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What do the main party manifestos say about data?

Posted on 13 June 2024

Shortly after the announcement that there would be a July 4 general election, it became apparent that the Data Protection and Digital Information Bill, which had been mooted in various forms for two years, had lapsed. What had been the focus of many practitioners and lawyers was no more.

But what do the main political parties propose, in the area of data protection itself, in their pre-election manifestos? The main answer is not a great deal: it does not look like a return to data protection reform is high on any of the parties' agendas. This may come as some relief, especially for those who have concerns that too great a divergence between the UK and the EU data protection frameworks could threaten the European Commission's position that the UK has an "adequate" regime, for the purposes of transfers of data from the EU to the UK. Despite this, it is likely that the next Government, whatever party or parties form it, will still need to give attention to aspects of the current regime which warrant amendment.

The Conservative Party – the party which sponsored the Data Protection and Digital Information Bill – also says nothing specific in its manifesto on the topic of data protection. It does say that the Conservatives would "invest £3.4 billion in new technology to transform the NHS for staff and for patients", and that this would result in the digitisation of NHS processes through the proposed Federated Data Platform. And there is a proposal to legislate for comparable data across the UK, in order that performance of public services can be accurately compared. There is also reference to accelerating AI development, and investment into the sector, although nothing on whether or how it might be subject to future regulation.

Similarly, the Labour Party makes no express reference to data protection, although it does propose a number of points on digital policy, especially in the area of AI. For instance, it will establish a 'Regulatory Innovation Office' to "co-ordinate issues that span existing boundaries". And it says Labour will introduce "binding regulation on the handful of companies developing the most powerful AI models and by banning the creation of sexually explicit deepfakes". There is also a suggestion of an expansion of the Online Safety Act, but no specific details.

The Liberal Democrat manifesto does refer to data protection, in the context of a wider proposal for a Digital Bill of Rights "to protect everyone’s rights online, including the rights to privacy, free expression, and participation without being subjected to harassment and abuse". It also proposes repeal of the "immigration exemption" in the Data Protection Act 2018, and that "all products" will be required to provide a "short, clear version of their terms and conditions, setting out the key facts as they relate to individuals’ data and privacy". There would also be a 'Patients' Charter' who would seek, among other things, to protect patient data and "patients’ rights to opt out of data sharing".

The Green Party also proposes a Digital Bill of Rights in its manifesto, to establish the UK as "a leading voice on standards for the rule of law and democracy in digital spaces", and to ensure that "UK data protection is as strong as any other regulatory regime". Meanwhile, the Green Party would adopt a "precautionary regulatory approach to the harms and risk of AI" and would seek to "align the UK approach with our neighbours in Europe, UNESCO and global efforts to support a coordinated response to future risks of AI".

None of the party manifestos covered above make reference to Freedom of Information, although it is perhaps notable that the Liberal Democrat manifesto does propose that "all Ministers’ instant-messaging conversations involving government business must be placed on the departmental record" and that "all lobbying of Ministers via instant messages, emails, letters and phone calls is published as part of quarterly transparency releases".

None of this is to suggest that data protection, and wider digital rights issues, might not become subject to policy focus, once the next administration is in power, but as things stand none of the parties appears to see information rights as a topic to boost their campaigns.

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