The RSS pressed for greater provision around data sharing for statistics and research in the Digital Economy Act as it passed through both Houses of Parliament. Here we explain how the RSS influenced Parliament in respect of this major and highly complex piece of legislation.
The RSS has played an important role in influencing the way new legislation relating to statistics and research has been formed in the UK’s new Digital Economy Act, which was finally rubber-stamped by Parliament on 27 April 2017.
The Act was drafted to make provisions for all manner of issues relating to digital infrastructure and services amid constantly evolving technology. As well as looking to protect intellectual property in electronic communications, regulate direct marketing and give greater powers to OfCom, the Bill sought to make provision about data-sharing.
It was this part of the Bill, specifically chapters relating to greater data-sharing for public research purposes and for official statistics, that the RSS was interested in influencing on behalf of our fellows.
Commenting on the new Act, RSS’s Executive Director, Hetan Shah, says: ‘This is the most important legislation relating to official statistics in a decade and will give the Office for National Statistics (ONS) the power to use new sources of data to build a much more up-to-date picture of the economy and society, and can feed into the future census. In particular, the right of access for the ONS to private sector data, as recommended by the RSS, is truly ground-breaking.’
The RSS consistently urged the UK government to give greater powers to ONS to access government and private sector data - as has been fulfilled in the Act. We were also keen to secure better access to de-identified data (including data from health and social care) for research purposes; in this regard, the Act strengthens the basis on which access to central government data is permissible for public research purposes - although this does not yet apply to health and social care data.
Our input into the legislative process
The RSS began work on this issue back in 2014 when we participated in an initiative by the then Minister for the Cabinet Office, Francis Maude, called 'Open Policy Making on data sharing in government'.
Then, in 2015, the RSS gave evidence to the Commons Science and Technology Select Committee's ‘Big Data Dilemma’ inquiry, urging that the ONS should have greater access to private sector data and to government departments’ data. Further investigation into this was recommended in the Committee’s subsequent report (paragraph 56).
In 2016, the RSS National Statistics Advisory Group pushed for greater access to government data for statistical and research purposes (via a statement and full response) in a Cabinet Office consultation, ‘Better Use of Data’. The RSS also hosted an event on the importance of legislation for statistics and research, with representatives from the Cabinet Office, the UK Statistics Authority and research organisations such as CLOSER and ESRC.
As the Digital Economy Bill began to be debated in Parliament, RSS’s Hetan Shah pointed out that individual privacy need not be compromised by accessing data for official statistics and research: 'For statistical and research purposes, statisticians and researchers are interested only in aggregates; they are not interested in us as individuals.’ The RSS provided briefings outlining our views to members of both the House of Commons and the House of Lords as the legislation passed through Parliament.
In 2017, the government proposed amendments to the legislation which were passed by the House of Lords. Lord Willetts tabled a further amendment, supported in the Chamber by Baroness Byford and Baroness O’Neill (although it was not accepted by the Government), to the effect that the provisions for data-sharing from central government to ONS could be strengthened even further in the future.
Looking ahead, the RSS recommends that the government needs to support faster and more agile access to data for research purposes. The Digital Economy Act’s provisions will be put to good use, but improvements to data access also require clear oversight and allocation of funding. The Information Commissioner’s Office, working with the UK Statistics Authority and others, should also better articulate the privacy safeguards that apply to de-identified personal data. There is a particular need to join up health and social care data with other personal data for research purposes and to look at the legislation and safeguards for this, as access to this data for beneficial research purposes will need to be addressed.