HC Deb 05 June 1984 vol 61 cc237-42

Amendments made: No. 38, in page 38, line 35, leave out from second 'of' to end of line 43 and insert—

  1. '(a) the chairman or a deputy chairman (who shall preside); and
  2. (b) an equal number of the members appointed respectively in accordance with paragraphs (a) and (b) of section 3(5) of this Act.'.

No. 39, in page 39, leave out lines 4 to 11.—[Mr. Waddington.]

Order for Third Reading read.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

9.4 pm

Mr. Paddy Ashdown (Yeovil)

We recognise that both in Committee and on Report the Government made useful and significant amendments to meet major concerns expressed by Members in all parts of the House, including reservations expressed by Conservative Members. We welcome that and the fact that the Committee stage was conducted with a good deal of co-operation and understanding. Nevertheless, although amendments have been made to deal with a number of worries, one central issue remains which will make it impossible for the alliance to support Third Reading. The House will be pleased to know that as I spoke at some length on this earlier today I shall not need to repeat the details of the argument about the threat to civil liberty contained in clause 28, so no time has been wasted.

The central basis for our opposition to the Bill is the potential that it has to damage the individual in relation to the capacity of the state to gather information about the individual and to share it among the organs of the state. As I said earlier, the computers and computer organisations serving the state are growing in a manner that is not generally recognised in the House and may even not be clearly understood by those proposing it.

Mr. Norris

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Ashdown

The hon. Gentleman complained earlier that I made a long speech. I recognise that it was indeed a long speech, but it was made far longer than it need have been by all the interventions. I do not intend to make a long speech on this occasion, but I will give way in a moment if the hon. Gentleman wishes.

The central case for our opposition to the Bill lies in clause 28(3). That is the single, central point of opposition, but it is a massive one. It allows the passing of private, personal information which can now be gathered and stored more effectively and retrieved more quickly from points right across all the Departments of state. The Bill does absolutely nothing to protect the rights of the individual in that regard.

The Government have made the case time and again we need a Bill to protect data that is automatically held, not data that is stored manually. New protections are required. We agree with the Government's aim of protecting the individual because of the automated nature of currently held data. Yet the safeguards that the Government have built into the Bill do not differ from those covering the exchange of manually recorded information between the organs of the State.

The guidelines laid down by the Home Office to allow the police to interrogate, based on private information, are inadequate. However, not much damage can be done, because such information is manual; there is a fundamental difference between that and the damage that can be done through the exchange of information between the organs of the state. Therefore, we need a new set of safeguards, which are not contained in the Bill or in the Home Office circulars.

Mr. Denis Howell

I regard this as an astonishing speech. On Second Reading the Liberal party and the SDP voted for the Bill. We are now asked to accept, after all the improvements that the Government have made—I have acknowledged them—that the Bill is worse than before. I shall quote the hon. Gentleman's conclusion to his speech on behalf of the alliance. He said: I shall not detain the House with other matters of great importance which are more appropriately dealt with at length in Committee. A number of them were touched on … Notwithstanding our hope that various new clauses and amendments will be agreed to in Committee, we welcome the Bill and will do all that we can to ensure that, deprived of its present blemishes, it passes into law as soon as possible."—[Official Report, 30 January 1984; Vol. 53, c. 64.] In the light of that attitude, the hon. Gentleman's speech is lamentable.

Mr. Ashdown

I hear the right hon. Gentleman, but I must remind him that the key words in that speech were "deprived of its present blemishes". I shall read to the hon. Gentleman in return the words of a Labour Front Bench spokesman, the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman). He said: We have been told how keen the Government are to protect the privacy of the individual, and individual privacy is certainly at risk. All of us now are collections of digits on so many computers that it is beyond the scope of the citizen to keep track of them". How has the Bill altered that statement? The right hon. Gentleman summed up his opposition on Second Reading. He said: Where the Bill purports to be benevolent, it is often inadequate". In our judgment, it remains inadequate. Where it claims to be innocuous, it is often dangerous. Because of clause 28, it remains dangerous. Yet what an opportunity the Government had. Britain lags behind other countries in being without any real freedom of information legislation. Britain is woefully inadequate in its legislation to protect privacy."—[Official Report, 30 January 1984; Vol. 53, c. 42–6.]

