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Better use of data in government: UK government consultation paper

Original consultation documents

The ODI has created a short summary of the UK government’s data sharing consultation paper, released on Monday 29th of February, 2016, to help people digest its contents. It’s not an expression of the ODI’s views. We will be putting in our own response to the consultation. Get in touch at policy@theodi.org to find out more.


(Paragraphs 1–7)

The UK government wants to be able to share data between its different parts so that it can work better. This is particularly important because government is trying to significantly reduce costs over the next few years.

The proposals in government’s consultation will support:

  • the delivery of better services to citizens; and
  • better statistics so that people, organisations and government can make better decisions.

The proposals fall into three categories. Each of these categories has two sets of proposed changes to legislation. The six proposed additions to legislation will make legislation simpler. The changes are part of the government’s data programme that will transform and improve the relationship between people and government.

Improving public services

There are two areas where government thinks immediate changes are required:

  • to automatically provide discounts for people in fuel poverty and to help government identify families in need of help from the Troubled Families programme
  • to make it easier to use civil registration data (information about births, deaths, adoptions and marriages) to prevent government sending letters to dead people and to help government build better public services

Tackling fraud and debt

The proposed changes will help government collect the estimated £24.1bn of money that is owed to it and allow government to run trial projects to spot fraud.

Allowing use of data for research purposes and for official statistics

The proposed changes would allow the Office of National Statistics (ONS) to get statistical data from government and businesses and make it easier for researchers to use data from across government.

Would you like to respond to this consultation paper?

Write to the Data Sharing Policy Team, Floor 6, Aviation House, London WC2B 6NH or e-mailing data-sharing@cabinetoffice.gov.uk.

The new powers are needed because the current law is complicated

Paragraphs 8–14

The law around how different bits of government can share data with each other is complicated. This slows things down, costs government money and means that people get worse services.

Technology now exists that makes it easier to only share the bits of data you need to. The proposed changes to legislation will make it easier to share data and help government use these new technologies.

With a couple of exceptions government developed these proposals openly

Paragraphs 15–17; then 13–15 (paragraph numbering error in original consultation document)

This policy was put together through a process called open policy-making. The policy was not just created by government. Lots of organisations contributed including campaigners, academics, researchers, charities and some businesses. You can find out more about the process at www.datasharing.org.uk.

In that process they used some key principles. Government do not want to create new databases or collect more data, let data be shared all over government or change existing law that ensures data is kept secure.

Not everything in this proposal was discussed with that wide group. Government did not discuss the proposal to share with electricity companies information about which customers are fuel poor or the proposal to make it easier for government to share data about births, marriages and deaths.

There were objections during the process to one of the proposals which would bring together data about debt owed by people and businesses to government.

The proposals here do not include some changes which are already on the way around sharing data from HMRC.

There are some common safeguards for each of the proposals

Paragraphs 16–23

Data legislation has grown bit by bit because of priorities at different times. The six new additions to data legislation will make things more consistent.

The new legislation will make it clear that existing data protection legislation will continue to apply. A new criminal offence for unlawful disclosure of data will also be created.

Reminder: what are those powers for?

  • Reducing debts owed to the public sector
  • Combatting fraud
  • Improving public service delivery
  • Sharing civil registration information
  • Sharing data for national statistics
  • Sharing data for research purposes

There will be separate codes of practice for each new power in legislation. If organisations do not stick to the codes of practice for sharing data under each power they may be prevented from receiving or sharing data.

Each code of practice will include the need for transparency, the need to produce and publish a privacy impact assessment, only use as much data as necessary, use new technology approaches where possible, and set out who is responsible and accountable for each data sharing arrangement.

The new legislation will work alongside existing legislation rather than replace it.

Health and care data is particularly sensitive and another review is likely to recommend extra safeguards. Illustrative clauses accompanying the data sharing consultation say the new research power won’t be allowed to be used for sharing health and care data. Some fraud and debt services are performed for government by businesses. Data that is shared with them can only be used to prevent fraud or collect debt for government. Businesses cannot use that data for anything else.

Except for the proposals on national statistics, the governments of Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales will need to decide on their own legislation. Some of the benefits of sharing data would be bigger if governments across the UK share data with each other.

We need to define some terms

Paragraph 33

Data is any information used to help make decisions.

Personal data is data about people. The precise definition of ‘personal information’ in legislation might vary based on the kind of power being considered (see the illustrative clauses). Sometimes a body corporate might be included a person.

De-identified data is data about people where the parts that enable you to quickly tell who it is about (like names and addresses) have been removed.

