Data reforms Bill ‘doomed’ as General Election is called

Parliament_new2The Government’s long-awaited Data Protection & Digital Information Bill has fallen victim to Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s decision to call the General Election on July 4, with the reforms in their current state likely to sink without trace.

The move has triggered a call from industry body the DMA for the Government and Opposition parties to join together to pass the Bill before the election. However, with Parliament being dissolved next week, this seems a long shot at best.

It was back in August 2021 that plans for new legislation were first aired, with then Digital Secretary Oliver Dowden insisting: “Now that we have left the EU I’m determined to seize the opportunity by developing a world-leading data policy that will deliver a Brexit dividend for individuals and businesses across the UK.

“It means reforming our own data laws so that they’re based on common sense, not box-ticking. And it means having the leadership in place at the ICO to pursue a new era of data-driven growth and innovation.”

Even so, the main elements of the reforms lent heavily on the EU’s GDPR, which had changed its name to UK GDPR following Brexit, although there were bigger fines for rogue telemarketers, a soft-opt in for charity emails, relaxing the online cookies law and a shake-up of the Information Commissioner’s Office.

But within weeks the Bill had run into trouble, with both privacy organisations and business groups airing their own separate concerns. The Daily Mail, meanwhile, claimed Britons were “rejoicing” at the news. It quoted one Twitter user who said: “Nice to see common sense reversing the silly EU cookie law which has only made the web a more frustrating experience for all and scaring those that don’t know how cookies work.”

Following a second consultation and input from the Business Advisory Group, which included the DMA, Advertising Association, Which? and TechUK, the Data Protection & Digital Information Bill (No2) emerged in March 2023.

At the time, the DMA hailed the changes, with chief executive Chris Combemale insisting the new version would safeguard the key ethical principles of existing laws while clarifying areas of confusion and simplifying onerous administrative burdens on small businesses.

And with it came claims of even greater money savings for business. Originally, ministers had said the new laws would save firms £1bn over ten years; a claim which was disputed by many data experts who insisted the shake-up would cost firms more, not less.

This was upgraded to £4.7bn in savings for the UK economy over the next ten years, but there there was little detail on how this would be achieved. In fact, data protection professionals claimed the figures had “very little foundation in reality”. Others claimed the Bill (No2) still favoured big business.

Yet, while critics refused to be silenced, the real issue came on the third reading of the Bill in the House of Commons in November, when the Government introduced and then waved through an unprecedented 240 last-minute amendments.

This led to huge delays in the House of Lords, where peers were forced to do the line-by-line scrutiny of the changes, with the most controversial being new DWP powers to spy on bank accounts of benefit claimants to fight fraud. At the last count, the DPDI (No2) was still in the committee stage; nowhere near being returned to the Commons.

Now, with most pundits – and opinion polls – predicting a heavy defeat for the Conservative Party, the Bill seems doomed; while some legislation will go through under the so-called “washing up” at the end of Parliament, the data reforms have not been mentioned.

Should Labour form the next Government, they are likely to dig up the Bill at some stage, as most people recognise that with AI on the rise and privacy in sharp focus, new legislation is required. If so, the Labour MP for Rhondda, Sir Chris Bryant, could finally get his way and get the House of Commons to re-commit the Bill to a public committee.

However, the DMA’s Combemale said: “The Government must make passing DPDI its number one priority in the next few days. After three years of consultation many aspects of the Bill have support across the political spectrum. We urge the Government to make the necessary compromises on controversial issues to ensure the Bill passes before the election.”

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