Stability is craved by business on data policy – Hugh Goulbourne

In the five years since the then Prime Minister Theresa May promised “strong and stable” government to help Britain cope with the aftermath of the Brexit referendum, the country has arguably experienced economic, political and social conditions which are anything but.

Over the last 12 months alone, the famous black-glossed entry to 10 Downing Street may as well have been replaced by a revolving door, given that we’ve had three prime ministers and a consequent state of legislative flux.

Stability is perhaps one of the most valued things to the business community. Entrepreneurs crave a favourable commercial environment in which to do what they’re good at. Only last year, the then Culture Secretary, Oliver Dowden, reiterated the intention to press ahead with one of the key elements of the campaign for withdrawal from the EU: a reshaping of data protection laws.

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Even that process, however, has been mired in uncertainty. The aim, said Mr Dowden, was to create a “world-leading data policy” that would “deliver a Brexit dividend for individuals and businesses across the UK”.

Hugh GoulbourneHugh Goulbourne
Hugh Goulbourne

Exactly how that would look became clear with the introduction in July of the Data Protection and Digital Information Bill. At first glance, it seemed to make sense. It would, said Ministers, “update and simplify the UK’s data protection framework to reduce burdens on organisations while maintaining high data protection standards”.

Nevertheless, the Bill also included a dilution of protections for consumers – making it easier for organisations to access and share consumer data – as well as changes for how businesses would be expected to manage information and how the whole process would be regulated.

It should have received its a Second Reading in early September but that was postponed, allowing Ministers to “consider the Bill further” in the light of Liz Truss’s appointment as PM.

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Following her replacement by Rishi Sunak, the new Culture Secretary, Michelle Donelan, has sought to reassure those worried about potentially harmful online content that the Bill will not be watered down.

Yet the continued delays are a still a cause for concern because companies need to know if they will have to adapt their processes to meet the terms of another new set of data rules. The proposal that firms need no longer employ Data Protection Officers, for example, raises the question about how they will remain compliant with whatever laws eventually take effect.

After all, the Bill is certainly no bonfire of all data laws. It is simply a renaming and slight dilution of what is in place at the moment. What it does mean is the possibility of UK businesses being out of step with the rest of the EU. The recommended regime offers no guarantees about how data transferred between this country and the remaining 27 member states will be treated. That, of course, would mean no end of headaches for companies involved in cross-border trade. There have at least been indications from senior civil servants that the fate of the Bill has not been indefinitely kicked into the long grass. Even so, it will serve Government, the business community and consumers well to make clear soon what exactly is proposed.

Hugh Goulbourne is a Commercial and Data Protection Partner at Bexley Beaumont.