Anonymised data is data about people where parts are changed or removed so that it’s very unlikely that anyone could tell who the data refers to.

New powers to improve public services

  • troubled families
  • fuel poverty

Paragraphs 34–40

Government wants to provide better services to citizens; sharing data between different parts of government can help do that.

The proposed power to improve data sharing in government would only be used where data has to be used, it is not realistic to gain people’s consent, and de-identified data would not achieve the desired result.

The power will only allow data sharing for specific reasons. These are to target particular types of individuals, to benefit the individuals whose personal data it is, or to improve an individual’s well-being. Public authorities will be able to make their own assessment of data sharing arrangements. The new legislation will set out objectives for which information can be shared under this power.

At the moment, two objectives are being proposed where sharing will be permitted:

  • to provide support to troubled families
  • to help people who are fuel poor

Government will have the power to add new objectives so long as they meet certain criteria:

  • they improve or target public services provided to people
  • they enable benefits to be provided (economic and other) to people
  • they improve an individual’s well-being

Question one:

Are there any objectives that you believe should be included in this power that would not meet these criteria?

Paragraph 41–42
The legislation will include a list of public organisations able to receive and share data under this power. A government minister will be able to add to or remove organisations from this list but must consult and receive approval from the Houses of Parliament. The legislation will define public authorities as ‘a person who exercises functions of a public nature.’

Question two:

Are there any public authorities that will not fit in this definition?

Paragraph 43

In the open policy process there were different views on whether non-public sector organisations should be able to use these powers.

Question three:

Should non-public sector bodies (such as private companies and charities) that fulfil a public service function to a public authority be included in the scope of the public service delivery power?

Paragraph 44
A government minister will consult and publish a code of practice for using this power.

The code of practice will reflect certain principles. It will say that this power should not be used if other data will meet the need. The code of practice will also describe how to write a business case, share costs between organisations and how to publish details of data sharing arrangements and privacy impact assessments.

Question four:

Are these the correct principles that should be set out in the Code of Practice for this power?

Fuel poverty

Paragraphs 45–48

Government gives two millions households £140 every winter to help with fuel costs. People who are not pensioners have to apply for this money. By sharing data about these people with energy companies government can make this process automatic.

Question five:

Should the Government share information with non-public sector organisations as proposed for the sole purpose of providing assistance to citizens living in fuel poverty or for any other reason?

Paragraphs 49–55

The data government uses to do this could include information from multiple government organisations. Government will not share this detailed data with energy companies. It will only share whether or not people are eligible for the £140 rebate.

Government could also ask energy companies to provide more help to citizens trying to improve their energy efficiencies.

Question six:

Would the provision of energy bill rebates, alongside information about energy efficiency support, be appropriate forms of assistance to citizens living in fuel poverty?

Question seven:

Are there other forms of fuel poverty assistance for citizens that should be considered for inclusion in the proposed power?

New power for sharing civil registration information

Paragraphs 56–63

Civil registration is the recording of all births, deaths, adoptions and marriages. Government wants to change the law so that government organisations can share civil registration data when they want to.

Government will only share data when it will help organisations do their jobs. In some cases government will need your consent to share your data.

The changes will benefit government and citizens by making it easier to do things online, helping protect people against identity theft and making it cheaper to deliver public services. The impact assessment for this power highlights key savings for government using civil registration data to detect fraud of the public sector.

When government discussed this with people they were concerned that it was creating a new database of all citizens. Government will not do this and it would not be possible anyway.

Question eight:

Should a government department be able to access birth details electronically for the purpose of providing a public service, e.g. an application for child benefit?

Question nine:

Do you think bulk registration information, such as details of all deaths, should be shared between civil registration officials and specified public authorities to ensure records are kept up to date (e.g. to prevent correspondence being sent to families of a deceased person)?

Paragraphs 64–66

The proposed legislation include a list of organisations that the civil registration authority can choose to share data with. A minister can change this list. A code of practice will be issued for how this power will be used.

New powers for fraud and debt


Paragraphs 67–79

Government loses an estimated £20bn to £67bn a year because of fraud. Current legislation makes it hard for different parts of government to work together and share data to stop this.

Government expects that more use of data will help by making it easier to identify potential fraudsters, making the process simpler and making it quicker to stop new types of fraud.

The proposed legislation states how personal data is defined for this purpose.

