HC Deb 06 May 1969 vol 783 cc285-8
Mr. Kenneth Baker (Acton)

I beg to move. That leave be given to bring in a Bill to prevent the invasion of privacy through the misuse of computer information. One of the features of our society is the growing use of computers. There is no doubt that they will revolutionise our society and improve the conditions of man. But they should be our tools, not our masters. Computers should operate within the framework of our society within its customs, rights and laws and not seek to distort and dominate that framework.

I should like to make clear at the outset that this is not a Luddite Measure which seeks to inhibit and prevent the use of computers. On the contrary, this is a forward-looking Measure. I am not leading a campaign to restore the quill pen. My Bill seeks to establish a code of conduct, backed by legal sanctions, for computer operators operating these personal data banks. At the moment these computer operators do not have a code such as doctors and lawyers have, and are often placed in a difficult position in regard to knowing what information is confidential and what information should be passed on, and to whom.

To give a precise example of a dilemma, two months ago the clerk of a rural district council in East Anglia wrote to me saying he had been asked by the clerk of a neighbouring city council to pass information about one of his former council tenants, concerning that tenant's ability to pay rent, his marital status and marital stability and whether he was naturalised. The clerk of the rural district council said it was not his business to pass such information around.

The difficulty that arises from a computer is that when housing records are computerised in this way no specific decision has to be made as to whom information can be passed. This is the essential dilemma of the problem. One has to balance the advantages of administrative efficiency against the rights of individuals.

Bureaucracy, I suspect, is tolerated because it is relatively inefficient, but when it has the opportunity to become highly efficient we have to examine again the checks and balances that may be required to operate on these personal data banks. There are many of them around the country. I understand that of the 120 or so Government computers about one-half are concerned with recording personal information. They are the well-known ones—the P.A.Y.E. computer at Kilbride, the Social Security computer at Newcastle, the Giro, Premium Bonds and Savings Bank computers; and now there is the vehicle licensing computer at Swansea.

There are also computers being operated by local councils for housing and welfare records. Information at all these sources is available virtually at the pressure of a finger to an official in Whitehall or in a town hall. Behind those officials could stand the politicians. This is a real danger, because all this apparatus of a computer-based autocracy is coming into existence. I do not want to sound alarmist, but George Orwell's nightmare of 1984 could easily come about by misuse of computers.

My Bill would also cover such things as medical records. One of the developments in the future will be individual medical records; and each of us will be computerised. This has the enormous advantage that when any person falls ill away from home the doctor who is to attend him will be able to dial in and get his medical record. This means that the treatment may be much better but it has the obvious danger that, for example, drug companies, insurance companies, or a man's employer may be able to get that kind of information. This is something on which there is at present no protection at all. My Bill would also cover the private sector and, in particular, credit rafting bureaux.

Specifically, what the Bill would do is, first, provide that a computer holding information specifically about people would have to be registered, together with the purpose for which the information is required. We have suggested that the register should be kept by the Registrar of Restrictive Practices, but this is not essential. It should, however, be kept by a registrar so that there is a judicial framework.

Secondly, when the name of any person appears on any computer that person will receive a print-out, like a bank statement, containing details of the personal information that the computer holds, which departments have access to it and what use has been made of information where it has been passed since the last print-out. After the first free print-out, anyone can apply for a subsequent printout for the payment of a fee.

Thirdly, each person will have the right to challenge the accuracy of the information on the statement and the relevance of the purposes for which it is being kept, and the right to claim that the information is out of date through the passage of time and should be expunged.

Fourthly, there will be penalties for owners or operators of data banks who send information to non-qualified recipients. If inaccurate information is sent out and an individual suffers loss as a result there will be a cause for damages.

Finally, there will also be penalties for anyone who attempts to get information for malicious purposes; otherwise, the Bill would be a blackmailer's charter. It is not proposed to extend the provisions of the Bill to the police or counterespionage records.

In conclusion, the principle of the Bill has been accepted by the Government. Clause 65 of the Post Office Bill, which is going through the House at present, lays down that there will be penalties upon Post Office operatives who work computers who misuse the information they come across in the course of their work. The penalties are very heavy—imprisonment and heavy fines. But what is lacking in Clause 65 of the Bill is the procedure for determining that there has been wrongful misuse of the information. This is an omission which my Bill seeks to make good.

I am glad to say that there is all-party support for this Bill. It is supported by the Labour Party and the Liberal Party; and many of its proposals emanate from a pamphlet prepared by Conservative lawyers and one prepared by the National Council for Civil Liberties. This wide and growing support shows that there is increasing recognition of the need for some new protection of individual rights and protection against an over-zealous State intruding too much into individual people's privacy. In the changing conditions of contemporary society we need the right to be left alone.

Finally, this is the first time that a Measure such as this has ever been aired in any Parliament. It is thought that the United States Congress and the Canadian Parliament will legislate on these lines, but nothing has been printed so that nothing is yet available. The Bill that we have drawn up is not by any means completely perfect, but I hope that it will be a basis of legislation. Those who have been associated with me in preparing the Bill are very proud of the fact that this is the first time such a Measure comes before any Parliament in the Western world. But it will not be the first time that the British House of Commons has led the way in defending the rights and freedoms of individuals when they have been threatened.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Kenneth Baker, Mr. Dobson, Viscount Lambton, Sir Harry Legge-Bourke, Dame Joan Vickers, Mr. Lubbock, Mr. Orme, Mr. Rossi, and Mr. Whitaker.