U.K. politicians urge more haste on data sharing

U.K. Members of Parliament have called on the government to speed up its efforts to promote data sharing between government departments and local authorities to boost the uptake of council tax benefits.

The Commons Public Administration Committee made the call after its inquiry into council tax benefits, which have the lowest uptake of any means-tested benefits. Only between 62 per cent and 68 per cent of those eligible claim their entitlement.

In its report on the inquiry, the committee cites evidence from Sir Michael Orton, a senior research fellow at Warwick University. Orton told MPs that pensioners, for example, could be encouraged to claim their entitlement if the Pension Service would send information on potential claimants to the relevant local authority.

Local councils, which administer the benefits, could then use the information to tell potential claimants how much benefits they could receive.

The New Policy Institute think tank told the MPs that greater data sharing would also help benefit take-up by non-pensioner households.

Ministers should also investigate the feasibility of introducing automatic council tax benefits assessment and billing, the MPs said.

“We recommend that the government accelerate efforts to promote inter-agency data sharing, particularly between the Pension Service, HMRC and local authorities, as a means of increasing council tax benefit take-up,” the report says.

The MPs acknowledged concerns over privacy, but noted witnesses’ evidence that the public may not share the same fears about data protection. The charity Help the Aged told MPs that many elderly people thought government agencies already shared their data.

The committee called for research to support increased data sharing, which “should include an examination of the impact of data protection legislation on the potential for greater data sharing and options for maintaining privacy for individuals who do not agree to their data being shared.”

Committee chair Phyllis Starkey MP said: “We call on the government to do more to increase the take-up rate, not just for pensioners, but for all. The government should accelerate efforts on data sharing and its research into automatic assessment and billing of council tax benefits.”

The MPs’ call will stoke the growing debate about data sharing by government and privacy concerns.

Ministers have already announced the extension of a pilot scheme to share personal data between the Department of Work and Pensions, HMRC and local authorities.

And former prime minister Tony Blair proposed a relaxation of the data protection laws to allow greater data sharing, a move he said would improve public services by reducing the amount of form-filling for individuals.

But, although his successor Gordon Brown included measures to share more data in three proposed government bills, none is focused on welfare or improving public services. Instead, Brown’s draft legislative program includes new data sharing powers in proposed laws on terrorism, education and skills, and the sale of student loans.

Separate moves to give the police access to data on millions of individuals’ car journeys gathered by congestion cameras have revealed deep divisions between ministers on how far data sharing should go.

The Liberal Democrats have called for a “full debate” on the way the government uses its huge databases.

Meanwhile, the U.K. Information Commissioner’s Office has published a guide to help members of the public understand how their personal data may be shared between organizations.

Next week, the watchdog will also release a draft good practice guide to help organizations comply with the Data Protection Act when sharing personal information.

Iain Bourne, head of data protection projects at the ICO, said: “More and more information is being shared about us, often for useful and wholly legitimate purposes. It is important that individuals are aware of their rights under the Data Protection Act.”

The new guidance for the public sets out what people can expect from organizations sharing information about them and explains how to raise concerns.

“Information sharing can often take place without your consent. In many cases where you are not asked to consent the information sharing is reasonable and expected. However, it should be clear why the sharing is taking place and who is involved in it,” the guide says.

It cites a number of examples of data sharing involving public sector bodies, such as the NHS, police and Department of Work and Pensions, and the private sector example of credit reference agencies.

The ICO has also issued separate guidance aimed at helping local authorities and other organizations handle information about business people, in line with the Data Protection Act.

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