HC Deb 31 October 1984 vol 65 cc1335-40

Queen's Recommendation having been signified.

6.9 pm

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. David Waddington)

I beg to move, That the Data Protection Registrar shall, from 20th September 1984, be paid a salary which shall be the same as that payable from time to time to a Deputy Secretary of the Civil Service. The motion needs only a brief instroduction. The need for it is found in paragraph 3 of schedule 2 of the Data Protection Act 1984. The Act provides for the appointment of a data protection registrar who is to be paid such salary and pension as may be specified by a resolution of the House of Commons. The money is provided out of the Consolidated Fund.

Many hon. Members will be aware that the first data protection registrar, Mr. Eric Howe, has now been appointed by Her Majesty under letters patent and took up post on 20 September. Although Mr. Howe has already started work and has set about the formidable task of planning for and setting up his office with diligence and enthusiasm, he has not yet received remuneration as there is no authority to make payments out of the Consolidated Fund until the House has set the level of his salary and an effective resolution has been made. Because of the summer recess, it has not been possible to proceed with this before and we must ensure that arrangements are made to pay Mr. Howe as soon as possible. Hon. Members will see that the resolution is backdated to 20 September in conformity with paragraph 3(3) of schedule 2.

We believe that the registrar's salary should be the same as that which is payable from time to time to a deputy secretary in the Civil Service. Mr. Howe has said that he would be content with such remuneration. For the record, the current salary of a deputy secretary is £35,278, and it will increase to £36,500 from 1 November. The registrar's pension arrangements must also be fixed by a resolution of the House.

In accordance with the normal arrangements for an appointment such as this, Mr. Howe has been given two basic options. He may either choose an arrangement on the basis of his existing pension or be pensioned by analogy with the principal Civil Service pension scheme. He is still considering the matter. As is often the case in such circumstances, it is taking a little time to work out all of the details of the two options. We are therefore not yet able to propose a resolution concerning Mr. Howe's pension, but that should not prevent us from setting his salary now. Once his pension arrangements have been sorted out, a separate resolution will be proposed.

I believe that the proposed salary is fair remuneration for what will be a difficult and onerous job. It is acceptable to the newly appointed registrar and I therefore commend the motion to the House.

6.12 pm
Dr. John Marek (Wrexham)

I am somewhat surprised that the registrar has accepted his post. I suppose that the House will have to pass the motion—if we do not we might have a resignation. If we halved his salary he might not be prepared to do the job. I think that £35,000 is a lot of money and doubt whether many people are worth that much. I should be much happier if we paid him somewhat less. The Minister told us in the Committee stage of what is now the Data Protection Act 1984 that the Government would look for a person of high calibre to fill the post. Salary scales in Britain demand that we pay such a person about £35,000 a year. However, I am not happy that the public must pay so much to get a person of high calibre.

I should like to examine the duties of the registrar to ascertain whether he should receive this salary. His duties are set out in section 36. Section 36(1) provides: It shall be the duty of the Registrar so to perform his functions under this Act as to promote the observance of the data protection principles by data users and persons carrying on computer bureaux. The Act lists eight data protection principles. They do not involve matters that the registrar will be able to clear up after his mail on a weekday morning. It is a lengthy business that demands much concentration. The Government originally said that the registrar's office would employ 20 staff. I read in The Times of 17 October that more than 40 are to be recruited. The Government are already 100 per cent. out. It is now sinking in that data protection is not a trivial matter and that it will require much expertise.

If the registrar is to be paid such a large salary he must do the job properly. There are 200,000 computer systems that hold personal data to be registered. The registrar must do that properly. He cannot merely respond to applications for registration by return of post and without investigation. I suspect that that will happen initially but if we are to pay someone so much he should scrutinise the systems that are being registered to establish whether they pass the data protection principles. I am sure that in perhaps 98 per cent. of cases there will be no problem. The problem is to and the 1 per cent. or 2 per cent. of sharks or fly-by-nights. A good registrar will earn his money by spotting that 1 per cent. or 2 per cent.

Section 36(2) provides: The Registrar may consider any complaint that any of the data protection principles or any provision of this Act has been or is being contravened … and where the Registrar considers any such complaint he shall notify the complainant of the result of his consideration and of any action which he proposes to take. If the registrar does his job properly he will not simply write letters saying, "Dear Sir/Madam, I have seen your complaint. It is very interesting but unfortunately I have neither the staff, nor the facilities nor the capability to do anything about it." If that happened we should not pass the motion, as we would be throwing money out of the window. The registrar should have the facilities to investigate complaints, to make recommendations and to put things right.

Section 36(3) provides: The Registrar shall arrange for the dissemination in such form and manner as he considers appropriate of such information as it may appear to him expedient to give to the public about the operation of this Act That function could be performed cursorily. The registrar could say that the register is available in his office in Manchester, and that is it. It would be nice if the registrar took this duty seriously and perhaps thought about making the register available in public libraries. If he could not: do that an abridged version would do.

Section 36(4) provides: It shall be the duty of the Registrar, where he considers it appropriate to do so, to encourage trade associations or other bodies representing data users to prepare, and to disseminate to their members, codes of practice for guidance in complying with the data protection principles. Many bodies are now considering codes of practice, not on a statutory, but on a voluntary basis. There will be many different codes of practice and some will apply to only one firm. Again, it is not a simple matter to look at complicated documents to see whether those codes of practice are fair to data users and subjects—data users, subjects and people working in computer bureaux will be involved. If the registrar is to earn his salary he must do that job properly. He must scrutinise the minutiae of the codes of practice to ensure that they satisfy the data protection principles and him, as registrar, that they are the types of codes which should be operated.

