This article was originally published by Global Data Review on 7 February 2023.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has announced that a new dedicated Department for Science, Innovation and Technology will take responsibility for data issues as part of an overhaul of the UK government’s structure.
The reshuffle, announced today, will mean responsibility for data policy will be taken away from what was the Department for Digital, Media, Culture and Sport (DCMS) to sit in its own office. Some of the data and digital policy work carried out by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy will also break away to form the new outfit.
“Having a single department focused on turning scientific and technical innovations into practical, applicable solutions to the challenges we face will help make sure the UK is the most innovative economy in the world,” Sunak said in a statement.
The move undoes the incorporation of digital policy into DCMS made in 2017. Michelle Donelan, current minister for DCMS, will move over to head the new department, although she is scheduled to begin maternity leave in April. It isn’t yet known who will oversee the department in her absence.
It also isn’t known whether senior civil servants who had a leading hand in data and privacy projects, such as Julia Lopez, who was largely responsible for the drawing up of the Data Protection and Digital Information Bill, and Paul Scully, under-secretary of state for tech and the digital economy with responsibility for areas including AI policy and digital standards, will also move across.
While the reshuffle introduces further uncertainty for businesses awaiting crucial legislative updates – the Data Protection and Digital Information Bill was withdrawn before its second reading in Parliament and has yet to resurface, and the Digital Markets, Competition and Consumer Bill is awaiting its parliamentary debut – some are seeing it as an opportunity for renewed focus.
Joe Jones, the former deputy director for international data transfers at DCMS who recently became director of research and insights at the International Association of Privacy Professionals, said that he expected developments to accelerate once the dust had settled.
“We are likely to see a lot more activity,” he said. “I think we can reasonably expect to see this department really move forward with the GDPR reform proposal, which has been very quiet for a while. The international discussions on the new UK data bridges – formerly data adequacy – will be in a department that is really focused on digital tech and science in the international context.”
The UK most recently finalised a data adequacy agreement with Korea in November 2022, and discussions are currently underway to reach a deal on data flows with the US.
In the House of Commons, the DCMS select committee is also currently undertaking an inquiry into the issue of connected technology such as smart speakers and other internet of things devices.
Experts also expected the new department to give more clout to digital policy than it enjoyed under DCMS, when the responsible minister had to divide their time between data protection issues and the range of cultural work done by the office like the UK’s hosting of the forthcoming Eurovision competition.
“It will be leaner than BEIS but taken more seriously than DCMS,” Michael Laughton, senior manager for policy innovation at Access Partnership, said of the new department.
Laughton also struck a relatively positive note on the potential effect of the change on existing bills, saying that the Data Protection and Digital Information Bill is “not going to be stuck in any more of a quagmire than it is, because we do seem to be getting continuity with Michelle Donelan keeping the digital brief”.
Others were less hopeful. Shomik Panda, chief executive officer at Inline Policy, said that “we do not anticipate that this decision means that the return of the DPDI Bill to Parliament will be accelerated. On the contrary, today’s reorganisation risks pushing the timeline for the introduction of anticipated legislation out farther”.