Select Committee on Home Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 390 - 399)



  Q390  Chairman: We now welcome to the dais Clare Moriarty from the Ministry of Justice and Mr Suffolk who is the Government Chief Information Officer. Thank you for coming to give evidence to us today. If I could start with you, Ms Moriarty, the Ministry of Justice we are told "holds the ring" across government in terms of data protection and data-sharing. How does this work in practice as far as day-to-day issues are concerned?

  Ms Moriarty: The Constitution Directorate within the Ministry of Justice is responsible for rights and democracy issues, and as part of that we lead the Government's domestic, European and international policy on data protection and data-sharing, and as part of that we are responsible for the operation of the Data Protection Act. As the volume of data that is collected and shared increases that obviously creates opportunities for crime prevention, for tackling social disadvantage and for improving public services. What we have to do is to ensure that as we exploit those opportunities that they are balanced against the need to protect people's privacy. The responsibility for privacy aspects of individual policies rests with the departments responsible, as obviously you have seen in the evidence you have already had today. Our responsibility as the Ministry of Justice is to work with departments to ensure that they remain compliant.

  Q391  Chairman: So you advise them?

  Ms Moriarty: We advise them.

  Q392  Chairman: And on a European level you take the lead?

  Ms Moriarty: On a European level, if they are individual policies, they will take the lead. We lead on negotiating general instruments.

  Q393  Chairman: And then you will come back and give advice to other government departments?

  Ms Moriarty: Yes, and particularly on European and international issues we have created a group of interested departments and we work with them on data protection and data-sharing issues.

  Q394  Chairman: Do you act as arbiter between departments if one department is keen to get information from another and they do not want to give that information? Would you step in and advise?

  Ms Moriarty: What we would do is work it through with the departments. The critical issues to be looked at are: is there a purpose for sharing information; do the powers exist to share the information; is any intrusion on privacy proportionate to the benefits that will be gained from sharing the data; and is the data going to be adequately protected in terms of the principles underlying the Data Protection Act? Essentially that is a set of issues to be worked through. Where there is more than one department involved we would help them work through those issues so that they reach an agreement.

  Q395  David Davies: One specific question on this—and I have been trying to find out the information for some time without much success—and that is whether or not the Department for Work and Pensions accesses databases used by the Ministry of Justice effectively in order to find out whether people claiming benefits are actually on the run from open prisons. You might think it is so glaringly obvious whether that can happen and yet when I have written to the Ministry of Justice, or its previous incarnations, I have not been able to get a clear response. Do the Department for Work and Pensions check a database, presumably in the Prison Service, of those who have walked out of open prisons to ensure that they are not accessing benefits? There are thousands of people on the run and they are not all living in the woods eating squirrels and wild berries.

  Ms Moriarty: The straightforward answer to that is I do not know. The individual arrangements that the Ministry of Justice makes would be owned by individual parts of the Ministry of Justice. If you would like me to take that away and try and find an answer—

  Q396  David Davies: Would you? That would be great. You will have more success than I have had.

  Ms Moriarty: Hopefully.

  Q397  Chairman: I think, Ms Moriarty, that you just have to go next door, do you not, somewhere in Selborne House the answer must be there?

  Ms Moriarty: Somewhere in Selborne House the answer certainly should be.

  Q398  Bob Russell: Mr Suffolk, two relatively brief questions. I understand that part of your role involves enabling "public service transformation through the strategic deployment of technology". What do you see as the most significant developments in technology from the point of view of delivering public services? Linked with that, how do you fulfil this role across government, if at all?

  Mr Suffolk: The first part of the question first. Without a shadow of a doubt I think technology is moving at its fastest rate ever, it is accelerating away. I think there are three key developments that are going on on a worldwide basis which clearly impact in terms of the UK public sector. The first thing is the web/the Internet is underpinning most major economies and most successful businesses. Most things are something to do with web-based transactions. The second thing that is happening is everything to do with communications—the way we use mobile phones, our fixed lines—is blurring and everything is coming together in a converged approach. The third thing that has happened ever since technology has been invented is it is getting smaller. When you put those things together what is happening is that every technology and every system is available where you are when you want to use it and that fundamentally is changing citizens' outlooks and customers' outlooks in terms of what they see as the normal service that they expect. It is not a service for our convenience; it is a service for their convenience, and those things are happening in every walk of life. That is where I see the big technological changes coming, the whole Internet, the whole convergence of technology, and wherever you are technology is moving, as we have heard in this room this morning, with mobile phones, et cetera.

  Q399  Bob Russell: Mr Suffolk, there are a lot of people out there who are technology challenged and I do represent the technology challenged. Where do we fit in in this great brave new world?

  Mr Suffolk: I think that is a very good question because we do sometimes lose sight of the fact that the Internet in terms of the UK has just over 60% penetration and so not everybody does use the Internet, but it is not necessarily the people that we would think about. There are some people who do not have access to that technology. Our starting point in terms of technology is first of all what problem are we trying to solve or what is it that citizens want. Then we are looking for what solutions best solve that problem. Therefore our belief is—and this is the work we are doing with David Varney as part of the Transformational Government strategy—that one route for dealing with citizens is not acceptable. Some citizens will always want face-to-face service; some will want telephone services; some will want Internet; some will want all three. Therefore it is very important that we do not disenfranchise any section of the population by going down one particular route.

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