Volume 11, Issue 1, April 2014


Mark Taylor*

Cite as: M Taylor, “Information Governance as a Force for Good? Lessons to be Learnt from Care.data”, (2014) 11:1 SCRIPTed 1 http://script-ed.org/?p=1377


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DOI: 10.2966/scrip.110114.1

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Care.data has
been in the news rather a lot recently.[1]
What do the trials and tribulations of the programme, and the government’s
response, tell us about public and professional confidence in the ability of
data protection law to effectively protect privacy in today’s information age?
What is more, how well does it illustrate, the capacity for information governance,
as well as information technology, to shape society in the months and years



The Health and Social Care Act 2012 provided powers for the Health and
Social Care Information Centre (‘the HSC IC’), acting under direction from the
Secretary of State for Health or NHS England,[2]
to require the disclosure of confidential patient information by health
NHS England has directed the HSC IC to collect information from GP practices.
The data collected from GP practices will be identifiable and will contain the
patient’s NHS number, date of birth, gender and postcode, together with a long
list of ‘read codes’ that record clinical data of various types.[4] The 2012 Act provides a
legal basis for such disclosure notwithstanding a lack of explicit patient
consent. To the extent that information is provided in response to a request
under the 2012 Act, the obligation of confidence that is owed by a health
professional to a patient is expressly set aside.[5] In fact, the HSC IC is
empowered to require the disclosure of confidential patient data from
health professionals[6]
and where it is necessary to disclose confidential patient information to meet
a legal duty there is no breach of the common law duty of confidence by a
health professional.[7]

Care.data has proven to be very controversial. A focus of initial concern
for many was the fact that the 2012 Act provides no legal requirement to
respect any patient objection to the disclosure of patient information to the
HSC IC.[8]
The argument was made, by a colleague, myself, and others,[9]
that this was inconsistent with a number of existing legal principles and
policy commitments.[10]
Following the report by Dame Fiona Caldicott’s Information Governance Review,
where “to take account of the implications of the European Convention on Human
Rights, the NHS Constitution and the views of people, the Review Panel
concluded that reasonable objections from individuals must be considered”,[11] there was a
broadly welcomed policy commitment to respect patient objection.[12]
While this commitment, and the more recent decision to place this on a
statutory footing[13]
represents good progress, the concerns expressed about care.data have always
extended beyond simply respecting patient objection.

Perhaps chief amongst further concerns were those associated with
transparency and oversight. In particular, concerns have been expressed about
low levels of awareness. Despite the fact that the Data Protection Act 1998
places a responsibility upon data controllers to provide information, and
leaflets were delivered to 26.5 million households in January, only 29% of
adults polled for the BBC recalled receiving one.[14] The apparent low level
of awareness amongst the public has been a particular concern for GPs who, as
the data controllers for their patient records, are the ones under the ‘fair
processing’ responsibility.[15]
The 1998 Act does not sufficiently encourage co-ordinated activity between
different parties where there are multiple data controllers engaged in parallel
activities. Moreover, the responsibilities it establishes are, apparently, not
sufficiently aligned with effective communication. This undermines the ability
of the 1998 Act to protect privacy in other ways. For example, the value of
respecting objection is obviously diluted if people are unaware of the
disclosure to which they are entitled to object.

The problems with communication and transparency were heightened because
people did not feel that sufficient assurances could be given regarding who
would subsequently have access to their data, whether data would be in potentially
re-identifiable form, and the purposes for which data would subsequently be
used. The media contained reports of a number of disclosures by the forerunner
to the HSC IC that undermined confidence in the ability of existing rules of
information governance to retain public trust. Reports included disclosure to
an actuarial society, reported under the headline “Hospital records of all NHS
patients sold to insurers”[16]
and a story about patient data being “uploaded to google servers” outside the
This is a massively significant concern when the dataflow put at most acute
risk by any loss of public trust is the disclosure of sensitive personal
information by a patient to his or her doctor. It puts individual health care
at risk.

In response to the public debate and widespread disquiet the care.data
programme has now been ‘paused’ for (a further) six months. Dr Tim Kelsey,
National Director for Patients and Information and the person responsible for
the care.data programme, has said that one of the reasons for the delay is that
it was not previously possible to give adequate “guarantees on how the data
would be used”.[18]
The delay is intended to provide an opportunity to improve both the
communication and the safeguards surrounding the programme. There is little
doubt that the care.data programme provides an unprecedented opportunity to
help people through the use of data: The opportunity to discover associations
between co-morbidities, life events, drug combinations, and environmental
factors is extremely significant. As well as the research it will enable,
gathering the data will also allow enhanced national audits and service
evaluations to check that individuals are receiving appropriate and effective
treatment. This should pick up problems earlier and save lives. However, there
is  similar certainty that this must be done in a way that ensures, and is seen
to ensure, that public benefits are achieved in ways that respect
individual privacy.[19]
Trust that data will only be used in ways that patients would recognise as
appropriate must be preserved. The seeming inability of current law to offer
adequate assurances regarding patient privacy led to a series of debates in
Parliament (including two in Westminster Hall and a hearing by the Health
Select Committee) and culminated in the government amending the Care Bill
passing through Parliament.



