Skip to main content

Departmental Information Sharing

Volume 489: debated on Tuesday 17 March 2009

5. What the Government’s policy is on increased information sharing across Departments; and if he will make a statement. (263750)

Sharing information across Government Departments in a safe and proportionate way, with proper safeguards in place, is vital to the delivery of modern public services. That has always been Government policy.

Many of my constituents are very concerned about clause 152 of the Coroners and Justice Bill, and I greatly fear that, whatever reassurance the Minister can give, unless there is some absolutely categorical mechanism for protecting information, people will not be reassured that their details are safe.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, and I hope it will give his constituents some reassurance to know that we have withdrawn the clauses that they are worried about.

On information sharing, we have today received the shocking report from the Healthcare Commission on the Mid Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust. In the course of that report, the commission says:

“We thought that information from the coroner would be useful for the investigation. We were disappointed that he declined to provide us with any information about the number or nature of inquests involving the trust.”

May I ask my right hon. Friend to make some inquiries into why that was so?

I can of course give my hon. Friend that reassurance, and I will write to him as well.

We all greatly welcome the withdrawal of clause 152 from the Coroners and Justice Bill, but can the Minister explain why it is that, although a moment ago the Secretary of State made great play of the fact that he had made the first announcement on jury-free coroners trials to the House, the announcement about the withdrawal of clause 152 was made not to the Bill Committee, of which I am a member, but to the Sunday newspaper The Observer two days earlier?

I think that if the hon. Gentleman looks at the Hansard record of the Committee stage, he will find that the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, East (Bridget Prentice), made it absolutely clear that we would revisit the clauses concerned. Let me reassure the hon. Gentleman that the commitment of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to the principle of parliamentary accountability remains inviolate.

Although I welcome the Secretary of State’s belated U-turn on proposals in the Coroners and Justice Bill for unlimited data sharing across Government, does he accept that the appalling case of John Worboys, who was reported to the police by 85 different women, demonstrates that the Government’s approach, involving relying robotically on databases that are badly run, in fact exposes the public to greater risk?

Let me address several of the points of contention raised by the hon. and learned Gentleman. First, what he regards as a U-turn, we regard as a proper process of parliamentary scrutiny. What should happen with legislation is that the Government bring it to Parliament, it is then scrutinised, and when, on occasion, the Opposition make a reasonable point, we respond appropriately. In the case cited by the hon. and learned Gentleman, it became clear that the powers were drawn too widely. We have therefore withdrawn them, will redraft them, and propose to introduce data-sharing powers in future, precisely because we believe that they can be in the public interest if they are implemented safely and if they are proportionate.

We do not implement such measures “robotically”, as the hon. and learned Gentleman claims. We bring them into play so that they can serve the public, and there are many examples of data sharing which do just that.

The Minister is flannelling his way around the Government’s U-turn, seeking to conceal the fact that he has given no answer to the second part of my question. Last week we learned that £41 million had been squandered on the Department’s IT database, which was designed to enable police, prisons and the probation service to monitor dangerous criminals. Now it has been abandoned. The National Audit Office has referred to

“inadequate oversight by senior management”


“no evidence of Ministerial involvement beyond them receiving standard summarised briefings”.

Presumably the Minister remembers those.

Today we learned that parole decisions on dangerous prisoners were being undermined because of basic failures to provide the timely and complete information required. Does the Minister accept that no database can compensate for the basic human errors that are resulting from the Government’s very poor management and serial incompetence when it comes to data?

The hon. and learned Gentleman really ought to have a look at his questions again before he asks them. He keeps returning to the same points. [Hon. Members: “Robotic!”] Yes—in a robotic way.

The fundamental point remains that the creation of databases can be in the public interest. It is never easy to get these things right, but I think that if the hon. and learned Gentleman looks at the record of the private sector, just as much as that of the public sector, it will be clear to him that we all have a great deal to learn. We are learning those lessons, however. We have put measures in place constantly to improve data security. I entirely accept that we have some way to go, but the fact that there have been deeply regrettable breaches of data security is no reason for us to turn our back on all the public good that can be done by the creation of databases in the public interest, subject to the principles of data protection.