Let’s Blame Data Protection – the Gove files

Thanks to Tim Turner, for letting me blog about the FOI request he made which gives rise to this piece

On the 12th September the Education Secretary, Michael Gove, in an op-ed piece in the Telegraph, sub-headed “No longer will the quality, policies and location of care homes be kept a secret” said

A year ago, when the first shocking cases of sexual exploitation in Rochdale were prosecuted, we set up expert groups to help us understand what we might do better…Was cost a factor? Did we need to spend more? There was a lack of clarity about costs. And – most worrying of all – there was a lack of the most basic information about where these homes existed, who was responsible for them, and how good they were….To my astonishment, when I tried to find out more, I was met with a wall of silence

And he was in doubt about where the blame lay (no guesses…)

The only responsible body with the information we needed was Ofsted, which registers children’s homes – yet Ofsted was prevented by “data protection” rules, “child protection” concerns and other bewildering regulations from sharing that data with us, or even with the police. Local authorities could only access information via a complex and time-consuming application process – and some simply did not bother…[so] we changed the absurd rules that prevented information being shared

This seemed a bit odd. Why on earth would “data protection” rules prevent disclosure of location, ownership and standards of children’s homes? I could understand that there were potentially child protection concerns in the too-broad-sharing of information about locations (and I don’t find that “bewildering”) but data protection rules, as laid out in the Data Protection Act 1998 (DPA), only apply to information relating to identifiable individuals. This seemd odd, and Tim Turner took it upon himself to delve deeper. He made a freedom of information request to the Department for Education, asking

1) Which ‘absurd’ rules was Mr. Gove referring to in the first
statement?

2) What changes were made that Mr. Gove referred to in the second
statement?

3) Mr Gove referred to ‘Data Protection’ rules. As part of the
process that he is describing, has any problem been identified with
the Data Protection Act?

Fair play to the DfE – they responded within the statutory timescales, explaining

Regulation 7(5) of the Care Standards Act 2000 (Registration) (England) Regulations 2010 …prohibited Ofsted from disclosing parts of its register of children’s homes to any body other than to a local authority where a home is located. Whatever the original intention behind this limitation, it represented a barrier preventing Ofsted from providing information about homes’ locations to local police forces, which have explicit responsibilities for safeguarding all children in their area…we introduced an amendment to Regulation 7 with effect from April 2013

But their response also revealed what had been very obvious all along: this had nothing to do with data protection rules:

the reference to “data protection” rules in Mr Gove’s article involved the Regulations discussed above, made under section 36 of the Care Standards Act 2000. His comments were not intended as a reference to the Data Protection Act 1998

This is disingenuous: “data protection” has a very clear and statutory context, and to extend it to more broadly mean “information sharing” is misleading and pointless. One could perhaps understand it if Gove had said this in an oral interview, but his piece will have been checked carefully before publication, and personally I am in no doubt that blaming data protection has a political dimension. The government is determined, for some right reasons, and some wrong ones, to make the sharing of public sector data more easy, and data protection does, sometimes – and rightly – present an obstacle to this, when the data in question is personal data and the sharing is potentially unfair or unlawful. Anything which associates “data protection” with a risk to child safety, serves to represent it as bureaucratic and dangerous, and serves the government agenda.

And the rather delicious irony of all this – as pointed out on twitter by Rich Greenhill – is that the “absurd rules” (the Care Standards Act 2000 (Registration) (England) Regulations 2010) criticised by Gove were made on 24 August 2010. And the Secretary of State who made these absurd rules was, of course, the Right Honourable Michael Gove MP.

How absurd.

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Filed under Data Protection, data sharing, Freedom of Information, Let's Blame Data Protection, transparency

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