Leading article: Riding roughshod over our privacy

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The economic downturn has altered the political landscape in numerous ways, but one constant remains: the Government's determination to ride roughshod over the privacy of the individual.

The Coroners and Justice Bill, published yesterday, proposes to give ministers the right to allow public bodies to exchange sensitive data about each of us between themselves. The effect would be to free organisations such as the Inland Revenue and the National Health Service from the present data protection laws which state that such information can only be used for the purpose for which we originally handed it over. Ministers would even be able, in theory, to transfer public records to private companies. If this Bill is passed by Parliament, it will represent yet another encroachment by the state into areas in which it has no business.

The Justice Secretary, Jack Straw, argues that there will be strong safeguards against these new powers being abused. We heard the same thing when the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Bill on terrorist surveillance was making its way through Parliament in 2000. Yet that upshot of that odious act was to allow councils to mount covert surveillance on householders suspected of such offences as dog fouling or fly tipping.

It is important to remember that this latest Bill forms part of a malign trend. The Communications Data Bill, which threatens to create a database containing details of all our telephone calls, emails and internet searches, was mercifully dropped from the last Queen's Speech. But it has still not been killed off. The Government will launch a consultation on the legislation later this month. The police's DNA database is expanding rapidly. And planning continues on the ID database.

There is a good reason why government agencies have hitherto not been allowed to pass around our personal data at will. And that is because it belongs to us, not the state. We provide this information to receive certain specified benefits and services, on the understanding that it will be kept strictly confidential. If ministers are unable to recognise why it is inappropriate for them to undermine our privacy in this way, they simply reveal themselves to be unfit to govern.

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