The government introduced a number of amendments to the Care Bill to
address concerns raised in relation to care.data. These included placing more
rigorous controls around disclosures of data and extending the role of
independent advice to the HSC IC. The safeguards do not apply exclusively to
data collected by the HSC IC under the care.data programme,[20]
but are intended to provide the guarantees that were otherwise found to be
lacking. Among the changes proposed, the HSC IC will be placed under a general
duty to “respect and promote the privacy of recipients of health services and
of adult social care in England”.[21]
Additional restrictions on dissemination of information by the HSC IC include a
requirement that information may only be disseminated if the HSC IC considers
it to be for the purposes of “(a) the provision of health or adult social care,
or (b) the promotion of health”.[22]
These changes are intended, at least in part, to address concerns regarding
inappropriate commercialisation of health data. In particular, the fear that
data would be sold to insurance companies.

In addition to extending the duties placed upon the HSC IC, the breadth
of independent oversight has been extended. The remit of the Confidentiality
Advisory Group (CAG) is extended. CAG is an independent expert advisory group,
which already exists as a committee of the Health Research Authority, but the
Care Bill puts it on a statutory footing. The CAG will now provide advice to
the HSC IC in connection with the publication or other dissemination of data
that, although it may have been through a process of pseudonymisation, is not
The Bill also gives the Secretary of State regulation-making powers to set out
the specific criteria that CAG will be required to take into account in giving

The Under Secretary of State for Health, Dr Dan Poulter, announced in the
House of Commons that it is intended that such Regulations will require CAG to
consider, inter alia, both

…that the purpose for which the data will be used should be in the public
interest and for the provision of health and care services; [and] that any
approved processing must respect and promote the privacy of patients and care
service users.[24]

The CAG[25] already
offers advice on protecting both the public interest in research access
to confidential patient data and the public interest in a confidential
health service. It currently offers advice on the application of the Health
Service (Control of Patient Information) Regulations 2002. These Regulations
cannot be used to support the use of identifiable patient data where
practicable alternatives exist, such as the use of anonymised data or explicit
patient consent. This applies a constant pressure to avoid the disclosure of
identifiable information, without explicit patient consent, wherever

those cases where there is no practicable alternative, there is still pressure
to respect patient privacy and to meet reasonable expectations regarding
use. The stated ambition of the CAG is to only advise disclosure in those
circumstances where there is reason to think patients would agree it to be
Recommendations for support typically include conditions requiring (a)
engagement with representatives of patient or public groups to test the
acceptability of accessing confidential patient data without explicit consent
and (b) respecting any individual objection to disclosure. Collectively
these expectations go beyond the more limited right to prevent processing
contained in the Data Protection Act 1998, and, in cases where individuals are
not directly consulted, encourages consideration of their interests as
represented by broader patient and public engagement.

are thus a number of ways in which, and reasons for which, the position taken
by the CAG extends beyond any reconciliation between privacy and public
interest currently achieved by data protection law. An insistence that efforts
are made to ensure that, even when the public interest is invoked, data is only
used when this is consistent with an individual’s own reasonable expectations –
a use that they might be said to have reason to accept as appropriate – is an
important qualification on intrusion that data protection law does not yet
broadly recognise. It respects the value of reasonable expectation inherent
within the common law duty of confidentiality; a duty itself grounded in the
public interest.

         It is
too early to say what position will be taken in relation to the extended remit
but one must hope that the CAG continues to seek concrete ways to identify and
only support uses which individuals have reason to accept as reasonable especially
where there is an appeal to ‘the public interest’ in access. Public
confidence in the use, but only the appropriate use, of patient data must be


To protect
what and to serve whom?

In a society that is not only information rich but also increasingly
information dependent, the structure and governance of information flows is
central to the growth and governance of society itself.  As we seek to
anticipate, plan, and construct a digital infrastructure capable of delivering
the right information, to the right people, at the right time, there are
multiple profound questions about whose interests the data must serve in the
long term. Who are the right people, what is the right information, and what
would be the right uses of data?  The debate around care.data has at times
reflected the tendency, seen in (data protection) law, to consider the public
interest as something opposed to the protection of an individual’s fundamental
rights and freedoms. There will undoubtedly be times when one must give way to
the other but to present them as necessarily opposed can place too great an
emphasis upon their differences. It invites judgment that when the public
interest justifies it, then individual privacy may be sacrificed. This is an
unhelpful way of framing important questions. It does not sufficiently recognise
the public interest in privacy protection or the ways that using data for
public interest purposes, where it is consistent with people’s
expectations and preferences, can respect privacy.  In short, there are many
ways and times that we can seek to improve protection of both privacy
and the public interest in access simultaneously without having to sacrifice
one for the sake of the other.

