My Lords, I welcome the modernisation of data protection law that the Bill represents and the intention to comply with EU law in the regulation and directive—which of course we must do while we are still in the EU. I am particularly concerned with the future and the prospects for an adequacy decision from the Commission if we find ourselves outside both the EU and the EEA. A failure to get such a decision would be extremely harmful for both businesses and other organisations and for law enforcement.
I will look briefly at the past. In 2013 in the European Parliament I was one of the lead MEPs establishing the Parliament’s position on the regulation. I believe that we did a decent job—that was before the negotiations with the Council, which watered it down somewhat. The Government rightly acknowledge that the new system will build accountability with less bureaucracy, alleviating administrative and financial burdens while holding data controllers more accountable for data being processed—backed up by the possibility of remedies for abuse including notable fines. But the purpose is to provide incentives to build in privacy from the beginning through such instruments as data protection impact assessments and having a data protection officer, through data protection by design and default—thereby avoiding getting to the point of redress being necessary. As an aside, the routine registration with the Information Commissioner’s Office will be abolished, and I am not aware of how the ICO will be funded in future, because that was a revenue stream.
I will say briefly that the new rights that are in the regulation include tougher rules on consent, so we should see the end of default opt-ins or pre-selected tick boxes. That will probably be one of the most visible things for consumers; I hope that it does not become like the cookies directive, which has become a bit of a joke. The need for explicit consent for processing sensitive data is important, as is the tightening of conditions for invoking legitimate interests.
There are several matters which will give improved control over one’s own data, which is very important. There is also the right to be told if your data has been hacked or lost—so-called data breach notification—and a strengthened ability to take legal action to enforce rights. All these are considerable improvements. However, I am rather concerned about the clarity of this very substantial Bill. It is explained that the format is chosen to provide continuity with the Data Protection Act 1998, but whether or not as a result of this innocent, no doubt valuable, choice, it seems to me that some confusion is thereby created.
First, there is the fact that the GDPR is the elephant in the room—unseen and yet the main show in town. You could call it Macavity the cat. The noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, dubbed the Bill Hamlet without the Prince. Traces exist without the GDPR being visible. Is the consequent cross-referencing to an absent document the best that can be done? I realise that there are constraints while we are in the EU, but it detracts from the aims of simplicity and coherence. Apparently, things are predicted to be simpler post Brexit, at least in this regard, when the GDPR will be incorporated into domestic law under the withdrawal Bill in a “single domestic legal basis”, according to the Explanatory Memorandum. Does that mean that this Bill—by then it will be an Act—will be amended to incorporate the regulation? It seems odd to have more clarity post Brexit than pre-Brexit. It would no doubt be totally unfair to suggest any smoke-and-mirrors exercise to confuse the fact of the centrality of EU law now and in the future.
Secondly, we seem to have some verbal gymnastics regarding what “apply” means. The departmental briefing says that the Bill will apply GDPR standards, but then we have the so-called “applied GDPR” scheme, which is an extension of the regulation in part 2, chapter III. Can the Minister elaborate on precisely what activities part 2, chapter III covers? The Bill says that manual unstructured files come within that category. I do not know how “structured” and “unstructured” are defined, but what other data processing activities or sectors are outside the scope of EU law and the regulation, and are they significant enough to justify putting them in a different part?
Looking forward, I want to mention some of what I see as the possible weaknesses in the Bill which might undermine the potential for an adequacy decision for data transfers to the EU and the EEA. The future partnership paper published in August, which has already been mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Jay, referred to a UK-EU model which could build on the existing adequacy model. Can the Minister explain what that really means? As the noble Lord, Lord Jay, said, while national security is outside EU law, when it comes to assessing the adequacy of our level of data protection as a third country, we could find ourselves held to a higher standard because the factors to be taken into account include the rule of law and respect for human rights, fundamental freedoms and relevant legislation, including concerning public security, defence, national security, criminal law and rules for the onward transfer of personal data to another third country. Therefore, our data retention and surveillance regime, such as the bulk collection of data under the Investigatory Powers Act, will be exposed to full, not partial, assessment by EU authorities. This will include data transfers, for instance to the United States, which I would expect to be very much under the spotlight, and could potentially lead to the same furore as other transatlantic transfers. I lived through a lot of that. I remember that in 2013 there was a lot of flak about the actions of the UK, but nothing could be done about it because we are inside the EU. However, in the future it could.
There are also a number of aspects in the Bill in which the bespoke standards applied to intelligence agencies are less protective than for general processing, such as data breach reporting and redress for infringement of rights. We will need to give serious thought to the wisdom of these, looking to the future. This will not just be a snapshot on Brexit day or even on future relationship day, because at issue will be how our standards are kept up to scratch with EU ones. The fact that with another part of their brain the Government intend to decline to incorporate the European Charter of Fundamental Rights into UK domestic law, with its Article 8 on data protection, will not help the part of the governmental brain which looks forward to the free flow of data exchange with the EU. Our Government seem to be somewhat at cross purposes on what their future intentions are.
I will highlight, rather at random, some other examples which need reflection. We may need seriously to look at the lack of definition of “substantial public interest” as a basis for processing sensitive data, or even of public interest. I think the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, mentioned the failure or the non-taking-up of the option under Article 80(2) of the regulation to confer on non-profit organisations the right to take action pursuing infringements with the regulator or court. This omission is rather surprising given that a similar right exists for NGOs, for instance, for breach of other consumer rights, including financial rights. Perhaps the Minister could explain that omission.
There is also concern that the safeguards for profiling and other forms of automated decision-making in the Bill are not strong enough to reflect the provisions of Article 22 of the GDPR. There is no mention of “similar effects” to a legal decision, which is the wording in the regulation, or of remedies such as the right of complaint or judicial redress.
Very significant is the power for the Government under Clause 15 to confer exemptions from the GDPR by regulation rather than put them in primary legislation. That will need to be examined very carefully, not only for domestic reasons but also because it could undermine significantly an adequacy assessment in the future.
I will make one or two points in the health and research area. The Conservative manifesto commitment to,
“put the National Data Guardian for Health and Social Care on a statutory footing”,
is not fulfilled in the Bill; perhaps the Minister could explain why not. I would also expect clarification as the Bill proceeds on whether Clauses 162 and 172 sufficiently protect patients’ rights in the use or abuse of medical records. We know this is a sensitive issue given the history in this area, particularly of care data and other attempts to inform patients.
As a final point, I am glad that the research community was broadly positive about the compromises reached in the GDPR, although they were less explicit than the Parliament’s position. That leads to some uncertainty. I took note of what the noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Jones, said. Therefore, close examination will be merited of whether the Bill provides a good legal framework with sufficient legal basis for research, which many of us have all sorts of interests in promoting, balanced with a respect for individual rights. I very much hope this will be explored carefully at future stages.