Deputy First Minister John Swinney asked questions about the Scottish National ID Database

Both Green and Labour MSPs asked questions yesterday to question the plans to convert the NHS Register into a Scottish National Identity Database. The responses though were rather lacking. Patrick Harvie, from the Greens, asked a question yesterday about the plans:

6. Patrick Harvie (Glasgow) (Green):

To ask the Scottish Government what its position is on the privacy concerns raised by the Open Rights Group regarding the proposed amendments to the National Health Service Central Register (Scotland) Regulations 2006. (S4O-04026)

The Deputy First Minister and Cabinet Secretary for Finance, Constitution and Economy (John Swinney):

The Scottish Government has an unequivocal commitment to protecting and respecting individuals’ privacy. The Government opposes identity cards and does not propose to introduce any new national database.

The measures on which we are consulting, which would result in limited additional verification and sharing of data from the national health service central register, will improve the accuracy of key statistics on Scotland’s population and on migration; ensure that public sector organisations can verify whom they are dealing with in order to deliver the right services to people; support the tracing of missing persons; ensure that individuals who wish to do so can securely access online public services through the myaccount initiative; and accurately identify Scottish taxpayers, which is relevant to protecting Scottish tax revenues and so protecting the delivery of public services.

We will consider the responses to the consultation to ensure that the measures that are implemented, which Parliament will scrutinise, adhere to our commitment to protect the personal data and the privacy of individuals.

The good thing about this response is that it leaves the Scottish Government and the SNP some room to wiggle out of the plans, once they understand the problems. It is also good that John Swinney was asked to answer the question: it has got the attention of the top of government. The bad news is that they have not so far understood that there may be a problem.

Claiming that the government “does not propose to introduce any new national database” is a particularly hefty dodge, since what people are complaining about is the repurposing of the NHS Register to become used by the whole of government; a fact recognised by Swinney’s statement that the data will be used so that “individuals … can securely access online public services through the myaccount initiative”.

Patrick Harvie replied to ask:

In opposition, the Scottish National Party rightly joined others in campaigning against the proposed ID cards legislation, which would have seen every citizen given a unique reference number linked to a central database that would have been linked to a card scheme, controlling access to public services and sharing data across Government. Why, then, are we now seeing a proposal for a system that will give every citizen a unique reference number linked to a central database that will be linked to a card scheme that will share information across Government and control access to public services? Furthermore, why is that the subject of a low-profile consultation rather than a national debate?

John Swinney

The proposal is the subject of a consultation exercise that will conclude in about a week’s time, after which the Government will consider the consultation’s outcome. I am glad that Mr Harvie welcomes the tone of my remarks, because they were designed to reassure Parliament that the Government’s position is crystal clear: we oppose ID cards and we do not propose to introduce any new national database.

The national health service central register has existed in Scotland since the 1950s. Every citizen has an individual national health number—a community health index number—that is viewed internationally as one of the strengths and foundations of the management of clinical care in the national health service. The Government is consulting on a number of limited additional verification conditions. I assure Patrick Harvie, Parliament and any concerned members of the public that the Government will test any reactions against its fundamental opposition to ID cards and its determination not to create any new national database.

This is somewhat of an obfuscation. Of course it is fine that the NHS Register is being used as an NHS Register. The problem is the introduction, as Harvie says, of “ a system that will give every citizen a unique reference number linked to a central database that will be linked to a card scheme that will share information across Government and control access to public services”.

Neil Findlay then asked about the rather curtailed process that is introducing these huge changes.

Neil Findlay (Lothian) (Lab):

Many people have concerns about the civil liberties implications of the proposals to change the register. However, most people, including me and—I suspect—many in the chamber, do not know enough about the issue. Will the minister bring forward a debate in Government time so that we can discuss the proposals in full?

John Swinney:

Mr Findlay will forgive me if I do not prescribe reading material to him on a weekly basis, but the Scottish Government’s consultation has been available for the public and members of the Parliament to contribute to. It closes on 25 February. If he wishes to make a submission to the consultation, we will happily consider the issues.

As for a debate, we must get the order of these matters correct. We are having a consultation whereby we are inviting people to give their opinions, and any regulations that come forward will have to be scrutinised by Parliament, which will have its opportunity to consider all the questions. If members have any concerns, I encourage them to engage with the issues that have been raised in the consultation, which are fundamentally about ensuring that we can support the direction of public services to those who require them and ensuring that the national health service register, which has existed since the 1950s and which is a strength in our ability to deliver the administration of clinical care to individuals, is enhanced in any way that we can do that. The tests about protecting and respecting individuals’ privacy are at the heart of any decisions that the Government will take on the matter.

This is an admission that we should expect a very limited process. Regulations are very rarely opposed or withdrawn. Debate and scrutiny are limited, as regulations are meant to be about dull, minor changes. Swinney encourages MPSs to use the consultation process, which is a technical process for examining changes outside of democratic debate.

Democratic debate is required for questions of principle and political commitments. What could be more about principle than fundamentally changing the relationship of the citizen to the state? Does the ability of the state to understand the whole life of the citizen require democratic discussion, or should it be passed into law as if it were a measure to proscribe pink custard in schools?

Civil servants are not being entirely honest with John Swinney and the Scottish parliament. You can help by emailing your MSP with a response to the consultation. You have until Wednesday 25 February, so please do this now.