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Bishop of St Albans voices concerns over data-protection Bill

05 January 2024

Parliament TV

The Bishop of St Albans, Dr Alan Smith, speaks in the debate

The Bishop of St Albans, Dr Alan Smith, speaks in the debate

HUMAN rights fundamental to democracy must be appropriately safeguarded in the Data Protection and Digital Information Bill, the Bishop of St Albans, Dr Alan Smith, told the House of Lords on 19 December.

The Bill, currently before Parliament, seeks to remove much of the administrative work that was consequent on the EU Data Protection Act 2018. But it has raised many concerns about control of personal data, and the accountability of the police and security services in gaining access to information.

The Parliamentary Under Secretary of State in the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology, Lord Camrose, moved the motion for the Bill to proceed to a Second Reading. He acknowledged its complexities, but said that it would ensure that people had control of their own data, “by making it easier and more secure for people to prove things about themselves”.

Dr Smith was concerned, however, about the Bill’s definition of personal data as only meaning data that would enable identification of an individual by “reasonable means”: a phrase he described as “imprecise and troubling”. “‘Reasonable means’ would include the cost of identifying the individual, as well as the time, effort and other factors besides,” he said.

“This would allow organisations to assess whether they have the resources to identify an individual, which would be an extremely subjective test, to say the least, and puts the power firmly in the hands of data processors when it comes to defining what is or is not personal data.”

Some genetic information, for example, would no longer be classed as personal data and safeguarded as such, “allowing the police and security services to access huge amounts of the public’s genetic information without needing to go to court or to justify the requirement. . . Personal data rights must continue to be protected in our country and in our law,” he said.

The Bishop voiced particular concerns over measures contained in clauses 28 to 30, which would give the Home Secretary expanded powers to authorise the police not to have to comply with certain data protection laws via a national security certificate. “This would give the police immunity, even if they commit what would otherwise be a crime,” he said. “Taken together, these two give an extraordinary amount of unchecked power to the police and security services.

“With the amended approach to national security certificates, the police could not be challenged before the courts for how and why they had accessed data; so there would be no way to review what the Government are doing here or ensure that abuses of these powers do not take place.” He called on the Minister to “explain how such measures align with the democratic values on which this country and government are based”.

He referred to cases in which the National AIDS Trust had been involved, where people living with HIV had had their HIV status shared, without their consent, by police officers, with a huge impact on the life of the individual in question. “This is a serious breach of current data protection law,” he told the House. “We must ensure that police officers are still required to justify why they have accessed specific personal data, as this evidence is vital in cases of police misconduct.”

The Bishop of Southwell & Nottingham, the Rt Revd Paul Williams, also emphasised the need to get the balance right between ownership, access, control, and legitimate use of data: “Human flourishing should be at the front of regulating how data is used and reused.”

He spoke of the written response of the Bishops to the data consultation in 2020, that “Fundamentally, the church welcomes any technology that augments human dignity and worth, while staunchly resisting any application of data that undermines that dignity. Questions of efficiency and cost effectiveness are subsidiary to questions about how the types and uses of data will promote human flourishing in society and best practice in public bodies.”

The Lords had identified in 2020 “some of the more significant risks we foresee in using data without adequate reflection on the pitfalls and harms that hasty and ill-considered data use gives rise to”, he reminded the House. “It is sobering that the Bill arrives in this House substantially amended in ways the Other Place has had insufficient time to scrutinise.”

He continued: “It is worrying that, with some of the measures in the Bill, the Government seems to be reducing the levers and mechanisms that public trust depends on. . . We share the concerns of many civil-society groups that the Bill will reduce transparency by weakening the scope of subject access requests.

“What reassurance can the Minister give the House that the Bill will retain public trust and will not diverge even from current adequacy agreements?”

The Bishop questioned whether the State’s demanding data without cause — “including data on the bank accounts of recipients of the state pension that it itself says it has no intention of using” — complied with the Nolan principles of openness and accountability, and might risk being “an overreach of Government into people’s private lives”.

The Bishop of Oxford, Dr Steven Croft, was unable to participate in that day’s debate, but Bishop Williams assured the House that Dr Croft would continue to lead the Bishops’ thorough scrutiny of the Bill, including its gaps in protecting children’s data and in the regulation of data used by AI models.

He drew attention to the persistent “important failure to interlock regulation”, especially as it related to the passage of the Online Safety Act, where a draft amendment granted access to data only where children had taken their own lives: “This is not what the Government promised on the record in either the Commons or the Lords, and we will continue to press for a proper resolution,” he said. “Surely we cannot simply rely on other holders of important data to disclose information that is important to protect children’s well-being.”

The Bishop went on to comment briefly on death registration, where he commended the ability to move from a paper to an electronic register, but called on the Government to review further the “Tell us once” system of reporting a death, to help to reduce the administrative burden on bereaved people.

The Bill now goes forward for a Second Reading.

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