Page last updated at 17:04 GMT, Wednesday, 30 September 2009 18:04 UK

Surveillance state 'a good thing'

By Brian Wheeler
Political reporter, BBC News, Labour Party conference

Computer hard drive
The government wants departments to share data

"The surveillance state is in many circumstances a jolly good thing," an adviser to the NHS has told a fringe meeting at the Labour Conference.

Tim Kelsey urged more "surveillance" of personal data to cut hospital deaths and improve public services in general.

Steve Bundred, chief executive of the Audit Commission, backed his call but warned the quality of data held by public bodies was often "appalling".

Campaign group NO2ID said more use of personal data could "devastate" lives.

Mr Kelsey, who is the co-founder of Dr Foster Intelligence - an NHS joint venture to produce data on health service performance - accused privacy campaigners of "playing into the hands" of public servants who did not want to be held to account by the public.

"I think we could actually do with more surveillance and that in many circumstances surveillance can save lives in our hospitals and improve our schools, can reduce waste in the public services," he told the 2020 Public Services Trust meeting in Brighton.

'Big Brother'

Mr Kelsey said "postcode lotteries" meant the odds of dying in hospital varied by 76% depending on where you live - and the only way to tackle this was through the analysis of anonymised personal data.

But he said more data should also be gathered about GPs - about 30% of whom he suggested were not up to their job - and all other areas of the public services.

DNA and CCTV are very much about trying to catch people who have done bad things, this is about driving something that is positive and good for everybody
Will Straw

"While we must do everything necessary to protect privacy and ensure confidentiality and personal data around our public services, we must also be far more proactive and demanding of those public services to use our data so that they reduce their death rates and improve their standards.

"If the honest truth about variation in our key services, not just health but education, social care and so on, was properly exposed, we should all I believe be calling for far more surveillance in public services and I really wanted to argue that point now."

He added: "Privacy campaigners, who argue that the state cannot be trusted with personal data and raise the spectre of Big Brother, I think, entirely miss the point. Indeed, worse than that, they play into the hands of those in the public services who prefer that their performance was not properly held to account by its users."

Tory proposals

Justice Secretary Jack Straw was earlier this year forced to drop plans to increase data sharing from the Coroner's Bill but Labour's controversial Transformational government programme continues.

Mr Kelsey claimed Prime Minister Gordon Brown had recently sent a memo to government departments ordering more data sharing after a briefing by his adviser Sir Tim Berners-Lee.

Mr Kelsey stressed greater use and sharing of data must come with greater transparency, adding that Labour had yet to achieve the "public information revolution" it had once promised.

He also expressed concern at Conservative proposals to allow people to store their own medical records due to privacy concerns.

He said: "Clearly that mustn't be allowed to happen. If that does happen, public services will be deprived of any ability to actually improve or analyse their own performance".

He added: "Nobody wants a police state. Everybody wants a personalised public service. In the end both are driven by personal data."

'Multiple dangers'

He was sharing a platform with Jack Straw's son, Will, who has just set up a new political website Left Foot Forward.

Mr Straw agreed with his argument but suggested using the word "surveillance" about personal data was in danger of confusing it with more intrusive methods.

"DNA and CCTV are very much about trying to catch people who have done bad things. This is about driving something that is positive and good for everybody."

Mr Bundred backed the greater sharing of personal data.

He highlighted an anti-fraud drive which had uncovered £140m of taxpayers' money that was stolen or lost from local councils in 2006-07, including thousands of people using free parking badges issued to people who have since died.

But he also warned that the "quality of the data held by public bodies is appalling", with a recent audit of payments for different kinds of treatments in the NHS having an error rate of up to 52%.

Commenting after the meeting, Phil Booth, of campaign group NO2ID, said lives could be "devastated" as well as saved by data sharing, which he suggested could lead to inaccurate personal information being traded between different agencies and government departments.

"The dangers are multiple. People's lives are complicated, difficult things," he told BBC News.

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