Hutton rejects ‘Big Brother’ database claims

John Hutton has denied that a proposal to share people’s personal information across government departments is another step on the road to a “Big Brother state”.

The work and pensions secretary said ministers were considering how to provide a more joined up service across government, but insisted there were no plans to create a new database that would include all details currently held on members of the public.

Yesterday Mr Hutton confirmed the government was looking at how to share information held about individual citizens by various agencies in a “more intelligent” way, noting that the current situation was not conducive to efficient public services.

He cited the case of a family who had to speak to staff from the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) on 44 different occasions over six months to inform them about the death of a relative in a road accident.

Opposition parties were quick to condemn the plans, with the Conservatives saying it showed how ministers were step by step logging details of every individual in “Big Brother computers”.

The Liberal Democrats, meanwhile, warned against further “snooping” by the government. “Blair’s Britain now has the most intrusive government in our history,” said leader Menzies Campbell.

However, this morning Mr Hutton argued: “We are not proposing a new database, we are not proposing new IT systems here. We gather a lot of information at the moment, but we just don’t share it across government agencies.”

He told Today that he was looking at whether people could be asked if their data could be shared across government departments as a routine measure.

“If a person says ‘no’, then obviously we’d have to respect that, but I think we should be looking at how we can improve the joins between different government agencies, so we minimise the hassle factor for the public when they have to deal with different government departments,” he said.

“We want to do this purely and simply as a drive to improve the quality of public services. There is no question at all of this being a further step down the road to a ‘Big Brother’ state – absolutely not.”

Much of the concern about the plans stems from scepticism about ministers’ record on managing large databases. NO2ID campaigner Phil Booth warned that past failures meant any suggestion that sharing information would be more efficient was “ludicrous”.

But Mr Hutton insisted: “It’s simply not true to say that government IT doesn’t work, it doe – otherwise we wouldn’t be paying out benefit payments successfully, we wouldn’t be admitting people into hospitals routinely and educating millions of children effectively.”

The Department of Health last month confirmed that patients would be able to restrict access to the new database of electronic medical records, after widespread fears that the new system, part of the £6.2 billion NHS IT upgrade, would compromise privacy.