The public sector needs to be more accountable for its data handling practices if we are to find the right balance between individual freedom and collective security, warned Shadow Security Minister Baroness Pauline Neville-Jones.

Public suspicion of the government's approach to handling of personal data has been fuelled by the recent high profile data losses. The need for action has been sharpened by developments such as the collection of DNA data by the police, EU proposals for sharing police data across national borders, and plans for a national ID card, she said.

So far, the public sector has failed to respond adequately to public concerns, she said. “I've been a civil servant and I know it's very easy to forget who's master and who's the servant in the relationship. The civil service and government need to account on a regular basis for how they use the powers they have,” she said.

The Information Commissioner's Office will play an important part in ensuring the public sector becomes more accountable, but Parliamentary committees must play their part too, she said. It will be important to act on public concerns, rather than simply acknowledging them. “In this country I think we're very good at producing reports, but not always so good at following through on the recommendations,” said Neville Jones.

“I would like to know what external scrutiny of the government's data handling will do, and how often it will take place,” she said. The collection of DNA data by police forces demonstrates some of the difficulties, she said. “We don't have a nationwide standard for inclusion in or removal from the database, so depending on where you are it could include DNA data on people who have been questioned, or witnesses. It has been left to the discretion of the Chief Constable,” she said.

“There has been a lack of standards, conformity, and rigour. There is a clean-up job to be done,” she said.