Covid-19 (Public Services Committee Report) - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:54 pm on 22nd July 2021.

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Photo of Lord Hogan-Howe Lord Hogan-Howe Crossbench 2:54 pm, 22nd July 2021

My Lords, I declare my non-executive membership of the Cabinet Office. It is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Gower, a colleague in the police service, the House of Lords and this Select Committee.

I add my own thanks to the noble Baroness, Lady Armstrong, for this debate and her determined and human leadership throughout the Select Committee—no easy task, given that the committee was new, the membership had not worked together and it had to be arranged virtually. I would also like to thank the clerks of the committee, who were flexible and very hard-working, for keeping the committee and the witnesses well briefed and cared for: a great achievement.

I fully endorse this report and our recommendations but wish to talk about only two issues, which were themes running through the evidence. The first is whether prevention is truly prioritised by the Government. The second is the ability of our public services to share data for the benefit of our citizens. Covid and the consequent lockdowns have brought both into sharp relief.

Nearly every public service claims that prevention of harm is its principal objective. This must be true logically; it is better that someone does not contract a disease or become a victim of crime if it can possibly be avoided. They will not suffer harm and the public service can either be allocated fewer resources in the future or—more likely—use the resources for other priorities. However, Covid showed that we did not prevent the spread of the disease and that we did not have a clear plan for how to prevent the spread of the disease.

It is also true that each public service struggles to articulate a detailed plan for how they will implement a preventive strategy. To take policing, all chief constables say they have a clear preventive strategy, but, when you ask for details of how they will do it, there is no detail. They cannot clearly indicate in their budget the resources allocated for this purpose. Yet we know that the design of products, for example cars, and places really helps reduce crime. People could not steal cars until recently because they were designed not to be stolen. Reasonable alcohol-control strategies, not allowing drug markets to get out of control, special measures to help and protect young people, and giving information to potential victims about how to avoid becoming a victim, will all have an impact. Health has a similar list.

The pandemic showed that we do not have clear and measurable preventive strategies and 10 to 20-year plans for either of these particular challenges. The UK was particularly affected by this pandemic because of obesity and diabetes making people more vulnerable to serious and sometimes fatal side-effects; both obesity and diabetes being preventable problems to some extent. So I urge the Government to take prevention seriously. It is not, as it is often portrayed, a soft, woolly subject; it is as hard-nosed a discipline as engineering, and susceptible to hard-nosed, effective measurement.

In terms of data sharing, we heard some excellent examples during the pandemic that local public service partners had found imaginative, effective and radical ways to overcome hurdles to sharing data. This was excellent news, but the question must be asked: why did they need to be so creative? Why did it take a world- wide pandemic to create the perfect circumstances for such a leap forward? The various regulators cannot understand why the public services say they cannot share data. Well, I am afraid, “They would, wouldn’t they?”

The reality is that legislation is designed generally to prevent the sharing of data: we have privacy legislation to protect our confidentiality and data protection legislation to stop the inappropriate sharing of private data held digitally. This is, of course, commendable. However, I do not think Parliament, when seeking to prevent the inappropriate sharing of private data, also intended to inhibit public services from sharing personal and mass data for the purpose of giving benefits to citizens in terms of health and security—as just two example. But this seems to have been the outcome.

At the very least, public service practitioners and leaders believe there is a problem, and there is clear evidence that poor data sharing is leading to poorer outcomes. The regulators say they will produce yet more guidance to reassure the practitioner. I believe that it is time consider legislative change to change the landscape. I propose that a statutory defence should be created for public services that share data. It is a simple “reasonableness” defence. If they share data believing it is to carry out their duties and help a citizen, they should have a full defence in law to any breach of privacy or data sharing breaches.

The pandemic has allowed public servants to take risks on our behalf in the sharing of data. However, they should not have to take those risks and, by providing a clear defence in law, the Government will reassure our public services and improve their efficiency for the collective good.