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House of Lords Hansard
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Data Science: Government Processes
04 February 2020
Volume 801

Question

Asked by

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To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to consult Parliament on proposals to improve the use of data science in government processes.

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My Lords, as set out in their manifesto, the Government are committed to improving the use of data, data science and evidence in the process of government. The use of data science across government to help improve public service delivery is underpinned by strong regulatory frameworks, which can be found on GOV.UK. We have engaged with the Science and Technology Committee and the Communications and Digital Committee, and will continue to do so.

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My Lords, the noble Earl will be aware from the Science and Technology Committee report of a feeling that the Government have lost momentum since 2015 in the transition to digital government. Is he aware that many of us welcome an active role in making government more digital, but we are conscious that there is a naturally suspicious public out there? The public are particularly suspicious of the sharing of their data with the private sector, and the Government therefore need to carry Parliament and the public with them by being as open as possible. If data science is pushed by the Government from No. 10, with people who used to work on data mining for Vote Leave, under the manically enthusiastic leadership of Dominic Cummings, we are unlikely to get to where we need to.

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My Lords, public trust goes to the heart of the Government’s work on data science. People need to know that data is being used wholly ethically by government. They can be reassured on that score by the data ethics framework, which the public sector has to abide by, by the work of the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation, which advises government on how innovation in AI and data science can be deployed safely and ethically and, of course, by legislation, which protects personal data and people’s privacy.

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My Lords, is not the answer—to start with, anyway—a compulsory smart ID card for everybody in this country?

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I am sure the noble Lord is aware of the Government’s policy on ID cards. We do not believe they are the answer to any of the problems that noble Lords and others have mentioned.

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My Lords, I understand that we have been promised a national data strategy at some point. What level of scrutiny will Parliament have over that strategy and will it be able to amend and improve it?

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Transparency is very important to DCMS, which is leading the work on the national data strategy. Last June, it published a call for evidence. It also conducted more than 20 round tables, structured around the three themes it had identified—people, the economy and government—with around 250 organisations. That first phase focused on engaging with academics, civil society and small and medium-sized enterprises, but DCMS also intends to hold vision workshops to include the public in discussions of what the strategy should include. I do not doubt that parliamentarians will be included.

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I assure my noble friend that I do not wish to reopen the identity cards debate, other than to say that, although I voted against them in another place some years ago, I have changed my mind, for this reason. Data is captured at all times, but one of the main reasons given against ID cards last time was that the individual would not have access to the data captured on their own card, whereas third parties, including government, would. Given developments in recent years in the way that many bodies, including government, capture our data—often willingly given by the individual—could we not revisit it to look at what the science has now provided to ensure that individuals are able to access all data captured on their card? That, I think, might change a few minds.

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My noble friend raises some important points of principle, which I think can be addressed other than by issuing a compulsory ID card. We are working hard to ensure that data held on individuals is easily accessible by them and that, more widely, individuals can more easily navigate government websites and be assured that their personal data is not being compromised.

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My Lords, we welcome the Tory manifesto saying, as we just heard, “We will improve the use of data and evidence in the process of government.” Can the Minister explain how the biggest IT project affecting the public, universal credit, was launched despite all the evidence from my noble friends Lady Drake and Lady Sherlock and our late colleague Baroness Hollis that this would not work because of its timescale and complexity? That was done against the evidence. As we have heard and will discuss further, UC is further delayed until 2024. What comfort can the Minister give that the Government can be trusted with our personal data to set up a system that will work for those most vulnerable in society?

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I recognise the noble Baroness’s concern on universal credit. It is slightly wide of the Question on which I have been briefed; nevertheless, her points are well made. She asks how people can trust the system. The Government take the privacy of citizens’ data extremely seriously. The Government Digital Service is proceeding with work that takes into account both the data protection regime and other guidance, such as the Government’s data ethics framework. I want to be absolutely clear that the work being undertaken by the GDS removes personal data before any analysis takes place. It is not about profiling citizens; it is about enabling citizens to have better and easier access to government online systems.