It is not only in relation to health data that the ability of the law to
protect both privacy and the public interest has come under challenge
recently. The care.data debate has been carried out in an atmosphere tainted by
the Snowden revelations. The basic principle of transparency is subject to
limitations when necessary to protect various ‘public interests’ but the
European Commission have expressed concern that, in the case of US surveillance
of EU citizens, the US have been adopting an unjustifiably broad interpretation
of necessity.[27]
The broad point here is that the invocation of public interest arguments can be
understood to trump fundamental rights and freedoms and this can be done
without it being sufficiently clear how ‘the public interest’ is being defined
or how the privilege afforded it in particular circumstances is justified to
the persons affected. Individuals, uncertain of the model of public interest
being applied, cannot be sure the extent to which their own interests are being
respected. To put it simply, without a clearer determination of what is meant
by ‘the public interest’, there is understandable concern that any given
individual’s interests might be sacrificed ‘for the greater good’ with that
‘good’ being defined and enjoyed by others.

To bring the example back to health research, there are some specific and
current problems with the notion of public interest, and its relationship with
privacy, being under explained in law that extend beyond care.data. The
European Commission has proposed a General Data Protection Regulation to
replace the Data Protection Directive that currently establishes the data
protection framework across the EU. The text of the Regulation passed by the
European Parliament allows individual member states of the EU to provide
exceptions to the requirement to seek individual patient consent before health
data are used for research purposes with regard to research that “serves a high
public interest”.[28]
If the law relating to health research is to be better harmonised through the
passing of a Regulation (rather than the existing Directive 95/46/EC), then we
need a much better developed understanding of ‘the public interest’ than is
currently offered by law. What is more, we need an understanding that will not
leave patients uncertain as to when or why an individual’s expectations and
preferences regarding access to and use of his or her sensitive data will be
overridden – a national leaflet drop cannot reconcile privacy and public
interest in the way that is needed. Simply ‘providing’ people with information
is not enough to ensure that reasonable expectations are respected.

We need to do this better. There are classic examples of how gathering
and linking data has enabled important insights – e.g. smoking and lung cancer
– and of times when an inability to make the links quickly enough has had
tragic consequences – e.g. thalidomide. The idea of the public interest needs
to be developed to make clear that the reasons for such use must be accessible
to members of the public. Those reasons also need to be subject to reasonable
challenge by the public if they do not consider their interests to have been
taken conscientiously into account by a specific activity. The public interest
should only be called upon to defend interferences that individual members of
the public can be given reason to accept. If people have confidence that data
will only be used in ways that they have reason to accept, even when any
legal requirement for individual informed consent may be formally overridden by
the demands of ‘the public interest’, then the social legitimacy of the systems
will be promoted. Particularly when dealing with sensitive data, such as the
health data that the care.data programme is intended to handle, this is
important. Not only because the programme itself depends upon people
volunteering data to health professionals but because their health care depends
upon it. New data architecture can dramatically enhance and improve existing
uses of data. If such uses extend beyond those that individuals’ might
currently expect, or accept, then there are risks posed to existing uses of
data. The six month pause that has been announced on the roll out of the
care.data programme is an important time to work on these issues. However, we
cannot expect to have all of the answers in six months time. The commitment
must be an ongoing one to continue to consult with people, to continue to work
to optimally protect both privacy and the public interest in the uses of
health data. We need to use data but we need to use it in ways that people have
reason to accept. Use ‘in the public interest’ must respect individual privacy.
The current law of data protection, with its opposed concepts of ‘privacy’ and
‘public interest’, does not do enough to recognise the dependencies or promote
the synergies between these concepts.



Mark Taylor is a senior lecturer in the School
of Law, University of Sheffield. He is also currently Chair of the
Confidentiality Advisory Group for the Health Research Authority. Comments made
in this paper are made in an entirely personal capacity and should not be taken
to represent the views of the Confidentiality Advisory Group or the Health
Research Authority.



