Data in the rest of Government: a fertile breeding ground for fraud and misery

We have now published our submission on Part 5 of the Digital Economy Bill to the Committee scrutinising the Bill.

The Digital Economy Bill (Part 5) promotes a fertile breeding ground for fraud and misery: excessive data sharing, but only in secret.

The protections on sharing data to academic researchers are strict – people who work to increase human knowledge have to jump through a range of hoops to get funded, with critique and transparency; and then even more hoops to get data, again with critique and transparence; and even then, the the Digital Economy Bill does not apply that process to health data for research until we see the outcome to the Caldicott process.

Yet, the Digital Economy Bill contains no prohibition on civil servants secretly sharing any data, including medical records. This includes secret sharing by Government Departments to inform operational decisions. There are no meaningful restrictions on copying of any data held by any public body. From anywhere, to anywhere except independent experts.

“If you give me six lines written by the hand of the most honest of men,
I will find something in them which will hang him.” – Cardinal Richelieu

In recent weeks, it has emerged that a citizen was stripped of housing benefits because data showed they were cohabiting with “Joseph Rowntree”, the 19th Century philanthropist whose modern legacy includes a Housing Trust which bears his name, and which was that woman’s social landlord. The DWP contractors used just enough data to create “evidence” that reinforced their prejudice, but not enough to realise their “evidence” was lunacy. This Bill makes those events more common, more harmful, and more opaque.

The Cabinet Office believe that they should be trusted with everything, and independent academics can be trusted with almost nothing. Neither of those are likely to be right.

That is learning the wrong lesson from Academic use of data to improve the public knowledge was not what people objected to. It was the secrecy and other purposes.

The Cabinet Office clearly don’t understand that their approach is part of the problem. More copying with the same rules was; this bill is more copying with less rules, less transparency, and less oversight. No one suggests that fraud prevention should be subject to consent, but Parliament should be able to assess whether the approach has worked.

The existing minimal oversight of Parliament goes away, and Departments can do what they wish. A statutory basis for disclosure to prevent fraud is entirely sensible – individuals shouldn’t get that choice – but in addition to all sharing the data, the Government demands secrecy as to whether that sharing was effective.

If governance is effective, then it should apply to all. If it’s ineffective, then it shouldn’t happen at all. Parliament needs to pick one.

The reason the last Government didn’t want good governance and accountability to apply to Government, is because the governance and accountability process works.

An accountability process that is entirely absent from most parts of this Bill.

Which way is the new Government going to go?