Just a few years ago any talk of data protection was of precious little relevance to most people – it was something taken care of by hospitals and doctors, by banks and building societies. Today, every person online is keenly aware that their data is always at risk from hackers and that their data is also the currency with which they pay for services such as Facebook and Google.
So as I’ve spent this last week on the committee of MPs examining the new Data Protection Bill line by line, I’ve been struck by just how vital this new piece of legislation is, and by how relevant it is to every single constituent.
The ‘Committee Stage’ of a bill is the vitally important part where, after an initial debate on the broad subject, a small group of MPs, in proportion to the political make up of the House, goes line by line through every single clause of a proposed Act of Parliament. Not each one will necessarily require debate, and it reveals that there is very often far more cross-party consensus on most issues than most would think there might be. But it is above all a chance for the opposition to put forward their case and for the government to either accept or reject those ideas.
Sometimes amendments are put forward simply to probe the government position, and at other points those amendments are put to a formal vote. The result is usually a bill that goes back to the House of Commons for a further debate in largely unamended form, but which still has the opportunity for further changes before it finally goes to the Queen for Royal Assent.
On the Data Protection Bill, there are a host of challenges and opportunities – as data flows across borders, it’s important that the UK maintains a regime of data protection that means our regulations are compatible with those in the EU, but they don’t necessarily have to be identical.
As we leave the EU, a balance between divergence and alignment makes decent sense. Likewise, however, this is legislation that increasingly has an impact on every organisation large and small: parish councils, micro-businesses and small charities all need to have control of data to be efficient and it’s right that Parliament ensures that the individual and other organisations are protected.
The bill also, however, is subject to a host of amendments that seek to tack unrelated issues onto it, including press regulation. The government has already rejected these, and indeed such rejection was also in the Conservative manifesto – that’s not to say that they shouldn’t be debated again, but it demonstrates that some politicians, in this case in the House of Lords, will seek novel ways to put their views across. This piece of legislation doesn’t have such things in its scope, quite rightly.
By the end of several long days, the 208 (at time of writing!) clauses of the bill will have been debated at length – all, in all likelihood, with barely a word reported in the mainstream media. Parliament’s work on almost all legislation is scrupulous, but seldom conspicuous.