Data laws face modernisation

3 Jun 99
The government admitted last week it is prepared to change the data protection laws if they obstruct its plans to modernise the delivery of public services.

04 June 1999

The Modernising Government white paper, published earlier this year, has set out an ambitious programme for improving services, with a target for all government services to be delivered electronically by 2008.

But many of the innovations being urged on councils, including the 'new channels' policy central to the white paper's aims – where third parties will be involved in providing services electronically – could bring councils into direct conflict with the confidentiality and information requirements of the Data Protection Act.

Peter Kilfoyle, the public service minister, last week made it clear the government was prepared to change laws that stood in the way of progress. 'You have to operate in a framework of law, but that law needs to be kept under review,' he told a conference organised by the Society of IT Management (Socitm) and CIPFA in London. 'It is not there to be a barrier for its own sake. Where there is a case for law to be changed because it is not providing the service it was originally intended to provide, it needs to be looked at.'

But he admitted that the public's concern over protection of privacy demanded that the government 'moved delicately'.

Councils are already operating in a legal grey area over data-matching initiatives, where data about benefit applicants is shared by councils in an attempt to identify fraudulent claims.

According to Alan Parkin, head of IT contractor services at Worthing council and a member of Socitm's data protection group, the government's new programme could see an explosion of potential conflicts. 'There is a lot of data that councils have collected that we can't be innovative with, because you have to tell people what you are going to use it for before you collect it,' he said. 'Everyone wants to stay on the right side of the law, but that could stifle innovation.'

The new channels policy will see services supported by telephone, computer and interactive TV and could involve councils working with third parties to provide services direct to citizens and businesses.

'The traditional ways of interaction with government – paper forms, letters and interviews at government offices – will be supplemented by new and easier methods,' said Kilfoyle.


Did you enjoy this article?