What has changed in the Bill? Merely some minor details on the fringes. None of the fears of the Labour Front Bench spokesmen on Second Reading have been assuaged. Our central argument against the Bill is our opposition to clause 28. Labour spokesmen have spoken with concern about the clause. The Labour party has given away its opposition to the Bill and to other legislation on major issues for the sake of some puny fringe amendments.

The central issue of the Bill is in clause 28(3). There is no doubt that the present development of computers held by the State represents a fundamental shift in the balance of power between the individual and the State. Such computers are capable of linking together to form what I term a "Big Brother" organisation. I do not believe that that is the Government's intention, although the computers form that sort of framework. We strike against that.

Mr. Norris


Mr. Ashdown

I see that the hon. Member for Oxford, East wishes to intervene. I am about to close my remarks.

Mr. Norris

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. Perhaps he will take note of the fact that I and my hon. Friend the Member for Glanford and Scunthorpe (Mr. Hickmet) voted in favour of amendments to clause 28 which, unhappily, were not carried in Committee. Yet does he not accept, as we do—it is patently obvious to anyone who has bothered to read the Bill—that we are significantly better off on Third Reading, although not as well off as we would like in an ideal world? Is not that a simple and logical justification for supporting the Bill on Third Reading, especially in view of the improvements made in Committee? Is it not blatant hypocrisy to oppose the Bill on Third Reading?

Mr. Ashdown

I recognise fully that the hon. Gentleman made such interventions in Committee and, extremely effectively, in today's debate.

The hon. Gentleman will argue that nevertheless this Bill is better than no Bill at all. He must accept that I disagree profoundly with him. Perhaps clause 28(3), which the hon. Gentleman voted against, is a matter of fringe importance to him, but, in the view of myself and my right hon. and hon. Friends, it is of fundamental principle. Unless we can address that problem, damage could be done in the future because of the inadequate system of safeguards provided by the Bill. That matter concerns us and is a sufficient reason for voting against Third Reading.

The hon. Gentleman argues, perhaps with justification, that the Bill has improved. We further depart from his view on that point. We believe that by codifying the current system and setting up a wholly inadequate system, that fact itself will make it more difficult to make the changes that I suspect the hon. Gentleman would wish, which I too would wish. On that ground, we believe, on this fundamental issue of principle—[HON. MEMBERS: "Where were the Liberal amendments?"] Labour Members have seen our amendments. We tabled amendments and voted on them. We tabled our amendments in minimalist terms. They were not what we wanted, and did not go as far as we wished, but at least they were some sort of safeguard, and moving in the right direction. Those amendments were rejected. Had they been accepted by the Government, we would have reconsidered our position.

The central issue is this. In Britain there is now the potential for the interlinking of a massive system of computers, which may act as a major threat to the individual and alter the balance between the individual and the state. The Bill not only does nothing towards addressing that problem, but in codifying the current practices, which are hopelessly inadequate for automatic processed data, it will make matters not better, but worse. On that ground, my right hon. and hon. Friends and myself will oppose the Bill on Third Reading.

9.17 pm
Mr. Denis Howell

We have just listened to double talk in a speech of synthetic indignation such as has rarely been the lot of hon. Members to have to listen to. It came from the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown), who told us that he would divide the House against the Bill on Third Reading because it is a matter of fundamental principle. He said that the fundamental principle was expressed by his party in minimalist terms, whatever that means. I do not know how one can express fundamental opposition to a Bill in minimalist terms. It is beyond my comprehension, unless the minimalist terms are intended to refer to the number of people that the alliance get into the Division Lobby. [Interruption.] I should like to tell the assembled ranks of Liberals that for long periods today there has not been a single soul on their Benches.

If there is a fundamental objection to the Bill, it should have been expressed on Second Reading. Even the newest hon. Members know that on Second Reading the decision on principle is taken. Far from doing that, their spokesman welcomed the Bill. If there are fundamental objections to the Bill, they should have been expressed by fundamental amendments that we could have debated and voted on today, but they did not appear on the amendment paper.

Mr. Ashdown

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Howell

No, I will not. The hon. Gentleman spent 40 minutes earlier this evening talking trash, and I do not see why he should have 40 seconds in the middle of my intelligent contribution. If there are fundamental objections to the Bill, the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan), who attended the Committee proceedings assiduously, should have voted against clause stand part on almost every occasion in Committee, but, of course, he never did so.