A short selection of media articles would include: P Bradshaw “Care.data:
trust is on the line” Guardian Professional 11 March 2014 available at http://www.theguardian.com/healthcare-network/2014/mar/11/caredata-nhs-trust-doctor-patient-leaflet;
S Swinford “NHS legally barred from selling patient data for commercial use” The
28 February 2014 available at http://www.telegraph.co.uk/health/10669295/NHS-legally-barred-from-selling-patient-data-for-commercial-use.html;
N Triggle “NHS data-sharing project at risk, say MPs” BBC News 25th
February 2014 available at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-26347026

[2] Other bodies, and persons, are also entitled to
request that the HSC IC establish information systems to collect information.
In some circumstances the HSC IC must comply with such requests. The details
are contained in s.255 and s.256 of the Health and Social Care Act 2012.

[3] See, in particular, s.254, s.256 and s.259 of the Health
and Social Care Act 2012.

[4] A spreadsheet detailing the codes to be disclosed is
available through the Information  Centre website: http://www.hscic.gov.uk/media/12034/caredata-GP-data-specification/xls/caredata-gp-data-spec.xls

[5] Section 259(10) of the Health and Social Care Act

[6] Action by GPs to avoid this requirement was
reportedly met, in at least one case, by a warning of termination of contract.
See A Matthews-King “GP hit with contract notice over plan to opt all patients
out of care.data” Pulse Today 4th February 2014 available at  http://www.pulsetoday.co.uk/your-practice/practice-topics/it/gp-hit-with-contract-notice-over-plan-to-opt-all-patients-out-of-caredata/20005749.article#.UzrE3a1dUnY

[7] Hunter v Mann [1974] QB 767

[8] R Todd, “Care.data IG reconsidered” ehealth
27 March 2013 available at http://www.ehi.co.uk/news/EHI/8487/care.data-ig-reconsidered

See comments attributed to Professor Douwe Korff, ibid.

[10] See, e.g. J Grace and MJ Taylor “Disclosure of
Confidential Patient Information and the Duty to Consult: The role of the
Health and Social Care Information Centre” (2013) 21(3) Medical Law Review 415-447

[11] “Information to share or not to share? Information
Governance Review” (March 2013) at 79, available at https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/192572/2900774_InfoGovernance_accv2.pdf

L Evenstad “Hunt pledges to respect patient data” ehealth Insider 26th
April 2013 http://www.ehi.co.uk/news/ehi/8549/hunt-pledges-to-respect-patient-data

[13] For a discussion of this see, S Swinford “NHS legally
barred from selling patient data for commercial use” The Telegraph 28th
February 2014 available at http://www.telegraph.co.uk/health/10669295/NHS-legally-barred-from-selling-patient-data-for-commercial-use.html

[14] C Vallance “Adults “unaware of NHS data plans” BBC
14 February 2014 available at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-26187980

[15] A Matthews-King “GPs held responsible for patient
complaints over NHS data-sharing project, says ICO” Pulse 10th
January 2014 available at http://www.pulsetoday.co.uk/your-practice/practice-topics/it/gps-held-responsible-for-patient-complaints-over-nhs-data-sharing-project-says-ico/20005505.article#.UzrXF61dUnY

[16] L Donnelly, “Hospital Records of all NHS patients
sold to insurers” The Telegraph, 23 February 2014 available at  http://www.telegraph.co.uk/health/healthnews/10656893/Hospital-records-of-all-NHS-patients-sold-to-insurers.html

[17] R Ramesh, “NHS England Patient Data ‘uploaded to
Google servers’, Tory MP says” The Guardian 3 March 2014 available at  http://www.theguardian.com/society/2014/mar/03/nhs-england-patient-data-google-servers

[18]L Evenstad, “Kelsey admits care.data use unclear” ehealth
19th March 2014 available at http://www.ehi.co.uk/news/EHI/9299/kelsey-admits-care.data-use-unclear

The idea of privacy that I rely upon here is developed in MJ
Taylor Genetic Data and the Law (CUP, 2012), Chapter 2.

Indeed, it is important to remember care.data is about data
going into the Information Centre. The new safeguards relate to data
that comes out of the in a particular form.

[21] Paragraph 45 of Commons Amendments to Care Bill [HL]

[22] Paragraph 45 of Commons Amendments to Care Bill [HL]

[23] Paragraph 49 of Commons Amendments to Care Bill [HL]

[24] Hansard 10 March 2014: Column 137.

[25] And predecessor bodies: The Ethics and
Confidentiality Committee of the National Information Governance Board and the
Patient Information Advisory Group.

HRA CAG ‘Principles of Advice’ (HRA 2012) at 4 available at  http://www.hra.nhs.uk/documents/2013/09/v-2_principles_of_advice_-_april_2013.pdf

[27] Communication from the Commission to the European
Parliament and the Council on the Functioning of the Safe Harbour from the
perspective of EU citizens and companies established in the EU (Brussels 27.11.2013
COM(2013) 847

[28] Article 81(2)

Information Governance as a Force for Good? Lessons to be Learnt from Care.data

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