Digital Economy Act – putting data sharing powers into practice

 


Joanna Huxton
National Liaison Manager
Centre of Excellence for Information Sharing

Back in April, the Digital Economy Act 2017 (DEA) received royal assent. I’m now writing about it again because the government recently launched a public consultation on the draft codes of practice for Part 5 of the Act. This Act provides public authorities with new powers to share personal information so they can deliver better support and services which are more tailored to people’s needs.

Sharing information helps transform and improve public services. The Government Transformation Strategy to move more services online for citizens and businesses provides the opportunity to do even more to improve how services are delivered through the design and implementation of new tools, techniques, technology and approaches.

As users of these services, we need to be given the confidence that our personal data is protected. The codes of practice set out the processes and safeguards governing the use of these new information sharing powers.

There are four draft codes of practice which are for:

  • public service delivery, debt and fraud code of practice relating to improving public services, combating fraud against the public sector and reducing the level of debt owed to the public sector; and regulations relating to specific objectives for which information can be shared under the public service delivery power;
  • civil registration code of practice;
  • research code of practice and accreditation criteria; and
  • statistics (including code on changes to data systems and statement of principles about UKSA’s use of powers regarding access to information).

The powers are designed to inspire the trust and confidence of citizens and as such, the government would like to know if the codes of practice are clear, complete and transparent enough to use. (These should be read alongside the Information Commissioner's Office 'data sharing code of practice').

Let’s take for example, the draft codes and regulations for ‘public service delivery’. Public services work much better when they are joined up, and to do this well information needs to be shared much better.

The Digital Economy Act 2017 enables specified public authorities to share personal information for objectives which must be approved by Parliament that meet specific criteria set out in the Act. The criteria include improvement or targeting of a public service or the facilitation of the provision of a benefit that improves the wellbeing of individuals or families. The draft regulations include the first four objectives for which information could be shared under the public service delivery power.

The four objectives proposed relate to:

  • identifying individuals or households who face multiple disadvantages and enabling the improvement or targeting of public services to such individuals or households and providing for the monitoring and evaluation of programmes and initiatives;
  • assisting people living in fuel poverty by reducing their energy costs, improving efficiency in their use of energy or improving their health or financial well-being;
  • reducing water or sewerage costs, improving efficiency in use of water or improving the health or financial well-being of people living in water poverty; and
  • identifying and contacting vulnerable people who might need help from the authorities in re-tuning televisions in 2018 to 2019 after the 700Mhz band is be used for mobile broadband rather than to transmit digital TV.

But in an ever-changing world, further new purposes for sharing information will continue to be identified. The codes of practice and regulations provides a step by step process for how to apply for a new objective under this power. Any new proposed objective must be able to demonstrate how sharing information will lead to an improvement in the service or benefit, such as improving employment outcomes for ex-offenders. The objectives cannot be for punitive purposes such as identifying individuals working in the grey economy and they cannot be too general or broad either so that it would effectively bring almost any citizen's data into scope, such as a 'catch all' purpose of helping people into work.

The consultation is due to close on Thursday 2nd November, so if you have a view on the questions below, visit gov.uk to have your say.

  • Are the codes of practice, accreditation criteria, statements of principles and specified objectives easy and clear to understand?
  • Do processes described for sharing information sound simple to follow?
  • Are the principles for when information can be shared clear?
  • Do you agree with the specified objectives for sharing information?

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