Although manual files were not included and there are other deficiencies in the Bill the Government have gone a long way to meeting many of the points put in Committee and it would be reprehensible not to acknowledge the improvements made in the Bill. What the hon. Member for Yeovil is trying to do—[HON. MEMBERS: "He voted for the Bill on Second Reading."] That had not escaped my attention. The Leader of the Liberal party also voted for it.

Mr. Ashdown

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Howell

I have no intention of giving way. The hon. Gentleman berated us for 40 minutes and has already over-indulged himself. What he is trying to do, on behalf of his colleagues, is to write into the folklore of Britain the belief that our people will not be adequately protected as a result of our procedures. He is trying to create a myth that Liberal and SDP Members are the only ones who stand up for the rights and privileges of our people. That is absolute bosh and baloney, and I am glad to have the opportunity of saying so.

9.22 pm
Mr. Waddington

We had a pleasant, knowledgeable and profitable Committee stage and at no time during our deliberations in Committee did we hear drivel of the sort that we heard tonight from the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown). It was unsavoury drivel for the reason mentioned by the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Small Heath (Mr. Howell). Although it was obvious that until now the alliance was perfectly content with the Bill, the great parade by the hon. Member for Yeovil a few moments ago was designed to catch the headlines — [Hon. Members: "Oh!"] Hon. Members do not know that we had to put up with 45 minutes of nonsense from the hon. Gentleman earlier this evening. It was a great charade to try to pretend that the Liberal party had never supported the Bill, had opposed it throughout and is now the only guardian of individual liberty in the country. The truth is that until the hon. Gentleman rose and uttered that drivel, every action of the alliance was in support of the Bill, and we saw that in Committee from the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan).

The hon. Member for Yeovil had the sheer effrontery to say that the Bill has the capacity to cause considerable damage to the individual——

Mr. Ashdown

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Waddington

No, I will not. The hon. Gentleman must hear a few home truths now. He said that the Bill has the capacity to cause considerable damage to the individual, but he knows perfectly well that the Bill in no way detracts from the present rights of the individual, nor does it allow anyone to disclose information that he cannot disclose at present. He said that the Bill has the capacity to do considerable damage to the individual, yet he knows full well that in no way does the Bill take away from any individual the right to access to information that he has at present. The worst that can be said of the Bill is that it does not go far enough. One can accept that sort of sensible argument. One cannot accept the nonsense spoken by the hon. Member for Yeovil.

The hon. Member has the impudence to harp on the effect of clause 28(2). It seems to have escaped his notice that, even when one comes to the case for data protection, or for the prevention of crime, those data are under the general supervision of the registrar. He has omitted entirely to mention that at any stage, yet he pretends that the Bill does nothing to help the individual even in that area where he says that the protection is indequate. If he had bothered to study the Bill, he would have found that the Bill provides new safeguards for the individual.

I will not dwell on the matter any longer. This has been a painful incident, because it is painful to see a Member of the House making a fool of himself, as the hon. Member for Yeovil has.

Question put, That the Bill be now read the Third time:—

The House divided: Ayes, 174, Noes, 10.

