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Mark Walport interview

On the Politics Show, Sunday 22 June 2008, Jon Sopel interviewed Dr Mark Walport

Mark Walport
Dr Mark Walport

JON SOPEL: Thank you for being with us and welcome to the Politics Show.

DR MARK WALPORT: A pleasure.

JON SOPEL: We saw there the concerns of the Wright family. Are they right to be concerned.

DR MARK WALPORT: Well I think the piece illustrated very nicely, the benefit of information sharing in terms of receiving the services that you need to survive in every day society.

And I think it also illustrated some of the risks as well. And the issue in a sense is about balance.

JON SOPEL: But private data seems to become routinely asked for now. Wherever you're going, whatever form you're filling, go to a hotel, they'll say, date of birth, place of birth, you know, your home address. Why do they need that.

DR MARK WALPORT: Well, I think that's a very good point. What we've done during the past few months is we've consulted very widely and we've had an excellent response.

We've had over two hundred written responses to our consultation and that's one of the points that came up. And for many things, actually what's needed isn't information about our identity, but our credentials, and that's a very good example.

So actually, when you go to stay in a hotel, what's needed is the fact that they know you're going to pay your bill. And in principle, if you leave all your stuff behind, that there's a way to get it back to you. But do they need you to write in the register, your name and you full address, well probably not.

It's about getting the balance right and actually pin-numbers are a very good example of using credentials. So when we use a piece of plastic to pay for something now, we type in a pin-number. It's not about a signature. It's the credentials that whoever we're buying something from, is going to get paid.

JON SOPEL: But it's a system that requires you to have confidence that information you give is not mis-used. Isn't that the key to it. I mean there have been so many instances where data has got lost and you think, can I really trust everybody to have all this information about me.

DR MARK WALPORT: Well I think you've hit the nail on the head actually because there are two questions when you talk about information sharing.

There's whether you shared the information and then how you share the information and so if you take the example of the loss of twenty five million records by HMRC, there's not really any doubt that it's appropriate for child benefit payments to be audited, but the question then is, do you need to send twenty five million records through the post, well of course you don't.

Do you need to, you need to work out what the minimum information you need to use to audit is. So I think you have to distinguish between the whether of information sharing and the how.

And I think as you've rightly pointed out, many of the things that have gone wrong in recent examples have been that people have been very sloppy in the how of data ? (interjection) ?.

JON SOPEL: Dr Walport, you've been looking at this whole subject. What would you recommend. What is the way forward on this.

DR MARK WALPORT: Well I think. I mean the first thing is that I think people have actually got to use judgements. So it's not actually about - you can't legislate for every example of information sharing.

So, in fact, if you asked the question, you know, is information sharing a good thing. It's actually a silly question. The question is, is sharing of this particular information, for this particular purpose, a sensible thing to do or not.

JON SOPEL: You said you can't, you said you can't legislate, but isn't it quite important that if information is mis-used or is lost, there is some kind of punitive measure attached to it, so that people actually take very, very seriously, if they are the guardians of all this information.

DR MARK WALPORT: I think that again is absolutely right. So, if you look at health and safety and many people use that as a metaphor or if in fact you use financial propriety, a company - in the Board Room, the Chief Executive knows that his or her responsibility is Health & Safety, is actually financial probity and in the same way, information needs to go up the hierarchy and at the moment, I think in all too many organizations, both public an private, data is somehow something that's left to someone fairly junior in the firm. You're right, the responsibility and accountability needs to be with the most senior people and if it goes wrong, then there do need to be penalties.

JON SOPEL: Two massive IT projects are about to come on stream which the government has supported. One is identity cards and the other is the Health Service system, whereby all patient records will be computerized and you can see the advantages, I mean on the patient records, that if I, who live in London have an accident in Scotland and some accident and emergency doctor is able to access that I'm allergic to whatever, then that is obviously a very beneficial thing. But you can also see big pit falls.

DR MARK WALPORT: Well I think again, it comes down to how you do it. So in the case of health information, I spent twenty five years practicing medicine and I was all too familiar with the fact that information wasn't properly shared, so I wouldn't know exactly what was in the hospital records, patients would be lost.

Computerization gives the opportunity to actually get the information much better. And in fact it would be much better if patients had access to that information themselves.

JON SOPEL: A very brief final question. Is David Davis right. Are we living in a surveillance society.

DR MARK WALPORT: I think there is much more surveillance than there ever was. I think that you can look at it in terms of, are the services that we get improved, is law enforcement better.

It's a question of balance, it's a question of proportionality, it's a question of using that information appropriately, using it but not abusing it.

JON SOPEL: Dr Mark Walport, thank you very much indeed for being with us here on the Politics Show today.


Please note BBC Politics Show must be credited if any part of these transcripts are used.

NB:These transcripts were typed from a recording and not copied from original scripts.

Because of the possibility of mis-hearing and the difficulty, in some cases, of identifying individual speakers, the BBC cannot vouch for their accuracy.

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The Politics Show Sunday 29 June 2008 at 1200BST on BBC One.
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