Information Management In Public Services

Independent privacy body co-chair resigns over Whitehall engagement

Neil Merrett Published 03 May 2017

Jerry Fishenden stands down from Privacy and Consumer Advisory Group citing dwindling ministerial support since 2015 over its guidance on issues such as data sharing legislation

The co-chair of the Privacy and Consumer Advisory Group (PCAG) has announced his resignation from the independent body over concerns about the present government’s commitments to its work and a perceived failure to address warnings about data handling in the new Digital Economy Act.

In a personal blog post, Jerry Fishenden said he had quit PCAG after six years as chair and later co-chair over fears about the government’s interest in heeding the group’s advice following Lord Francis Maude’s departure from the role of Cabinet Office minister in 2015.

The independent review body, managed on behalf of the Government Digital Service (GDS), was devised to give expert analysis, feedback and guidance on all data and privacy initiatives under consideration by Whitehall departments and the wider public sector.  

However, the Cabinet Office has maintained that the organisation is just one of a number of bodies that it consults around data policy when looking to progress with new projects.

Fishenden argued that the combination of expertise in PCAG, which includes some vocal critics of key projects undertaken by successive governments focused on identity and data use, was a “brave”, yet sensible way to understand the complexities of information management.

“The idea was to try to avoid a repeat of previous fiascos, such as the Identity Card Act, where Whitehall generalists found themselves notably out of their depth on complex technical issues and left ministers to pick up the pieces,” he said.

Fishenden argued that during the six year course of its lifetime, PCAG reviewed a number of initiatives including NHS England’s flagship care.data programme that was delayed and later abandoned over privacy concerns. 

He also identified work on “the troubled and late-running" GOV.UK Verify identity assurance platform, drafts of the Investigatory Powers Act  and broader data sharing concerns as key government focuses it had reviewed.

However, since the end of the coalition government following the 2015 General Election and the replacement of Francis Maude as Cabinet Office minister, first with Matt Hancock and then Ben Gummer, Fishenden claimed there had been a decline in ministerial level support.

“Without such backing, those officials who find the group’s expert reviews and analyses ‘challenging’ have found it easier to ignore, attempting instead to smuggle their often half-baked proposals past ministers without the benefit of the group’s independent assistance,” he wrote.

As an example of the diminished influence of PCAG on Whitehall, Fishenden pointed to the passing of the Digital Economy Act last week - squeezed through before the upcoming General Election - and a failure to address concerns about data sharing within it.  Outlined in Part Five of the new act, he warned that the group’s advice and offers of support to shape data sharing had been ignored by officials.

“Worse, in the case of Part Five, the group was repeatedly misled and misinformed by the team that drafted the core of the proposals and the related ‘codes of practice’. Once again it was ministers and parliament left to deal with the consequences,” he said.

As the legislation was passed through parliament last week, privacy campaigners have continued to maintain that the legislation threatens to limit control and transparency of how key information on citizens is being shared in government and who has access to it.

Fishenden argued that when Francis Maude was in charge of the Cabinet Office, concerns around limited oversight of powers to share data would have been highlighted by the group, rather than allowing them to be published in a “disappointingly amateurish and technically-illiterate state”.

He said that despite open invites being sent to the Cabinet Office during the tenure of both Hancock and Gummer to address PCAG’s findings, there was no acknowledged or response.

While thanking civil servants, MPs and other ministers that engaged with the organisation in what he called a constructive manner, Fishenden expressed hope that the value of PCAG would be addressed by the new government after election day on June 8.

“Doing so would help realise Francis Maude’s original purpose – and bring significant benefits to us all, whether inside or outside of government,” he said.

In a brief response to the blog post, the Cabinet Office maintained it  sought a broad range of advice on issues such as data and privacy.

"Views from many groups, including the Privacy and Consumer Advisory Group, were taken into account when establishing the Digital Economy Act 2017," said a spokesperson.

Since May last year, PCAG and GDS have met half a dozen times, based on minutes provided by the government.

Related articles:

Digital Economy Act becomes law

Privacy groups urge dropping entire Digital Economy Bill data clause

Privacy group to hold GOV.UK Verify talks next week








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