Not Saussure

January 15, 2007

Goverment data plans

Filed under: civil liberties, Politics, UK — notsaussure @ 8:45 pm

BBC NEWS | Politics | Data plan ‘not like Big Brother’

Plans to make it easier for government departments to share information on people are not a move towards a “Big Brother” state, a minister has said.Pensions Secretary John Hutton said the plan was to stop “overzealous data sharing rules” being “an obstacle to improving public services”.

The government was not creating a giant database and people would not have to allow details to be shared, he added.

Do we believe him, though? (What they used to call in ‘a question expecting the answer “no”‘ when I did Latin, I think).

Clearly, and for cogent reasons expressed by people like ArchRights and No2ID, not if they’re wise, or at least not without some pretty cast-iron precautions.

John Hutton, the Work and Pensions Secretary, was on the Today Programme this morning (and is quoted at some length on the BBC Website) trying to be reassuring about the proposals, explaining

“I think it would be a good place to get to if we were asking people ‘is it OK to share your information with other government departments?'”That should be a routine part of the process of engaging with the public services.”

Mr Hutton said departments already stored “vast amounts of data about individual citizens” but this was not usually shared, often to the detriment of the public.

For example, one family had had to contact the government 44 times to confirm various details after a relative died in a road accident, he said.

This example, much quoted over the weekend by ministers, alarms me. Something clearly went badly wrong there. Most of us aren’t that familiar, for obvious reasons, with the minutiae of dealing with government departments after a relative’s death, but I had so to do after my wife died some three years ago. Her death, while hardly unexpected, was sudden enough to necessitate a post-mortem, so the cases are comparable and I have to say that unless the unfortunate family mentioned by Mr Hutton found themselves dealing with the Crown Prosecution Service about a possible prosecution arising from the accident, or unless they’re counting some complex transactions as a result of winding up the estate, I just don’t see how they ended up having to contact government departments that many times.

As it happen, Mr Hutton’s Department of Work and Pensions were particularly helpful (at least most of the time). I well recall being pleasantly surprised when, on my initially contacting them to advise them of my wife’s death, they actually offered to pass on the information to other relevant parts of the department and — as I recall — to the Inland Revenue as well.

There were several subsequent contacts, mostly initiated by the departments, but that was as I expected. Different sections needed different pieces of information from me and I needed to ask them various questions, too, so this wasn’t a problem. My only complaint, as it happens, was when some information got garbled in transmission between one part of the DWP and another — I might get confused about details sometimes, but I certainly wouldn’t have misinformed them about the date of my wife’s death — and that took some sorting out. One of my cousins has recently had to sort things out after his mother’s death and his experience was much the same as mine — everyone’s been pretty helpful and sympathetic.

What’s ringing the alarm bells for me is the way that the government is using an example where something’s clearly gone wrong in the course of dealing with something that most of us don’t have to deal with that frequently, thank God, in an apparent attempt to drum up support for a far wider and far more contentious set of proposals.

Mr Hutton is of the view that

“I think it would be a good place to get to if we were asking people ‘is it OK to share your information with other government departments?’

Well, if he were to ask that, he’d probably get answers on the lines of ‘depends on the circumstances, and if you tell me what information you want to share, with whom and why, on a specific occasion, I’ll probably give you my permission’. What worries me is that they’re using a very emotive and unusual example in what I suspect is an attempt to bounce their focus groups citizens panels into agreeing to a much wider and vaguer set of proposals. The Downing Street website makes it clear that’s exactly what they’re doing:

Members of a citizens’ panel will be asked whether they would be in favour of relaxing current privacy procedures so they don’t have to repeat personal information to several different public bodies, particularly at times of great stress such as the death of a loved one.

Their views will inform work across government looking at how to make data sharing easier across government so citizens get a better deal from the public services they use.

Sorry, Mr Blair, but all their reply to a question about repeating personal information to several different public bodies under times of great stress should inform is whether or not you do exactly that, not whether you make ‘data sharing easier’ for government departments.

The Downing Street website continues,

The public have increasingly high expectations of services in both the public and private sector – 81 percent agree that ‘Britain’s public services need to start treating users and the public as customers’ (MORI). There is a widespread view that public services need to be more light-footed and flexible – delivering what people need, when they need it.

But it is difficult for services to anticipate or deal with these problems quickly and sensitively when there are barriers around the sharing of information between different public services.

Well quite possibly so, though it rather depends whose customers they have in mind; not necessarily, I hope, those of, for example, British Gas, based on my recent dealings with that company, and certainly not like people who purchased their pensions from Equitable Life or like the sometime customers of Farepak.

And I certainly don’t want them to treat me like the customers of any company that has effrontery to pass my details, unrequested, on to Capital One, who then ‘anticipate’ from these details that I might ‘need’ dozens of credit cards (they, by the way, were still writing to my wife offering her plastic six months after I’d written to tell them to take her off their mailing lists because she was dead).

The great things about being treated as a customer are that you can always take your custom elsewhere and the people who’re soliciting and trying to keep your custom know that and behave accordingly. And if their attempts to attract and retain customers aren’t successful, they have every incentive to try to remedy this situation. Government departments aren’t, by their very nature, subject to this discipline. I’m not suggesting privatising everything but I do point out that since government departments are exempt from the sanctions that the market imposes on commercial organisations that upset their customers, it’s a bit dangerous to give them the same IT tools that we let Tescos marketing department play with.
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  1. Yes using one off extreme cases to justify huge changes…where have I heard this before?

    45 minutes anyone?
    Inciting Racial Hatred?

    the list goes on. I think this is just lunacy and shows yet another intellectual and political low for this government.

    Comment by cityunslicker — January 15, 2007 @ 10:33 pm

  2. Indeed. It also seems, though, to be an example of trying to slip something in through the back door. Or maybe the click-through terms in software licences would be an analogy — yes, of course I want to install Microsoft Office (but I don’t really notice that in the process I’m agreeing to some highly dubious terms and conditions — have you ever looked carefully at the potential penalties to which you’ve agreed you’re liable should one of your employees make an illegal copy of Office? Scary).

    If it were just a matter of changing some ‘overzealous data sharing rules'(as Downing Street puts it) to allow the DWP to pass around information that’s a matter of public record anyway (i.e. that someone’s died) along with some basic personal details about identity of next-of-kin, NI numbers and so forth to interested parties — which they seemed willing enough to do for me anyway — HMG wouldn’t be making such a fuss about it.

    Comment by notsaussure — January 15, 2007 @ 11:07 pm

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