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Data sharing to be dropped from Coroners and Justice Bill?

Posted by James Hammerton @ 1:57 pm on 8 March, 2009.
Categories privacy and surveillance, British politics, the database state, accountability.
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Update: Spy Blog takes a distinctly sceptical view of the reports mentioned below.

Reports in the Telegraph, the Observer and the Daily Mail all suggest that the data sharing clauses of the Coroners and Justice Bill are to be dropped. From the Telegraph:

Jack Straw, the Justice Secretary, is to shelve proposals which critics said would have led to patients’ confidential medical records being passed to third parties.

A spokesman for Mr Straw said the “strength of feeling” against the plans had persuaded him to rethink.

The proposals will be dropped entirely from the Coroners and Justice Bill, and a new attempt will be made to reach a consensus on introducing a scaled-back version at an unspecified stage in the future.

“He has looked at it and he now wants to withdraw the clauses. We have asked Cabinet colleagues to agree to this,” said Mr Straw’s spokesman.

“Jack recognised the strength of feeling and he recognised that the clause was drafted in a way that was too wide, and so needed to be looked at again.

“He understood that this issue had touched a nerve for a lot of people, and he understood why.”

And:

Last week more than 30 groups wrote to Mr Straw outlining their concerns that the proposals would allow the government to disclose “almost limitless” personal details about individuals, and even pass the records to private companies.

Bodies including the Royal College of Psychiatrists and the Independent Schools Council said the measures were “among the most wide-ranging and potentially intrusive proposals ever laid before Parliament”.

Other signatories to a joint letter of protest included Claire Rayner, the president of the Patients Association, Professor Dinesh Bhugra, president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, and Bob Oddy, general secretary of the Licensed Taxi Drivers’ Association.

It was also backed by Neal Lawson of the left-wing pressure group Compass and Professor Richard Parish, chief executive of the Royal Society for Public Health.

It looks as if the backlash against the idea is forcing the government to back off. The critical questions left now are:

  • When will the new proposals come forward? If they’re put forward in the current parliamentary session, then the government can have them in force before the next election, unless they get defeated. Thus if they’re still objectionable, there’ll still need to be another fight to stop them. If they’re delayed until the 2009-2010 parliamentary session, then there’s a chance the bill will fall when the next general election is called. Thus a demonstration of opposition might merely need to delay the bill.
  • How limited will the new proposals be? It would not be surprising if the government put in some token “safeguards” and claimed they’d listened to criticism. There is a risk that any “fast track” mechanism will be misused by ministers and that the proposed safeguards will be ineffectual. Personally I regard the only remotely adequate safeguard is for any proposed sharing of personal data to be given full parliamentary scrutiny in the form of primary legislation. We need to stop giving ministers enabling powers that allow them to bypass parliamentary debate and scrutiny by putting their proposals forward as statutory instruments.

In the meantime, I await the removal of the data sharing clauses from the Bill.

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