Government databases 'breach human rights', claims study

Only six of the 46 public sector databases which hold information on citizens have a proper legal basis, it was claimed today.

Only six of the 46 public sector databases which hold information on citizens have a proper legal basis, it was claimed today.

Research commissioned by the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust finds that 11 government databases are almost certainly illegal under human rights and data protection laws and should be scrapped or substantially redesigned. The other 29 databases have "significant problems and should be subject to an independent review".

The evidence for the claim is in a report, published today (23 March 2009), which was commissioned by the trust from the Foundation for Information Policy Research.

The report provides the most comprehensive map of the UK's databases.

In his foreword to the report, Lord Shutt, chairman of the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust, says: "Of the 46 databases assessed in this report only six are given the green light. That is, only six are found to have a proper legal basis for any privacy intrusions and are proportionate and necessary in a democratic society."

The report says that the government's flagship databases, such as the DNA database, "Contactpoint" which makes data on children and young people available online, and the NHS detailed care record, are so flawed they should be scrapped or redesigned immediately.

"The UK public sector spends over £16bn a year on IT. Over £100bn in spending is planned for the next five years, and even the government cannot provide an accurate figure for cost of its 'Transformational Government' programme. Yet only about 30% of government IT projects succeed."

"We hope this report will help to highlight the scale of the problem we are facing and inform the ongoing debate about the sort of society we want to live in and how new information systems can help us get there," said Lord Shutt.

The Rowntree Trust commissioned the study after the loss in October 2007 of two CDs by HM Revenue & Customs. They contained the personal details of 25 million citizens. Lord Shutt said, "The millions of people affected by this data loss, who may have thought they had nothing to hide, were shown that they do have much to fear from the failures of the database state."

The government's response to the report, which is being co-ordinated by the Ministry of Justice because it is responsible for laws relating to data sharing, stops short of promising an investigation into whether any of its databases might be illegal.

A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said, "Delivery of efficient public services and effective public protection are key functions of government. "The government can and does fulfil these responsibilities while never losing sight of its obligations under the Data Protection Act and the Human Rights Act.

"This report presents no substantive evidence on which it bases its assessments of privacy impact. The government takes its responsibilities seriously and will consider any concerns carefully, adapting existing safeguards where necessary," the spokesperson said.

The Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust was founded in 1904 by the Quaker philanthropist. It gives grants for political and campaigning purposes, to help correct imbalances in power, and promote democratic reform, civil liberties and social justice.

Read more on the IT Projects blog

Picture: Kelly Redinger/ Design Pics Inc./Rex Features

Read more on IT risk management