Government will develop a code of practice for this power. This particular code of practice will include:

  • ways to make sure it uses as little data as it can about as few people as possible
  • ways to measure whether particular bits of data are useful
  • ways to let people see what government are doing

The code of practice will say that:

  • there should be a minimum length of time that projects run for
  • all organisations must be audited
  • all organisations must publish privacy impact assessments
  • all organisations must publish measurement information and gather feedback from affected individuals
  • a steering group that will include people from outside government
  • all recommendations from the steering group must be published online
  • organisations need to make a business case to a government minister

It will also include details about:

  • how government ministers will determine if projects are working or not
  • who takes responsibility for making sure the powers are used correctly and that projects are stopped if they are not working

When fraud happens data held by separate organisations may not match. To overcome this problem data will be shared in a three stage process that gradually reduces the number of people whose data is being shared.

Question ten:

Are there other measures which could be set out in the Code of Practice covering the proposed new power to combat fraud to strengthen the safeguards around access to data by specified public authorities?

Paragraphs 80–81

Government will create a list of organisations that can share data with each other if they want to for this power. A government minister will be able to add new organisations to the schedule with approval from the houses of parliament.

It is proposed that a government minister should review these powers after three years and decide whether to continue with them or stop this process.

Question eleven:

It is proposed that the power to improve access to information by public authorities to combat fraud will be reviewed by the Minister after a defined period of time. This time will allow for pilots to be established and outcomes and benefits evaluated. How long should the Fraud gateway be operational for before it is reviewed?


Paragraphs 83–92

Altogether, people and businesses owe government a lot of money.

Public authorities already have the ability to share this data about this problem now. Eighty-six (86) legal gateways exist. They are difficult to use.

A report from the National Audit Office recommended that government make it easier for other government organisations to share data and create a single ‘debtor view’ that shows all debts that a person or organisation owes even if it is owed to different bits of government.

If government makes it easier to share debt data then it can provide help to people to pay their debts, create ways to pay the money over a period of time and make it cheaper to collect debts.

The proposed new power is similar to the one for reducing fraud.

The proposed legislation will allow some government organisations to share data to identify people who owe money to multiple parts of government, help government contact them and make it easier for government to get the money they owe.

Government understands that people who owe government money might have difficult lives. It is not trying to make things harder for them.

Any organisation that provide services to government and is listed in the schedule can choose whether or not to share data for this purpose. Government wants to hear whether the cost of supporting debt management will be too big a burden for businesses that provide services to government. With permission from the Houses of Parliament a government minister will be able to add or remove government organisations to the list of those that can share data.

A government minister will publish a code of practice for this new power containing similar guidelines to the code of practice for fraud. Any organisation that fails to stick to the code of practice can be stopped from sharing data under this power.

Question twelve:

Which organisations should Government work with to ensure fairness is paramount when making decisions about affordability for vulnerable debtors who owe multiple debts?

Question thirteen:

How can Government ensure that proposals for pilot data projects and the evaluation of projects under the debt power are effectively scrutinised against objectives?

Paragraph 93

It is proposed that a government minister should review these powers after three years and decide whether to continue with them or stop this process.

Question fourteen:

It is proposed that the power to improve access to information by public authorities for the purpose of better managing debt owed to government will be reviewed by the Minister after a defined period of time. This time will allow for pilots to be established and outcomes and benefits evaluated. How long should the debt power be operational for before it is reviewed?

New powers for research and statistics

Data sharing for research

Paragraphs 93–100

Research about society and the economy often needs data held by different parts of government. Researchers find it hard to get hold of that data because government is worried about sharing it with them. A report about accessing data for research recommended making it easier for researchers to get hold of the data they need from government.

Changing the law to make it easier for researchers to get data would help make research happen faster and be more relevant. Of course the government must still protect people’s privacy: the proposal is to only share de-identified or anonymised data, only with accredited researchers and only for good reason. The illustrative clauses for this power make clear that research must be in the ‘public interest’. The UK Statistical Authority (UKSA) will need to accredit researchers, ‘trusted third parties’, indexers and research for which the data will be used.

Under the proposed legislation, government organisations will know what data they can share, and have to use safeguards to protect personal data.

The previous review and the open policy process recommended that government and researchers use the “Trusted Third Party Model”. It works like this:

1. A researcher identifies data held by multiple government organisations that would be useful for research.

2. Each government organisation extracts just the identity information from the dataset and provides it to a third party

3. The third party takes the identity information matches it together, and provides a new unique identifier that can be used by each organisation instead of people’s identity information.

4. Each government organisation replaces the original identity information in the dataset with this new unique identifier and then provides the dataset to a secure facility.

5. The secure facility links together the data from each organisation using the new unique identifier.

6. The secure facility makes the data available to researchers.

7. Researchers use the data.

A government Minister will have the power to change this approach but they will need to get permission from the Houses of Parliament.