Division No. 346] [9.26 pm
Amess, David Fookes, Miss Janet
Arnold, Tom Forth, Eric
Batiste, Spencer Fox, Marcus
Boscawen, Hon Robert Franks, Cecil
Braine, Sir Bernard Fraser, Peter (Angus East)
Bright, Graham Freeman, Roger
Brittan, Rt Hon Leon Gardner, Sir Edward (Fylde)
Bryan, Sir Paul Garel-Jones, Tristan
Buck, Sir Antony Glyn, Dr Alan
Budgen, Nick Gow, Ian
Campbell-Savours, Dale Gower, Sir Raymond
Carlisle, Kenneth (Lincoln) Greenway, Harry
Clark, Hon A. (Plym'th S'n) Griffiths, Peter (Portsm'th N)
Cockeram, Eric Ground, Patrick
Conway, Derek Hamilton, Neil (Tatton)
Cope, John Hampson, Dr Keith
Dalyell, Tam Hanley, Jeremy
Dicks, Terry Harris, David
Durant, Tony Harvey, Robert
Eggar, Tim Haselhurst, Alan
Eyre, Sir Reginald Hawkins, C. (High Peak)
Fallon, Michael Hawkins, Sir Paul (SW N'folk)
Favell, Anthony Hayes, J.
Fenner, Mrs Peggy Hayhoe, Barney
Hayward, Robert Parris, Matthew
Heathcoat-Amory, David Patten, Christopher (Bath)
Heddle, John Peacock, Mrs Elizabeth
Henderson, Barry Percival, Rt Hon Sir Ian
Hickmet, Richard Powell, William (Corby)
Hind, Kenneth Powley, John
Hirst, Michael Proctor, K. Harvey
Hogg, Hon Douglas (Gr'th'm) Rathbone, Tim
Holland, Sir Philip (Gedling) Rhys Williams, Sir Brandon
Holt, Richard Ridsdale, Sir Julian
Home Robertson, John Rifkind, Malcolm
Hooson, Tom Rippon, Rt Hon Geoffrey
Howarth, Alan (Stratf'd-on-A) Robinson, P. (Belfast E)
Howell, Rt Hon D. (S'heath) Roe, Mrs Marion
Howell, Ralph (N Norfolk) Rowe, Andrew
Hubbard-Miles, Peter Rumbold, Mrs Angela
Hunt, David (Wirral) Ryder, Richard
Hunter, Andrew Sackville, Hon Thomas
Jenkin, Rt Hon Patrick Sayeed, Jonathan
Jessel, Toby Shaw, Giles (Pudsey)
Jones, Gwilym (Cardiff N) Shaw, Sir Michael (Scarb')
Key, Robert Shepherd, Colin (Hereford)
King, Roger (B'ham N'field) Shepherd, Richard (Aldridge)
King, Rt Hon Tom Sims, Roger
Knight, Gregory (Derby N) Skeet, T. H. H.
Knowles, Michael Smith, Sir Dudley (Warwick)
Knox, David Smith, Tim (Beaconsfield)
Lawler, Geoffrey Smyth, Rev W. M. (Belfast S)
Lee, John (Pendle) Soames, Hon Nicholas
Leigh, Edward (Gainsbor'gh) Speller, Tony
Lennox-Boyd, Hon Mark Spencer, Derek
Lester, Jim Spicer, Jim (W Dorset)
Lightbown, David Stanbrook, Ivor
Lilley, Peter Stern, Michael
Lloyd, Ian (Havant) Stevens, Lewis (Nuneaton)
Luce, Richard Stewart, Allan (Eastwood)
Lyell, Nicholas Stewart, Andrew (Sherwood)
McCurley, Mrs Anna Taylor, Teddy (S'end E)
Macfarlane, Neil Terlezki, Stefan
MacKay, John (Argyll & Bute) Thompson, Donald (Calder V)
Maclean, David John Thompson, Patrick (N'ich N)
McQuarrie, Albert Thornton, Malcolm
Malone, Gerald Thurnham, Peter
Marlow, Antony Townend, John (Bridlington)
Mather, Carol van Straubenzee, Sir W.
Maude, Hon Francis Viggers, Peter
Mawhinney, Dr Brian Waddington, David
Maxwell-Hyslop, Robin Wakeham, Rt Hon John
Mayhew, Sir Patrick Walden, George
Mills, Iain (Meriden) Walker, Bill (T'side N)
Mills, Sir Peter (West Devon) Waller, Gary
Molyneaux, Rt Hon James Ward, John
Montgomery, Fergus Wardle, C. (Bexhill)
Moore, John Watts, John
Morrison, Hon C. (Devizes) Whitfield, John
Moynihan, Hon C. Whitney, Raymond
Mudd, David Winterton, Mrs Ann
Murphy, Christopher Wolfson, Mark
Newton, Tony Wood, Timothy
Nicholls, Patrick Woodcock, Michael
Norris, Steven Young, Sir George (Acton)
Onslow, Cranley
Osborn, Sir John Tellers for the Ayes:
Page, John (Harrow W) Mr. Ian Lang and
Page, Richard (Herts SW) Mr. John Major.
Ashdown, Paddy Stewart, Rt Hon D. (W Isles)
Bruce, Malcolm Thomas, Dafydd (Merioneth)
Carlile, Alexander (Montg'y) Wallace, James
Howells, Geraint
Hughes, Simon (Southwark) Tellers for the Noes:
Kirkwood, Archibald Mr. Alan Beith and
Steel, Rt Hon David Mr. Michael Meadowcroft.

Question accordingly agreed to.

Bill read the Third time, and passed, with amendments.