to another public authority for a particular purpose. However, the government stressed that the move would not weaken the Data Protection Act and that data would only be shared where there was a public benefit.

Benefits cited by the government include removing the legal barriers to sharing information on troubled families between central and local government and sharing data to automatically give people the benefits they are entitled to.

Respondents to the consultation said that they would welcome some civic registration information – for instance electronic birth information to access a digital service without having to provide paper certificates – but there was more concern around the proposed bulk information sharing.

The government is now developing a code of practice to guide the appropriate use of the data, in collaboration with the Information Commissioner’s Office and other interested bodies.

In addition, there will be sanctions of a fine and up to two years imprisonment for those that misuse the data.

Fraud, debt and research

The Cabinet Office said that public sector debt currently stands at over £24 billion, and that the new legislation would help develop new systems for finding and collecting that money.

It should also help individuals manage their debt with the government, and make it easier to detect fraudulent activity.

However, because people who are in debt may also be vulnerable, the government will create safeguards to ensure that people who have a genuine reason for falling into debt are treated fairly.

The work on both the fraud and debt gateway measures will take the form of a three-year pilot, after which the scheme will be assessed. If it isn’t working it is likely to be modified or even closed down.

The government also said that it had recognised concerns about a lack of parliamentary scrutiny at the final review stage and would consider how to factor in external, independent assessment.

Meanwhile, there are provisions within the bill to allow researchers quicker access to administrative data, which can currently take more than two years to process through Parliament alone. The new rules should mean a decision is now made within that time period.

Both the research project and the researcher will have to be accredited, and there may be a fee incurred, which will be on a cost of recovery basis. Bodies will also be allowed to refuse access to data, but the details of any unsuccessful application will be made public.

Culture change

Roeland Beerten, director of policy and public affairs at the Royal Statistical Society, welcomed the bill.

“Although there has generally been good progress on the government's digital agenda, the UK has been lagging behind in how data held by public bodies can be used more effectively to enable both the public and private sector make better decisions,” he said. “The proposed new legislation will create much needed improvements.”

Martin Ferguson, director of policy at Socitm, the representative body for public sector IT professionals, echoed these sentiments, saying that the measures were “long overdue in breaking down the silos of data and information handling in public services”.

However, both said stressed that the proposals needed to be accompanied by a change in attitudes in the public sector.

Ferguson said that there needed to be a “fundamental shift in attitudes and cultures to embrace the true meaning of ‘public service’”.

He added: “At the end of the day, it is people in government - central and local - and in associated organisations who will or will not share data and information, and it is they who will have to change if we are to realise the ambition of holistic, citizen-focused services.”

Meanwhile, Beerten noted that other countries already had more efficient ways of sharing data, saying that the legislation was just the first step in helping the UK government catch up. “Both culture and IT infrastructures will need to adapt to help realise these efficiencies,” he said.

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