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Sharing data between public bodies. What are the barriers?

Law Commission | Law Commission

2 min read Partner content

Public bodies often report that they are not always able to share the data they need to and, as a result, miss out on opportunities to provide better services to citizens. At the same time, there is a need to ensure that the security of data and privacy of individuals are not put at risk. In a consultation opening today, the Law Commission asks what are the obstacles to sharing data between public bodies, and are those obstacles desirable?

Public bodies collect large amounts of information from individuals and other organisations. But while they do share some data between them, public bodies continue to report that there are significant obstacles to doing so in ways that are effective and useful.

What is not clear is whether the obstacles perceived by public bodies are in fact to do with the law or whether they stem from other practical or cultural barriers.

The law surrounding data sharing is complex. Powers to share data are express or implied in numerous statutes and in the common law. At the centre of limits on data sharing are the Data Protection Act 1998, which sets the rules for handling personal data, and the law of confidentiality, which protects confidential or private information. Contract, employment and European Union law play a part, as does the European Convention on Human Rights. There are also professional regulations, such as those that prohibit doctors from breaching the confidentiality of their patients.

The Commission is asking:

• Is there a problem with the law? Does the law itself erect barriers that unduly restrict data sharing between public bodies?
• Is the law too complex and hard to understand? Has a lack of clarity in the law led public bodies to develop cultures that prevent lawful data sharing? Is data sharing just too difficult?
• Is there a simply a gap in education, guidance and advice.

Frances Patterson QC, the Law Commissioner leading on the project, says:

“It could be that more data sharing would improve public services but, if that is so, we need to understand why data is not being shared. Is there a good reason to prevent data sharing? Or is the law an unnecessary obstacle? Are there other reasons stopping appropriate data sharing? These are the questions we want to answer in this consultation.”

The consultation closes on 16 December 2013. The Commission will present its findings to the Ministry of Justice in spring 2014.

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