fingerprints

Police take electronic fingerprints of a person in custody. Image: West Midlands Police.

Thirteen years ago David Blunkett announced proposals that would set in motion the creation of a National Identity Register; a database designed to catalogue the population and allow indiscriminate sharing of personal data between government departments and agencies.

The programme was beset by technical problems, condemned repeatedly by the Scottish Parliament, and ultimately proved to be highly unpopular at the time of its abolition in 2010.

So why are Scottish ministers, who vehemently opposed those proposals at the time, seeking to create a Scottish Identity Register today?

Following high profile and embarrassingly bad handling of personal information by government, such as HMRC’s loss of CDs containing the banking details of child benefit recipients, Alex Salmond, then First Minister of the Scotland, commissioned an expert panel to consider how government should best handle personal data. Amongst its conclusions, documented in its “Identity Management and Privacy Principles“, was the guidance that public service organisations “should avoid sharing persistent identifiers”; a persistent identifier being the key to an index in a database of personal data. So why is the Scottish Government now proposing to share a persistent identifier for each citizen – an identifier associated with NHS records no less – across hundreds of public agencies?

Why, indeed, would the Scottish Government want to share personal data from the National Health Service Central Register (NHSCR) with organisations such as The Board of Trustees of the Royal Botanic Garden, Quality Meat Scotland, VisitScotland or Creative Scotland, amongst 100 other organisations?

Arguments that were well rehearsed at the time Labour sought to introduce its National Identity Register, such as the need for victims of domestic abuse to ensure that former partners do not get access to their current addresses, apply just as much to the Scottish Government’s current proposals. Surely the SNP leadership cannot be so delusional to believe that this is the kind of policy that Yes activists were campaigning for last autumn.

The motivation would appear to be the recent revelation that HMRC and Scottish Revenue do not have an accurate means of identifying which tax payers would fall within the remit of the soon-to-be-devolved Scottish Income Tax.

For the sake of quickly implementing a policy that is unlikely to be used in the near future, ministers appear willing to throw away their progressive credentials.

The argument in favour is that the NHSCR is one of the most comprehensive and accurate government databases of the population, thus allowing Scottish Revenue to identify who should be considered resident in Scotland for tax purposes. A counter-argument is that it is only accurate and comprehensive because no one has an incentive to avoid inclusion on a register that is used solely to provide health care. In contrast, consider the inaccuracies that have previously arisen in the Electoral Register as people sought to avoid the gaze of the tax man.

There are better ways to implement the devolution of taxes.

Responding to a government consultation on the proposals, the Chartered of Taxation have pointed out that the test of residency for tax purposes depends on individuals having a close connection with Scotland or spending more days in Scotland than the rest of the UK, but notes that “access to the NHSCR will do nothing to assist in either regard”. This suggests that the proposed amendments would be ineffective.

The proposals also lack justification, as highlighted by the Law Society of Scotland: “identifying Scottish tax payers is not necessarily the role or purpose of the NHSCR”. NHS National Services Scotland similarly observes that “information on the register was not gathered for this purpose”, hence violating one of the basic principles of good practice outlined in the Data Protection Act. The Information Commissioner’s Office notes that the proposals would be a “shift away from the current consensual model” and diplomatically recommends that “this is an area that would certainly benefit from the more detailed analysis of a PIA” (Privacy Impact Assessment).

Beyond mere ineffectiveness and lack of justification, the proposals have attracted criticism from experts in health and social care. The British Medical Association cautions that extending access to the NHSCR could deter individuals from registering with GPs and undermine trust. A similar point is made by the Health and Social Care Alliance Scotland:

“There is a danger that this proposal to expand the sharing of data within the NHSCR to cover such a broad, and for many people who use support and services unfamiliar, audience could compromise their relationship with the NHS and lead to a greater fear of disclosure of information.

This may be a particular concern for people who experience stigma and discrimination, such as people who have mental health conditions.”

At a time when the Prime Minister has recently proposed that benefits should be withdrawn from the obese, from alcoholics and from those with treatable drug dependencies, the idea of joining tax records to NHS records should cause a shiver of fear in progressives throughout Scotland.

One of the few organisations to express support for the proposals is the Wheatley (housing) group, who apparently relish the prospect “to more effectively and trace former customers with an indebtedness to listed organisations.” Not exactly what anyone thought the NHS register would be used for when it was set up.

The Scottish Government has got these proposals badly wrong. They should be killed off immediately.