HC Deb 18 February 1982 vol 18 cc388-9
4. Mr. Douglas-Mann

asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department if he will call for reports from each chief constable in each police authority to ascertain on how many individuals police forces in England and Wales, including their special branches, hold files; and what proportion of these relate to persons with no criminal record.

Mr. Whitelaw

No, Sir.

Mr. Douglas-Mann

Is it not extremely unsatisfactory that files on individuals held by the police are not subject to scrutiny or to questions in the House? Does the right hon. Gentleman know whether it is true that the Special Branch holds files on over 1 million people. Does the right hon. Gentleman know how many files are kept on hon. Members? Is he satisfied about access? Can he explain how The Observer newspaper was able to obtain access to a file on my constituent Mr. Hugh Geach, who has apparently done nothing more "subversive" than having been active as a student in 1969 in the campaign against the South African rugby tour?

Mr. Whitelaw

I must make it clear that the Special Branch maintains records on individuals where this is necessary to enable it to undertake the tasks laid upon it. That is a perfectly proper position.

Mr. Hattersley

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that some of his sillier Back Benchers, such as the hon. Member for Preston, North (Mr. Atkins) and others, were saying that files of this sort should be held in respect of some of my hon. Friends? Is that the Home Secretary's view, or does he repudiate it?

Mr. Whitelaw

My Back Benchers are never silly.

Mr. Kilroy-Silk

Is the right hon. Gentleman not aware that a considerable amount of evidence exists to suggest that the police hold large numbers of files on people with no criminal past or criminal propensity? Is this not a serious invasion of their privacy? Will the right hon. Gentleman accept that the establishment of any future agency for the protection of data should have access to police files?

Mr. Whitelaw

I must reserve my position until I make a statement on data protection and the House sees the direction that the Government intend to take on that issue.

Mr. John Wells

Are files retained by the police where a citizen of foreign extraction, for instance, a German citizen—I do not mean a Commonwealth citizen—applies for British nationaltiy and is rejected, but then reapplies? Will the file have been kept by the local police between the first application and the next?

Mr. Whitelaw

That would be a matter for the individual chief constable. I shall look into the matter.

Mr. Christopher Price

Following the right hon. Gentleman's response to my hon. Friend the Member for Ormskirk (Mr. Kilroy-Silk), does he agree in principle that, in respect of data protection legislation, there should be no difference between access to electronic files held in computer form, and manual files?

Mr. Whitelaw

It would be fairer, I think, for the House to await the statement that I shall make on this important subject.