Changes to the Data Protection Act are needed, otherwise plans for 'joined-up' e-government could be held back, industry experts and users have warned.
Sharing personal data between separate government agencies is prohibited by the Data Protection Act, said Marcus Robinson, partner at IT consultants Accenture.
"Without being able to share the data, departments will be duplicating effort and reducing efficiency. If we are serious about joined-up government, we must consider legal change," he said.
The Government wants all services delivered online by 2005.
Greater sharing of information between NHS hospitals and social services could improve overall patient care, as well as reduce costs, said Robinson.
"Enterprise application integration (EAI) can help [departments share data]", he said, "but they must be permitted to do so."
Having electronic records has focused people's minds on what personal data is being kept about them and who might access it, said Dave Nurse, research director at XML consultants CSW Informatics.
His company has been working with South Staffordshire NHS Trust to develop an electronic health record system.
"With electronic records, there is an audit trail showing who has accessed records that was not available with paper records. This had made people question who this information will be shared with."
The government has proposed that special 'guardians' be appointed to oversee the exchange of data between Health Trusts and social service departments. But research by public sector IT professional group, The Society of Information Technology Managers, found that over a third were concerned about the practicalities of the arrangements.
Author of the report, Brian Westcott, commented: "Confidentiality of client or patient data is seen as a major obstacle to joint working. Many see a dichotomy between the proposals, which restrict information sharing, and the Government's pressure to do more."
Having to deal with the legal requirements surrounding data sharing would be a significant task, said Robert Bell, head of innovation and technology at law firm Hobson Audley:
"Local government and other government agencies will face a difficult task when trying to simultaneously reassure the public, comply with the law and meet the 2005 target set by the Government."
The problem is not restricted to just those involved in health provision. The purpose of e-government is to improve overall public service, said councillor John Howarth of Reading Borough Council.
The Government needed to provide the support, but "this hasn't happened yet," he said.
A spokesman for the Information Commission said that they were unaware of any plans to amend the Data Protection Act. But there are instances where data protection is permitted, such as when consent has been given, he said.
But convincing the general public that government departments could share their personal information remained a significant challenge, said Robinson.
"The public need to have confidence that the information is safe. Security has to improve."
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