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Data Strategy

Volume 804: debated on Wednesday 24 June 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to promote a wider public debate about their future data strategy.

My Lords, the national data strategy’s development has benefited from extensive engagement and input across government, wider stakeholders and the public. Through the summer and autumn of 2019, the Government completed a public-facing call for evidence and in-depth public engagement, with 20 round-table discussions held across the country with over 250 organisations. The Government remain committed to publishing the strategy in 2020 and will seek further input from business, civil society and the wider public. Further plans will be announced in due course.

My Lords, I am glad to hear that the publication date for the White Paper has not slipped as far as some feared it might under these circumstances. I trust that the Government recognise the importance of carrying the wider public with them in going through their digital transformation, which ought to improve the efficiency of government and provide a better service for citizens. Given public unease about privacy and the security of data, would it not be better if the Government were to reopen a public debate before publishing the White Paper to ensure that the public are not taken by surprise by the proposals and that, as far as possible, the Daily Mail-type campaigns about how wicked and dreadful it is to take your data are not sparked off by having this sprung upon them?

There is obviously a lot of debate already in the public domain about the use of data. We have a number of examples, driven, sadly, by the Covid-19 pandemic, where data has been used to great effect and which I think the public are aware of. The Government have no plans beyond those I have mentioned to reopen the debate formally before the strategy is published.

My Lords, data is supposed to be the new source of wealth—the new oil. Last time around, we wasted the North Sea oil money on propping up the unemployment created by Mrs Thatcher. Do the Government have any plan to harness the wealth creation capacity of the data? Will they set up a proper sovereign wealth fund, which could harness the money raised by the data under the nation’s control?

Our plans for our data strategy are extremely ambitious. We see it as a crucial part of driving economic prosperity and social good. We believe that we have laid the foundations for that already and will announce more detail in due course.

My Lords, the Government’s call for evidence on digital identity was issued in July 2019; it rightly emphasised the importance of public trust and the role that a successful approach to digital identity can play in the use of public data. That call closed last September, so is it not high time that we had some policy proposals in this crucial area, too—especially given the failures of the past, such as Verify—so as to ensure that, as techUK has suggested, we create a framework of standards that can be used by all players in this field?

The noble Lord is right that digital identity and having clarity on that is critical. The Government have been very open about having had some unavoidable delays, most particularly around the election and now, sadly, with Covid. Part of the work within the strategy will be to identify which areas and datasets to prioritise and focus on.

Can the Minister give us an assurance that the Government will not let public data go into private hands and then be kept there in such a way that it cannot be accessed by other people within the public sector? There is a concern that private companies may get hold of public data and that it will then be lost to wider policy-making.

My noble friend’s last point is spot on, in the sense of the value of good data to public policy-making. I think many of us are looking forward to that. Crucially, part of it must be that we uphold those principles of transparency, accountability, inclusion and, obviously, lawfulness. They will be part of the considerations that we look at.

My Lords, one of the things that I found while digital champion for the UK was the shocking lack of data literacy within government. What plans does the Minister have to ensure that all people working as special advisers, Cabinet-level Ministers or those within their departments are equipped to understand the implications of the data strategy? Does she think that there should now be a more high-level “Minister for Data”, responsible for unleashing the silo-based approach that has hitherto been used?

The noble Baroness makes an important point; I think it is one she has perhaps made previously, but it definitely bears repeating. We are clear in what we have said already that this will never be successful without raising data literacy skills, not only within government but across the nation. That is work in progress and her point about the importance of strong leadership, given the complexity and scale of this challenge, is well made.

My Lords, there was press comment recently about the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation’s report on immunity passport technology. The Full Fact chief executive officer, Will Moy, asked whether this was

“a poor exercise in public reassurance”

or a “contribution to policy thinking”. Which is it, and what is the current status of the CDEI? Is it an independent public body or part of DCMS?

I trust that the work in that report, and all the reports from the CDEI, is there to help us advance our understanding of these extremely complex issues. The department certainly finds the work of the centre extremely valuable in informing our thinking.

My Lords, the Government signed up to lowered personal data protection standards in their deal with the USA on handling serious crime and security. That has led to a major difficulty in producing an adequate solution for a deal on these matters with the EU. How will the Government now ensure that our personal data is protected to a high enough standard to be able to tackle serious crime and security issues across the UK and the EU?

I do not think the Government would accept that we have compromised our data security standards. We keep them under review at all times and this is obviously a fast-moving area. We remain confident that we can obtain a full agreement on data adequacy by the year end and are optimistic that that will be the case.

My Lords, since the Government have unilaterally ended the daily media briefing, how do they now intend to publicise regularly, preferably daily, all the essential data about the pandemic?

The Government use a number of different media outlets, including social media. We take very seriously our responsibility to communicate across a range of media, so that anybody who needs that data and is interested in getting access to it can do so.

My Lords, the EU has set out its data strategy and aims to become a global regulatory role-model for the digital economy. My noble friend Lady Morgan of Cotes set out a similar vision for the UK

“to lead the world in nimble, proportionate and pro-innovation regulation”.

According to a recent survey, 50% of SMEs are still non-compliant with GDPR. What scope is there for the UK to diverge from the more cumbersome and expensive obligations of GDPR?

Our priority at this stage is to achieve full agreement with the EU in relation to data adequacy. As my noble friend knows, an enormous amount of data-related trade happens between the EU and the UK. We are anxious to secure that it should continue, albeit within an agile approach, as he rightly says.

My Lords, the time allowed for this Question has elapsed. We now come to the fourth Oral Question. I call the noble Lord, Lord Farmer.