Conference policy motion: “Respect, Consent and Personal Data”

The policy motion “Respect, Consent and Personal Data” is the culmination of many months’ work from Sue Miller, Tim Razzall and a number of other Lib Dem Lords including myself to address the increasing intrusion by government, public and private organisations into our privacy. At the core of Liberal Democrat philosophy is a fundamental belief in the freedom of the individual, and the importance of strengthening and upholding fundamental rights. In recent years we’ve protested as the government introduced more and more measures to collect and store more and more information about individuals, such as the extending the remit of the national DNA database and of course introducing ID cards. 

We’d already begun to look closely at what measures we would put in place to protect personal privacy before the disgraceful loss of computer discs containing sensitive information about 25 million child benefit claimants by HM Revenue and Customs in November last year. This massive data loss, which impacted on half the population of the UK, was the largest incident of data loss in Europe. That would have been bad enough but this lamentable episode was followed by a series of incidents which, if not of the same magnitude, were of cause for concern; records lost by the DVLA, the MoD and a succession of private companies revealed a culture where data security, and individual privacy, was given scant regard. 

The Government is collecting more and more information about us, but seems utterly incapable of keeping it safe. In this motion we propose a number of measures to restore confidence in how our personal data and privacy is protected. 

The motion calls for two clear principles to be implemented when dealing with data protection – the principles of respect and consent. By these, participation rather than obligation would be the bedrock of future e-Government projects and the Data Protection Act would be strengthened to ensure compliance with good data protection practices. We would also strengthen the role of the Information Commissioner and increase the funding of his office. 

We recognise the decisive role the national DNA database has played in combating crime and criminality. However in order to protect our personal information any attempt to obtain such information compulsorily must be justified and proportionate. One of the fundamental tenets of British justice is “innocent until proven guilty.” By refusing to destroy samples from those who are never charged with a crime or who are later acquitted completely blurs that principle. The motion therefore proposes removing the records of all innocent adults from the NDNAD.

We also call for the removal of all DNA samples of children under the age of 16, except those who have been convicted of a violent or sexual offence. Placing children on the NDNAD may actually increase their propensity to commit further crime, making the retention of their samples entirely counter-productive.

Further, it is clear that the Data Protection Act needs updating. It is, after all, now some ten years old; the Act has not kept up with the pace of change in technologies. The motion proposes that the Act is amended to introduce extensive civil penalties for serious breaches of data security, enhanced criminal offences for the negligent and reckless abuse of personal information, and a new power for the Information Commissioner to conduct spot checks on private companies as well as public bodies.

The Office of the Information Commissioner is of critical importance in ensuring compliance with good data protection practices. However if the office is to operate effectively the Commissioner needs to have the appropriate powers and resources to do so. We propose abolishing the flat-rate charge currently levied against all data controllers irrespective of their size, profits and the amount of data they hold and replacing it with a proportionate system. By this we would hope to double the Information Commissioner’s budget.

As we move ever further into the digital age and data collection and sharing technologies become more and more prevalent, the need for confidence in data protection law becomes ever more pressing. This motion will ensure that only essential data is stored and that proper systems are in place to prevent its loss or misuse.

Baroness Joan Walmsley sits in the House of Lords as a Liberal Democrat Peer and is the Liberal Democrat Children, Schools and Families Spokesperson in the Lords. She will be moving the motion at conference. The full policy paper is available on the party website here.

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This entry was posted in Conference.


  • Anonymous Lib Dem 5th Sep '08 - 7:09pm

    Very good post indeed. One must also scrutinise the Information Commissioner itself. If it is investigating a government funded body. In realpolitick it is reluctant to do this. So some sort of detachment from government would be necessary for the Information Commissioner

  • dreamingspire 5th Sep '08 - 9:38pm

    I get the feeling that govt depts and agencies are organised in two tiers. The ICO has no fear of the lower tier…

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