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Data protection: public consultation into data sharing

8 January 2008

Data protection law is not often headline news. The recent high profile losses of personal information being shared by various public authorities - most notably the loss by HMRC of the personal information of 25 million people whilst en route to another public authority - has, however, put an end to that. Richard Thomas, who heads the Information Commissioners Office (ICO) (that oversees and enforces the Data Protection Act) summed up the sea-change that needs to take place:

"Twenty five million records going missing from the HMRC is one of the most significant breaches in the history of data protection. This incident and its aftermath mark a turning point for data protection in the UK…The UK Data Protection Act provides the framework to handle personal information correctly. …the onus is on every organisation - and every leader within that body - to ensure there are clear lines of accountability to stop things from going badly wrong."

Whats in this public consultation document?

The release by the Ministry of Justice of the public consultation document on the use and sharing of personal information in the public and private sectors is therefore very timely. The consultation, which ends on 15 February, is in the form of a questionnaire and any organisation may respond. It asks for views on a number of key areas, including:

  • The benefits of information sharing
  • Actual or perceived problems with information sharing
  • The effectiveness of the current framework under the Data Protection Act 1998 for the sharing of personal information
  • What further powers, safeguards and sanctions should be included in the Data Protection Act 1998

The consultation document notes that not all of these questions will be of relevance to all respondents. Your organisation may still submit a response by answering those questions that are most relevant to it.

Why might my organisation want to respond to the consultation document?

In addition to your organisations right to respond to the public consultation, the document has been sent to a broad spectrum of organisations from public authorities (who regularly share personal information as part of their statutory functions) through to pressure groups and campaign bodies.

With the types of questions noted above in mind, it seems likely that the responses will shape any proposed changes to the Data Protection Act 1998. It is key that the Ministry of Justice receives views as to why fair and lawful sharing of certain personal information is often key to public authorities successful fulfilment of their statutory obligations. Your organisation may well be best placed to inform the debate on this. Likewise, your organisation may also have had experience of areas where information sharing conflicts with the rights and freedoms of individuals. These experiences are no less important to inform the debate.

How can my organisation respond to the public consultation?

The Ministry of Justice have provided a response form which your organisation can use. This can be found at http://www.justice.gov.uk/

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