“Our new ‘Mydata’ project aims both to enable you to access data firms hold on you in a digital form – and to foster new applications and markets, where at a click of a switch your personal consumption data can be analysed to help you make better buying decisions.”

“Our new ‘Mydata’ project aims both to enable you to access data firms hold on you in a digital form – and to foster new applications and markets, where at a click of a switch your personal consumption data can be analysed to help you make better buying decisions.”

These are the words of Ed Davey, Minister for Employment Relations, Consumer and Postal Affairs.

Next month, he wants companies – including retailers, banks, energy and telecoms providers – to sign up to a ‘charter’ saying that they back the scheme and will develop ways of giving customers’ data back to them in a form that they can use.

He expects that commitment even though the charter was only released this month and its implications are far from clear.

The Government’s talking about phone and utility companies feeding cost and usage figures back to customers (don’t they do that already?). But it’s not at all clear exactly what data it believes retailers have and what it thinks can be done with that.

I just can’t understand how this could work in our sector. Yes, it could be useful to see that you could have paid less for the texting you did last month – though past prices needn’t indicate future ones – but a customer has a very different relationship with retailers than with the providers of their phone, gas or current account. We don’t sign a grocery contract with a supermarket. We use lots of shops and switch freely between them. Some of those retailers do collect shopping data they can tie to individuals through loyalty schemes, or perhaps in connection with guarantees, but most don’t.

Is the Government really expecting a digital record of every corner shop or market stall purchase we make? It doesn’t exist.

A customer who changes what they do on the strength of one small bit of their consumption picture will be misled into some bad decisions.

And where is the evidence customers want this? Given the record of officials on keeping personal data secure I suspect few do.

We’ve been told that the Government will be gauging consumer reaction with a survey. Shouldn’t that have come first?

Compiling this data and issuing it in the standardised form demanded will cost money. Even where retailers gather it now, they don’t do it in the same way.

Meanwhile, the European Commission is in the process of revising data protection rules. It’s actually going the opposite way, saying that individuals’ rights are best protected by limiting the collection and use of personal data to the minimum necessary. It would be crazy if retailers spent a fortune on accommodating our Government’s bright idea only for an EU directive to halt it.

We’ve been told if companies don’t agree now there could be legislation. I say to the Government; how high up your list of priorities is this? Because, if retailers do it, then it will be at the expense of something else you’re expecting them to do voluntarily.

  • Stephen Robertson is director-general of the BRC