The proposal will not force government to share data with researchers if it would be hard or costly. All requests from researchers to access data will be transparent so everyone can see what’s going on. The government will be able to charge researchers for the cost of providing the data.

Question fifteen:

Should fees be charged by public authorities for providing data for research purposes, and if so should there be a maximum fee permitted which is monitored by the UK Statistics Authority?

Paragraphs 101–107
The Data Protection Act will still apply but the legislation will be clear that sharing data for the purpose of this research is not a breach.

It will be a criminal offence to use data supplied in this way for purposes other than approved research or to disclose the identity of the people in the dataset. Someone who is found guilty of this new criminal offence can be fined or jailed for two years. It will be possible to use the data for criminal investigations or if people give their consent.

All researchers, third parties and government organisations that share data under this legislation will need to be accredited by the UKSA. It will develop standards and check that organisations use them. The UKSA will be able to give other organisations the authority to accredit people.

The legislation will guarantee that the standards include measures to check that individuals are fit and proper and that the research is in the public interest. The legislation will ensure there is a public register of people and organisations that are accredited.

Question sixteen:

To ensure a consistent approach towards departments accepting or declining requests for disclosing information for research projects, should the UK Statistics Authority as the accreditation body publish details of rejected applications and the reasons for their rejection?

The UKSA will define what is meant by research being in the public interest.

Question seventeen:

What principles or criteria do you think should be used to identify research that has the potential for public benefit, or research that will not be in the public benefit?

Data sharing for national statistics

Paragraphs 109–118

The Office of National Statistics (ONS) could create better statistics if it could access data more easily. There is already legislation that makes sure data given to ONS can only be used to create statistics, or they get in trouble. That legislation also enables ONS to access some personal data.

Government proposes to alter existing legislation so that government organisations, including HMRC, can share more personal data with the UKSA and ONS. This legislation will apply to all of the UK including devolved administrations. It proposes that government organisations share data with UKSA where:

  • it is to produce national statistics and research
  • it is for UKSA to fulfill its functions. (ODI note: we are not clear from the legislative clauses and consultation paper if these are two different things)

Where UKSA is requesting data to fulfill its functions, government organisations will have to consent to use of the data they’re providing in this way. In the proposed legislation, businesses and charities might also be asked by UKSA to provide data to them. The draft legislation also foresees businesses, charities and government consulting with UKSA before they make changes to their processes for collecting, organising, storing or retrieving information that UKSA has asked to use for statistical porposes.

The UKSA will have the power to compel government organisations, charities and businesses to share data by issuing a notice. The UKSA will only be able to issue a notice if it is necessary to produce national statistics or for their statistical functions. Organisations can still refuse to share data with UKSA if it will damage national security, break the data protection act, or is prohibited by RIPA.

Government organisations, businesses and charities will need to consent if the UKSA wants to share data they’ve provided with a third party researcher outside of the UKSA. The power to share data for the production of national statistics will override most other legislation other than legislation to protect data and to support criminal investigations.

To reduce the cost on UKSA, government proposes that they only have to issue a notice to force disclosure of data once every two years.

Question eighteen:

Is two years a reasonable maximum period of time for the duration of a notice for the supply of data to the UK Statistics Authority for the purpose of producing National and official statistics and statistical research?

Paragraphs 119–121

The proposal would mean that UKSA will need to be consulted if organisations make changes to data that UKSA uses for statistics. For example, if organisations change what that data includes or how it’s collected or stored, or how frequently it’s collected. The UKSA will publish a code of practice describing things that government organisations, businesses and charities should think about if they change the way they produce data that could then be used for national statistics.

Question nineteen:

If your business has provided a survey return to the ONS in the past we would welcome your views on the administration burden experienced and the costs incurred in completing the survey, and ways in which the UK Statistics Authority should seek to use the new powers to further reduce the administrative burdens on businesses who provide data to ONS for the purposes of producing National and other official statistics.

Paragraphs 122–125

The UKSA will publish a code of practice for how it will use these powers, and how organisations should collect, organise, store and retrieve information that has been requested by UKSA.

Question twenty:

What principles and factors should be considered in preparing the Code of Practice?

Paragraphs 126–130

The legislation will introduce criminal penalties for failing to comply with an order to share data and a new offence of providing false information with a penalty of two years in jail or an unlimited fine. Both an organisation and its employees can be found guilty of providing false information.

The ODI has created a short summary of the UK government’s data sharing consultation paper, released on Monday 29th of February, 2016, to help people digest its contents. It’s not an expression of the ODI’s views. We will be putting in our own response to the consultation. Get in touch at policy@theodi.org to find out more.

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