Data: A New Direction – What has it got to do with us?


In September the UK government opened a new consultation Data: A New Direction. It’s a particularly chunky document with 180 questions being asked over 144-pages. Its purpose is to inform the government as it sets out to reform the UK’s data practices, along with any underlying legislation that will enable it.

At a time where we have a lot of challenges on our plate linked to government policy - the loss of the Universal Credit Uplift, changes in legislation such as the Nationality and Border Bill and the Policing Bill – you may be wondering how significant a data reform could be for VCSE organisations and charities.

I’ve described the work around Data Reform as a sleeping giant. The consultation is ‘pro-growth’, with discussions focusing on streamlining processes and addressing blockages to business innovation, balanced by a need to safeguard personal data and minimise harm to individuals and communities. Whilst a lot of the elements are not aimed at our sector directly it is something that has the potential to have huge implications. Not just in our own governance but also regarding the people we support. Some examples:

Data Protection Officers

You may remember the panic about appointing Data Protection Officers (DPOs) in the run up to GDPR coming into force. This data reform guidance proposes potentially changing the legal requirements for a DPO, which was difficult for many charities, and could be a positive outcome for our sector. The complete removal of DPOs, however, could cause longer term challenges as without a legal imperative, what drives private businesses to spend money on employing an individual ensure the safeguarding of personal data?

Changes to electronic marketing

In another GDPR-related flashback you may recall reviewing how consent is obtained and recorded for mailing lists and you may have seen some of the newspaper headlines about getting rid of cookies opt in’s for websites. This time changes to electronic marketing go further and are more detailed, for example, potentially making it easier for VCSE organisations to promote statutory communications and public health messages on behalf of public bodies like the council.  As well as changes to soft opt in (consent) for marketing which would make things easier for our sector to communicate with people we have worked with. All of this may sound great on the surface but it has to be balanced with measures to prevent the misuse of data for fundraising or it being used inappropriately by political campaigns.

Access to your own data

There is talk about a return to the ability to charge a fee (as it was pre-GDPR) for accessing your own data (known as ‘subject access requests’) as well as a maximum cost (cost ceiling) which would help identify a limit to an organisation’s ability to reasonably respond. In part, this is a good thing as it creates limits and expectations as well as an element of cost recovery for VCSE organisations. On the other hand, it could limit an individual’s access to their own data held by an organisation. It could be misused to create barriers by businesses and organisations and it may increase inequalities. The report itself highlights a potential disproportionate impact on disabled and older people.

Easier to handle data for the public sector

A lot of the report talks about making it easier for data to be used. For example, making it easier for private companies, organisations and individuals to process personal data on behalf of a public body. That potentially makes service delivery easier, which is great for VCSE organisations that deliver services for public bodies (that aren’t classed as statutory). The discussions also include health data and increasing the ability to access it, which is mainly driven by learning from Covid (this could potentially be positive). We have to remember, however, that with many things the devil is in the detail and implementation. Will it allow for data reuse either in an identifiable or anonymous way beyond the pure service delivery? Not every contract is won by an organisation we’d deem ‘ethical’ and we don’t all share the same perspective on how an individual’s information should be treated.

Changes to the use of AI and automated processing

Without getting technical this is the bit that will affect people the most. To sum up, the biggest shift is the plan to change the circumstances in which AI and automated processing can be used. This will affect an individual’s right to object to it happening and the right not to have it happen if it has a legal or “similarly significant” effect. The example given in the report was the creation of the Covid shielding list. Following that logic, it could also be used in housing, benefits or social care decision making. It also potentially means an increase of profiling linked to things like risk stratification (identifying those who are most likely to need services / early intervention). Automated decision making by itself isn’t a bad thing I think there is a case to argue for additional safeguards similar to those in the Digital Economy Act where it can only be used for individual benefit as well as transparency on how decisions are made so objections and challenges can be raised – there have been lots of instances where badly done AI has increased bias and discrimination

What can you do?

If reading this blog has perked your interest, there are three things you can do:

1. You can read about the consultation and respond yourself via the government website.

2. We are looking at putting a GM VCSE response in – if you’re not already signed up to the GM VCSE Information Governance group get in touch with me ( to find out more.

3. You can also attend an event to find out more and contribute to the GM response being coordinated by the Greater Manchester Combined Authority. These events are commissioned by the GMCA but are being facilitated by Open Data Manchester. Open Data Manchester are part of the VCSE sector and understand that it can be intimidating to respond to this type of consultation, even to those who work in data. The workshops will break down the consultation into bits working together to understand its contents. The events are:

  • Data Reform for Innovation and Growth - Monday 1 November 14.00-16.00
  • Data Reform for Better Public Services - Tuesday 2 November 14.00-16.00
  • Developing a response - Wednesday 3 November 18.30-20.30

More details and registration can be found on Eventbrite here.

Salford CVS
Marie Wilson, Strategic Lead

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