The Big Brother state – by stealth

Thousands of unaccountable civil servants given access to our most intimate personal information

Personal information detailing intimate aspects of the lives of every British citizen is to be handed over to government agencies under sweeping new powers. The measure, which will give ministers the right to allow all public bodies to exchange sensitive data with each other, is expected to be rushed through Parliament in a Bill to be published tomorrow.

The new legislation would deny MPs a full vote on such data-sharing. Instead, ministers could authorise the swapping of information between councils, the police, NHS trusts, the Inland Revenue, education authorities, the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Authority, the Department for Work and Pensions and other ministries.

Opponents of the move accused the Government of bringing in by stealth a data-sharing programme that exposed everyone to the dangers of a Big Brother state and one of the most intrusive personal databases in the world. The new law would remove the right to protection against misuse of information by thousands of unaccountable civil servants, they added.

Thomas Hammarberg, the Council of Europe's commissioner for human rights, said he believed Britain had gone too far in helping to bring about a "surveillance society". In a report drawing on personal data infringements across Europe but "inspired" by Britain's plan for a new internet, email and telephone database, he added: "General surveillance raises serious democratic problems which are not answered by the repeated assertion that those who have nothing to hide have nothing to fear. This puts the onus in the wrong place: it should be for states to justify the interferences they seek to make on privacy rights."

He said he was "very worried about the downgrading of the protections of personal information", adding: "Of course there has to be a balance to be struck. At the moment we have not got it right."

David Howarth, the Liberal Democrat justice spokesman, added: "The Government shouldn't try to sneak through further building blocks of its surveillance state. Unrestricted data-sharing simply increases the risks of data loss. This is particularly troubling since the Government has already shown itself entirely incapable of keeping our personal data safe."

The data-sharing measure is referred to in the Coroners and Justice Bill outlined in yesterday's Queen's Speech. It could, for instance, pave the way for medical records to be sent to the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency to identify drivers who pose a health risk, or school attendance data being handed to the Department for Work and Pensions to verify social security claims made by parents.

But civil rights groups warned that the possibility of public records being transferred to private companies on a minister's whim was of even greater concern. Under the existing system, public bodies require primary legislation to authorise the transfer of data to another agency. The new plans would end such parliamentary scrutiny by permitting ministers to use secondary legislation without a full vote of MPs. The Bill sets out how ministers would be able to sidestep data protection and human rights laws that prevent public bodies revealing private information.

NO2ID, a group which campaigned against government plans for ID cards and the associated National Identity Register, said the proposals went far beyond data protection and were intended "to build the database state, concealed under a misleading name". The group's national co-ordinator, Phil Booth, said: "This is a Bill to smash the rule of law and build the database state in its place. Burying sweeping constitutional change in obscure Bills is an appalling approach. Having proved – and admitted – they cannot be trusted to look after our secrets, they are still determined to steal what privacy we have left. Parliament needs to wake up before it has no say any more."

Civil liberties groups said the new powers could be used in conjunction with the equally controversial plan for a giant database holding details of people's emails, telephone calls and internet searches. The Communications Data Bill, which would contain this information, was set for inclusion in yesterday's Queen's Speech but will now be part of a consultation paper to be published in January.

Mr Hammarberg said Britain's poor record on data loss had led to an EU-wide debate about the dangers of a surveillance society. He added: "Data protection is crucial to the upholding of fundamental democratic values: a surveillance society risks infringing this basic right."

The Ministry of Justice said data-sharing was essential for the delivery of "efficient and effective public services, tackling crime and protecting the public". "Any draft order would require parliamentary approval and a privacy impact assessment," said a spokesman. "Additionally, the Information Commissioner would have been invited to comment on the proposals. This will ensure any potential privacy issues and risks are identified and examined.

"The power will be exercised only in circumstances where the sharing of the information is in the public interest and proportionate to the impact on any person adversely affected by it."

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