Data Protection Bill [HL] - Commons Amendments

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:45 pm on 14th May 2018.

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Photo of Lord Mitchell Lord Mitchell Labour 3:45 pm, 14th May 2018

My Lords, the words in the Bill and the words on the screens above us summarise my position. This is the Data Protection Bill, and my amendment is solely about protecting data—our data; our data of national significance; and in particular, our data owned by our National Health Service. Who do I wish to protect it from? From the predatory big tech companies, which see a huge financial opportunity in developing this NHS data and creating data algorithms; they can then sell those for billions of pounds, leaving us with precious little in return. The very same companies, by the way, pay minuscule corporation tax in our country and, indeed, it is the same in their own country. They are clever, immensely well funded, and very focused—they run rings around the NHS.

I feel that I have to prevent this happening. I seek to set in motion a process which will keep the value of this data for the benefit of our NHS so that it can use these proceeds either to plug its growing budget deficit or fund significant critical medical research—or, indeed, both. If I let my imagination go even further, I would like to see the setting up of a sovereign health fund into which these proceeds could be channelled and administered, in the same way as the Norwegians set up a sovereign wealth fund. What they have done with the proceeds of their North Sea oil we can now do with our data bonanza. As many have said throughout the Bill’s proceedings, data is the new oil—and we have struck a gusher.

If I may be permitted to extend the analogy even further—like oil in the ground, this data is crude; it needs to be refined. Huge investment will need to be made to create a data refinery which will be able to synthesise the millions of records that will produce the algorithms. It should be seen as a national co-production, perhaps with private and public partnership.

At Second Reading, I stated that it was my judgment that the market value of NHS longitudinal data could be worth billions of pounds. In all honesty, as I progressed, I fully expected someone to disagree with me and tell me that I was wrong. But no such person has come forward. All the experts seem to confirm my position. I made the point that the longitudinal data owned by the NHS was unique, with tens of millions of patient records going back to 1948 and even earlier. No other country has access to such a treasure trove. Even better, our population is diverse, with the records of people whose family members come from all corners of the globe. We have a perfect dataset.

The reason big tech companies are so interested in this data is that with the combination of sophisticated software, ultra-fast data processing, artificial intelligence and machine learning capabilities, they are able to produce algorithms which are tremendously powerful. These can be used to predict organ abnormalities to the extent that clinicians can save time and money, and ultimately people’s lives. And who can disagree with that? It is wonderful for all mankind.

By way of an example, DeepMind, which is based in London—it is a subsidiary of Alphabet, which owns Google—has been working with the Royal Free in anticipating acute kidney injury. Like knights on white chargers, DeepMind has financed the digitisation of millions of patients’ data and produced algorithms that are already making a major contribution to improving difficult-to-diagnose conditions. It has cost the Royal Free next to nothing and, unsurprisingly, its staff are over the moon. What they do not realise is that the algorithms produced by DeepMind have international value and will be monetised all over the world for the benefit of Google, not of our NHS.

DeepMind and companies like it are swarming all over the NHS. For my part, to put it bluntly, I want to stop them gathering the benefits of our data on the cheap. My new amendment would water down previous amendments that your Lordships agreed to on Report—an amendment that the Commons in its infinite wisdom decided to annul. Frankly, I am still at a loss to understand why a Conservative Government would not want to maximise this goldmine; I always thought they were the party of business.

I have, however, taken on board the points made by the Information Commissioner. She said the amendments went beyond her powers. I have reduced them to a minimum. In substitution I have inserted a requirement for the Secretary of State to require the National Audit Office to prepare a code of practice for data controllers, for guidance on how to obtain best value in relation to the commercial exploitation of personal data of national significance, and for the NAO to report annually to Parliament on the commercial explication of the very same data.

The Minister and his team have listened to what I have had to say and I am very grateful for his kindness and attentiveness. Our last meeting was very helpful, and I look forward to him confirming the points that were made. I beg to move.