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Data sharing rules must be reformed

Law Commission | Law Commission

3 min read Partner content

The law that governs how public bodies share data must be modernised, simplified and clarified, according to the Law Commission. Law reform will help to create a principled and clear legal structure for protecting individual privacy and for the data sharing required by today's public bodies and the people they serve.

The existing law relating to data sharing is complex and inconsistent. Public bodies often report that they are not able – or believe they are not permitted – to share the data they need to. As a result, they miss out on opportunities to provide better services to citizens. At the same time, there is a need to ensure that data security and individuals' privacy are not put at risk.

A one-year review by the Law Commission has identified a widespread lack of knowledge and understanding among public bodies of the circumstances in which information may be disclosed, to whom and for what purposes. And there is much anxiety among the public about how their privacy is protected and how their data is shared. Many of these problems do not stem from the law, but law reform can help to improve data sharing culture and practice.

Data sharing law has developed in an ad hoc way. Previous efforts to resolve problems have been piecemeal, often compounding inconsistencies. Data sharing raises issues in Scotland and Northern Ireland, as well as in England and Wales. The Commission is arguing that a full-scale, UK-wide law reform project is required. It should be conducted by the UK's three law commissions together: the Law Commission of England and Wales, and the Scottish and Northern Ireland Law Commissions.

The aim of the project should be to map the many statutory provisions that permit and control data sharing, and simplify and clarify the law so that it is easier to understand and use. Any reform would need to bring the law up to date, in particular to allow it to respond to emerging European law, advances in data management technology and technologically driven privacy concerns. It should also include the ways in which information is disclosed by public bodies to those organisations that are increasingly carrying out public functions.

Nicholas Paines QC, Law Commissioner for public law, said:

“Data sharing law must achieve a balance between the public interest in sharing information and the public interest in protecting privacy.

“Our work has identified widespread misunderstanding and confusion about the statutory framework for data sharing and its relationship with data protection, human rights and the common law. In our view, an effective, long-term solution can be achieved only through UK-wide law reform. A thorough analysis of law and practice, and reforms to modernise, simplify and clarify the provisions that permit and control data sharing are needed to restore confidence to the bodies that provide public services and the citizens that use them.”

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