Too soon to scrap the Census - Public Administration Committee Contents

3  Public concerns about data sharing

30. If greater use were to be made of the administrative data already held by the Government, there would undoubtedly be concerns from some members of the public about whether the data were to be shared appropriately. The recent public concerns about the "" programme, which plans to share anonymised patient data within the NHS and to some researchers, demonstrates the risks in attempting to share data if the process is not clearly explained and people are not consulted: public concerns led to the Government's decision in February 2014 to delay its rollout. As John Pullinger told us,

    even if you legislated for it, there is a big question about public acceptability: whether people would want the data from the GP register to be merged with data from the benefits system and the school system [...] the risk is that people would be even more anxious if a central public authority was bringing together their data from all these sources without their consent.[44]

However, he added "from a statistical establishment point of view [...] I would hope that that public argument would be able to be won. I do not think it has been yet."[45]

31. Piers Elias, a Demographics and Modelling Officer from Tees Valley Unlimited, who works with a five local authorities in the north east, pointed out that some data-sharing does already exist. He said that "[the ONS] do actually link individual data between the GP patient register and the higher education data on students to try to improve their methodology on migration."[46] Professor Mayhew was optimistic that appropriate controls could be put in place to manage the privacy risks of data sharing:

    The challenge is to actually clear the bureaucratic undergrowth to enable these things to happen automatically, instead of having all these disputes between different data owners, sometimes under the guise of data protection and things like that. All these things could be done in a data safe haven. People can be accredited to use this kind of data, and the outputs that come from these processes could be fully de-identified and anonymised as well. That is something that we do very regularly, so we know it is possible.[47]

32. As part of their work on the future of the census, the ONS carried out research into public attitudes about various issues to do with the collection of population statistics.[48] This included attitudes towards the use of personal data, data linkage and the creation of linked datasets. ONS's analysis of the research findings concluded that "around three quarters of people do not object to data held by other Government departments being shared with ONS" and that "nearly half of the public assume that Government already routinely links data about the population from multiple sources in a central data store".[49] However, according to ONS, "any objections to the use of personal data are largely related to security and privacy concerns", describing these concerns as "strong", but they suggest that "the police are supportive of data sharing when personal or public benefit can be demonstrated and these are communicated effectively".[50]

33. Public concerns about data sharing must be addressed and must not be a barrier to making the most of the information already collected and held by the Government.The Minister's objective of "better, quicker information, more frequently and cheaper" depends upon this.

34. The Cabinet Office and the Office for National Statistics must make every effort to publicise the benefits of greater sharing of administrative data within Government and to the wider world, in order to realise the considerable benefits of using administrative data for policy-making, policy understanding and efficiency, and of course for the production of population statistics. The Government should use the lessons learnt from the problems with the "" rollout to embark upon a public information campaign about the future of the census in order to raise understanding of the benefits of sharing administrative data, give information about the safeguards which will be in place to protect people's personal information and privacy, in order to smooth the way for its greater use.

44   Q46 Back

45   Q46 Back

46   Q77 Back

47   Q97 Back

48   Office for National Statistics, The Census and Future Provision of Population Statistics in England and Wales: Public attitudes to the use of personal data for official statistics, March 2014 Back

49   As above, p3 Back

50   As above, p3 Back

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Prepared 17 April 2014