Never-ending story, by Pat McFadden

26 Oct 06
There are still too many examples of poor data-sharing between government and its agencies, argues the social exclusion minister. Vulnerable people should have to give their details to only one arm of government

27 October 2006

There are still too many examples of poor data-sharing between government and its agencies, argues the social exclusion minister. Vulnerable people should have to give their details to only one arm of government

When we listen to some of the most vulnerable people in our society — such as homeless people, older people, those with disabilities, people who have just come out of institutions — they tell us that they are frustrated by having to tell the same story over and over again to different agencies and parts of government.

It may be a matter of addressing financial problems; reducing the burden of form-filling; or identifying opportunities to act more swiftly and more effectively to intervene before a crisis happens. Certainly, when parts of government talk to one another and share relevant information we can be more effective in helping vulnerable people and tackling social exclusion.

Sometimes the consequences of not communicating can be tragic. As Lord Laming commented in the introduction to his final report into the death of Victoria Climbié, 'Information systems that depend on the random passing of slips of paper have no place in modern services'.

There are still far too many examples — both official and anecdotal — of poor data-sharing between government and our agencies. At the least this can lead to an inefficient service, but in the worst cases it causes obstruction and distress for those trying to go about their business.

The government recently published a statement of intent to describe how we intended to use information in the future. We want information to be shared to improve the level of service to the most disadvantaged, to fight crime and provide better public services for citizens and business, and in other instances where it is in the public interest.

What does this mean in practice? First, that we will use shared information to address social exclusion. Sharing between different agencies can be used to get a better understanding of the nature, incidence and causes of social exclusion and a better evaluation of services provided to tackle it, thereby enabling better planning to address it.

And it means joining up services around the needs of the person — not just basic information, but also identifying triggers for intervention to head off crises for those people who need particularly intensive support.

We know that people with multiple needs often require support and intervention from a number of different public bodies. We have a duty to work together, first to include this particularly challenging group and then to manage the provision of services to them. This was at the heart of our 'Social Exclusion Action Plan', Reaching out, published last month.

Shared information can also be used to prevent crime. The recent consultation paper, New powers against organised crime and financial crime, set out proposals for detecting and preventing fraud, by sharing information on suspected or known fraudsters.

The savings to the public purse have been estimated to be between £137m—£273m every year.

And we will use shared information to improve the services that we provide to the public. At present, multiple contacts often have to be made with different parts of the public sector to resolve a deceased person's affairs — for example to adjust council tax records, to terminate services such as meals on wheels, or to manage council housing rented by the deceased.

This can be frustrating and off-putting at a particularly sensitive time for bereaved people. We need to improve significantly on this and similar services.

This is not about creating a 'Big Brother state' and intruding on civil liberties. When we outlined our vision, we also described the safeguards that we would strengthen to ensure that citizens' information was protected. We have been consulting about amending the Data Protection Act to allow for custodial sentences where access to information has been wilfully and deliberately misused.

We will continue to work with the Information Commissioner's Office to encourage the use of codes of practice, such as the NHS Care Record Guarantee, to ensure that personal information is kept secure and in compliance with the Act.

And we need to make sure that people are able to use their right of access to information held about them, and to explore ways in which we can make it easier to exercise these rights.

This week, the Social Market Foundation is launching its report Who shares wins? Transforming the public services with intelligent information. It is a further contribution to the debate about how we use information in an age where what was once impossible is rapidly becoming easy to do.

This is a conversation we urgently need to have — not one polarised between privacy and technological determinism but one about how we build public trust in joined-up services.

Pat McFadden is parliamentary secretary at the Cabinet Office


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