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The government has yet to begin discussions with the European Commission (EC) on data sharing between the UK and EU post-Brexit, according to digital minister Margot James.
Speaking at a House of Commons EU Scrutiny Committee meeting, the minister said there is no “cast-iron timetable” for when an adequacy agreement will be in place.
Answering shadow digital minister Liam Byrne’s question on whether data flows will continue in the event of a no-deal Brexit, James said she “can’t give him a categorical assurance that an adequacy agreement will be in place at any particular point during the negotiations”.
She added: “The UK government has made it quite clear to the EC that we are ready to commence discussions on a future adequacy agreement, even if the commission has not indicated that it is yet ready to start such discussions.”
James acknowledged the importance of ensuring that an adequacy decision – a legal framework for the flow of data between countries – is in place as soon as possible, but said it is up to the EC when this will happen.
“The ball is in their court,” she said. “I can’t give a guarantee because it’s not in the UK government’s gift. It’s a decision that will be forthcoming from the European Union.”
Attempting to reassure the committee, James said she was “optimistic” that an adequacy decision would be made during the 20-month implementation period following the UK’s departure from the EU on 29 March 2019.
Should the UK end up leaving the EU without a deal, the government’s planning notice on a no-deal Brexit “should allow free transfer of data until an adequacy agreement is put in place”, James added.
However, the no-deal Brexit planning notice warns that the legal framework for transferring personal data from organisations in the EU to organisations in the UK would have to change when the country leaves the EU.
This means that although businesses will be able to continue to send personal data from the UK to the EU, and would “at the point of exit continue to allow the free flow of personal data from the UK to the EU”, it may not be the same the other way around.
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As a result, international data-sharing post-Brexit depends entirely on the EC making an adequacy decision on allowing the free flow of personal data to the UK.
Commenting on James’ statement that there are no guarantees on when the decision will be in place, Byrne said it was a “stunning admission”.
“Without data-sharing, our exports will grind to a halt,” he said. “Yet the minister couldn’t guarantee an agreement, couldn’t say if we need one for the implementation period after March, and didn’t appear to have a timetable for squaring the European Parliament, or the right EU authorities.
“This is incompetence on a simply staggering scale.”
In July 2018, the House of Commons Select Committee for Exiting the European Union urged the UK government to start the process to secure an adequacy decision from the EU as soon as possible.
Despite discussions with the EC yet to begin, Brexit minister Dominic Raab told Parliament in September 2018: “Progress is real on data sharing.”