HC Deb 10 July 1984 vol 63 cc887-9 3.55 pm
Mr. Chris Smith (Islington, South and Finsbury)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to provide access for private individuals to certain classes of information maintained by certain authorities and institutions. There is far too much secrecy in central and local government today. There is too often a patronising and arrogant assumption that the professional knows best and that individuals cannot be trusted with recorded information about themselves.

My Bill seeks to challenge that assumption and to enshrine a right of access to their files for all citizens. The Bill forms a practical part of the campaign for freedom of information. It is an attempt to open the closed processes of government and administration, and to do so at the front line, where individual citizens are most directly involved.

The Bill will require specified authorities and institutions to publish a list of the types of records that they hold on named individuals. It will grant those individuals a statutory right of freedom of access to those files. It will give them the right to obtain copies and provide them with the opportunity to challenge inaccurate or incomplete information and to correct it, subject to appeal if the authority involved refuses.

The types of record to be included in the schedule to the Bill are: educational records held by local education authorities and schools, colleges and universities; social service files held departmentally or at institutions for the elderly, children or the disabled; and medical records held by doctors, psychologists, nurses and midwives and by hospitals and medical staff attached to other institutions.

The Bill will include information held on file by housing departments and housing associations about tenants and applicants; benefit records held by the DHSS, the Department of Employment or education authorities and covering contributory and non-contributory benefits, allowances, war pensions and student grants; probation service records; criminal records in so far only as they record arrests, prosecutions and convictions; and, finally, reports on prisoners applying for parole.

At this stage, the Bill covers only records held by public institutions or agencies regulated by Government. There is of course an urgent need to secure greater openness and freedom of access where private commercial organisations are involved. That remains, I regret, beyond the scope of the present Bill.

The Bill will make provision for certain limited exemptions to them right of access. Where information has been provided by a third party, the information itself should normally be subject to access, but the identity of the third party should not. Information relating to any third party should also not be disclosed, and in the very rare circumstances where an authority judges the opening of a file to be likely to cause serious harm to the individual concerned, it should be able to make the case to an arbiter and, if successful, keep the file closed. The individual would have a right of appeal. The onus should be on the authority to prove its case, and not on the individual. The presumption should be that the file should be opened.

There are powerful reasons for providing a right of access to personal files. The first is that secrecy, and the paternalism that gives rise to it, make for bad government and bad administration. There should be a spirit of trust and partnership between a professional worker and his client, not an atmosphere of distrust and superiority.

Secondly, a right of access will lead to more careful record-keeping by officials. The knowledge that a file may be inspected will militate against any danger of sloppiness and assumptions that are not borne out by fact.

Thirdly, the opportunity to correct inaccuracies will be invaluable. In the United States, when official records were opened up by legislation to individual inspection, the Department of Defence agreed to amend nearly 15,000 inaccurate records — 99 per cent. of those where corrections were requested. Comparable figures for the Transport Department were 98 per cent., for the Public Health Service 96 per cent. and for the State Department 90 per cent. That level of inaccuracy is nothing short of staggering, and the opportunity for individuals affected to make corrections must be a sensible way to improve matters.

Fourthly, a right of access to files kept on paper will rectify an imbalance which will exist between computerised records—which will be opened up—and paper records when the Data Protection Bill becomes law. It cannot be right that a social service client in one local authority area has access to his file because the authority has computerised its records, but a client in the neighbouring area does not.

Fifthly, greater openness with records can provide a major benefit for the authority and the professional workers involved, as well as for the particular client. A couple of months ago, I received a letter from a team of doctors in a Birmingham health centre, who wrote: Since 1977 it has been the policy of this practice to hand patients their medical records when they come for an appointment with one of the practitioners, or when they ask to see them in the surgery. The practitioners like them to read the notes before the consultation if the patient wishes to. Once the myths about the need for secrecy are dispelled, the advantages for everyone involved in the partnership between an individual and the provider of the service become clear.

Over and above all these practical issues, however, is an overriding moral issue. Surely a citizen should have a right to know what is being written and recorded about him by those employed by the community to provide services or exercise authority. What is written down may have a major impact on their lives. They are entitled to know what the content of the record is, and to challenge it if necessary.

Eric Blair, who wrote under the name of George Orwell and who lived for many years in my constituency, would have well understood this crucial, simple principle at the heart of my Bill. His passionate advocacy of the rights and dignity of ordinary people applies just as much in 1984 as in 1948.

Too much has been done in our country in the last few years that is unliberating and that has placed restraints on individual freedom; and it has too often been done in the name of liberty. Just for once, Mr. Speaker, I ask the House to endorse a fundamentally liberating idea, and to do that in the name of liberty too.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Chris Smith, Mr. Nicholas Brown, Mr. Jeremy Corbyn, Mr. Derek Fatchett, Mr. Jerry Hayes, Mr. Sean Hughes, Mr. Ian Mikardo, Mr. Norman Miscampbell, Mr. Peter Pike, Mr. Allan Roberts, Ms. Clare Short and Mr. James Wallace.