Data sharing powers questioned in Lords

Better safeguards are needed in new Government data sharing proposals according to the Conservative spokesperson on home affairs in the House of Lords. Baroness Anelay of St Johns has tabled a series of amendments to a new Government Bill.

The Serious Crime Bill allows for the sharing of data for comparison as a crime fighting measure. Called data matching, this involves public sector financial watchdog the Audit Commission comparing different records to try to detect fraud.

But the Government's proposals are too wide ranging and do not contain enough safeguards against the invasion of citizens' privacy, according to the amendments proposed by Anelay.

The proposed law as currently written states that the Audit Commission's activities be governed by a code of practice. It says, though, that that code of practice will be written by the Audit Commission itself.

Anelay has proposed a legislative demand that the Information Commissioners Office (ICO), the body responsible for protecting people's privacy under the Data Protection Act, approve any code. She has also suggested that both Houses of Parliament approve any code or any changes to it.

"The code of practice and any revisions to it shall be subject to the approval of the Information Commissioner; and, following his approval, to approval by affirmative resolution of both Houses of Parliament," reads one of her amendments, tabled late last week.

The Bill has been passed to the House of Lords for reading and approval, before being passed back to the House of Commons. The amendments will be discussed at the Committee stage before the Bill is read before the Lords for a third time. It then goes through a number of readings and a Committee stage in the Commons before becoming law.

The amendments proposed by Anelay would also demand that the Audit Commission produce reports connected to every data matching exercise to justify the process. According to the proposed amendments, the report should detail:

the reasons for conducting the data matching exercise; any assumptions to be made in the data matching exercise;

what audit these assumptions will be subject to;

the outcome of the data matching exercise which the Commission would consider to be successful;

why the Commission consider that the use of data matching is a proportionate use of its powers;

steps the Commission will take to ensure that data subjects are protected; and

what reports the Information Commissioner will receive about the data matching exercise.

The Serious Crime Bill has hit the headlines because of its super-ASBOS, the Serious Crime Prevention Orders, which can apply to organisations as well as people. The data matching element has attracted less attention but could become controversial if support for Anelay's amendments builds.

The Bill extends to the Home Secretary powers to alter in the future what circumstances will merit a data matching exercise. It says the Home Secretary "may by order add further purposes for which data matching exercises may be conducted". This, too, is opposed by the Tories in the Lords.

"Any further purposes added by the Secretary of State under subsection (1)(a) must be limited to the prevention and detection of serious offences, as defined by Schedule 1 to the Serious Crime Act 2007," says one of Anelay's amendments.