Tony Blair tried yesterday to allay fears that the Government is planning to create a Big Brother-style "super-database" after criticism from civil liberties groups.
The Prime Minister told a seminar at Downing Street that "perfectly sensible" plans to share information held by government departments had been misrepresented. He insisted the aim was to improve the performance of public services, so that people no longer had to give details repeatedly to different parts of the government machine.
Mr Blair argued that the move could save lives. He cited the example of electronic patient records that would allow nurses or doctors treating a patient away from their local area to find out their medical history. Other improvements could include avoiding the need to contact between 30 and 40 government agencies after a family bereavement and simplifying claims by pensioners for benefits.
"This is a very good example of how a perfectly sensible thing can be misconstrued," he said. "The purpose of this is not to create a new piece of technology at all or a new database. This is about sharing data in a sensible way so that the customer gets a better public service."
John Hutton, the Work and Pensions Secretary, referred to yesterday's front page report in The Independent as he denied that the plan marked a step towards a "Big Brother state". He told the seminar that the Government should not be forced on to the defensive but acknowledged the need to allay fears.
"There's not going to be a computer whirring away in the background," he said.
What was being suggested was a voluntary system in which people would be asked whether information about them could be shared by government departments.
"If a person says no, then obviously we'd have to respect that, but we should be looking at how we improve the joins between different government agencies," he said.
Mr Blair, who chaired the seminar, is seeking to shape the future direction of public service reforms before he stands down this summer. The data-sharing plan is one idea to be debated by "citizens' forums" in five regions over the next two months, which will inform a cabinet-level review of public services. The 100 ordinary people taking part will gather at No 10 in March to brief ministers.
Pat McFadden, the Cabinet Office minister, said: "The Government has made enormous progress on key areas over the last 10 years but wants now to assess future challenges in a way that is democratic, upfront, presents all the information to the public and doesn't shy away from the tough issues. Our citizen forums will be faced with real-life examples of the choices government faces."
One issue will be learning lessons from the private sector to make public services more responsive to users. Clive Humby, one of the brains behind the successful Tesco Clubcard loyalty scheme, told the seminar that a key was securing the consent of people to have their data on the system and having clarity and openness about using the data.
Hazel Blears, the Labour Party chairperson, said supermarket staff with a stake in the company had an interest in getting more people through the door as that would boost profits. But she added: "In some of our public sector experiences, getting more people through the door means more stress, more pressure, harder to deliver a quality of experience. There is a tension there."