Finally section 36(5) states: The Registrar shall annually lay before each House of Parliament a general report on the performance of his functions under this Act". If he is to earn his large salary, I hope that he will not be muzzled. I hope that people in Government Departments or the police will not deter him from mentioning certain matters because, for example, they affect national security. Clearly, if matters affect national security they cannot come before the House, but in marginal cases people may try it on. I hope that the registrar will be independent, make up his own mind and be fearless in deciding what he will report to Parliament. If he wishes to report a matter to Parliament, I hope that he will not be dissuaded from doing so.

If we are to pay such a high salary and have a person of high calibre, we must give him the facilities necessary for him to show his high calibre and to exercise it in the interests of the country.

6.22 pm
Mr. Paddy Ashdown (Yeovil)

I shall not detain the House for long because we want to move on to other matters. The job of registrar is important. I share the reservations of the hon. Member for Wrexham (Dr. Marek) about having to pay such a large salary from public funds, and agree that that does not mean that we should regard the job as being anything less than one of considerable importance.

The Minister knows of my deep and severe reservations about the Bill. We opposed it on Third Reading because we believe that it was inadequate for the tasks that would have to be done. Therefore, it comes as no surprise to me that the Government's original figure for the number of people needed to run the registrar's office has already been doubled. In due course it will have to be considerably increased beyond the current figure of 40. In that sense the job will be larger, and the post will grow considerably in importance.

The sheer inadequacy of the Act means that the burden which rests on the registrar will be greater. He will have to use his judgment about matters which contravene, not the detail of the Act, which is inadequate, but the spirit behind the concept of data protection. Not only will his staff inevitably increase but the Government may come under pressure as the inadequacy of the legislation becomes evident. They may have to think about amending the legislation sooner than expected, or to expand the job of the registrar. The inadequacies of the Bill and the job of the registrar are already becoming evident in ways which were mentioned on Third Reading.

I draw the Minister's attention to the article in Computing of 13 September 1984. It points out that councils are complaining that the Act is becoming largely unworkable and that the resources which the Government are giving them so that they will conform with the Bill and not come to the attention of the registrar are wholly inadequate for that task. That complaint does not come only from Left-wing councils—far from it. The chief complainer is Birmingham city council. The assistant city treasurer, Jeff Pipe, said that the sum received to enable the council to conform to the Act in such a way as not to fall under the scrutiny of the registrar "is a laughable figure". The article further points out that the Act is proving extremely difficult to operate and does not clearly define its objectives.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Paul Dean)

Order. I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Member, but he is straying wide of the subject. We are dealing with the registrar's salary. It would be appropriate for him to make passing references to the registrar's duties in relation to his salary.

Mr. Ashdown

I hear your admonition and accept it, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The size of the post of registrar will grow and therefore we must have someone of seniority. The weight which will rest on his shoulders will grow considerably in future. I am glad that the Government attach importance to that. That is shown by the seniority of the gentleman whom they chose to fill the post. Although I may be unhappy about the total sum, for those reasons I agree with the Government that the seniority of the person reflects the duties that will come to rest on the registrar in due course.

6.27 pm
Mr. Denis Howell (Birmingham, Small Heath)

I have a growing incomprehension about the attitude of the alliance parties on this matter and, indeed, on other matters. The Social Democratic party voted for the Second Reading of the Data Protection Bill and played a constructive role in Committee but on Third Reading voted against the Bill—the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown) certainly did—which his colleagues in Committee had said was acceptable.

Mr. Ashdown


Mr. Howell

I shall give way in a moment but I have not yet finished with the hon. Gentleman. We are used to his peregrinations and the fact that he rides roughshod both in the House and at Liberal conferences. He throws to the winds all the logic, understanding and political acumen that we have come to expect from generations of Liberal politicians. We do not see those qualities in the heir apparant to the leadership of the Liberal party. After his antics on the Bill, I am glad to say that I doubt whether he will make that position.

Mr. Ashdown

The right hon. Gentleman is repeating the attack he made on me on Third Reading. On that occasion he was not courteous enough to give way to me and to substantiate his ridiculous allegations. Will the right hon. Gentleman read again the speech made by the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) on Third Reading? He said that if certain amendments were not made the Labour party could not vote for the Bill. Although those amendments were not made, the right hon. Gentleman called for a party vote in favour of the Bill and succeeded in persuading only five members of his party to vote with him in favour of the Bill. The rest sat on their hands or were conveniently absent. It was a disgraceful performance and a reversal of an original commitment, which he could not even bring his own party to support.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

I hope that we can now get back to the straight and narrow and discuss the salary to be paid to the registrar.

Mr. Howell

There was no intellectual challenge in that interruption that need concern me now. I assure the hon. Gentleman that I do not make attacks on him—just discerning observations.

I do not object to the numbers of staff that we have been told are being recruited; indeed, in this case the Government are redeeming their undertakings to the House. The Minister said in Committee and on Report that if it was found to be necessary to increase the staff beyond that which he believed was appropriate the Government would not hesitate to authorise adequate staff for this office. I assume that that is what they have done, and since we urged him to do so it would be extremely churlish if I did not recognise it now.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Dr. Marek) for drawing attention to many of the matters to which we attached great importance in Committee, and my hon. Friend played a constructive role during the passage of the Bill. As he said, the registrar must be someone of the highest calibre — a man of independence and integrity—if he is to protect the liberties and the private information of our people. That is his most important charge in an age of an ever-increasing amount of data held on computers that can affect our citizens. Throughout our discussions hon. Members on both sides of the House mentioned that growing problem and the worries of individuals that no private and confidential information should get into the wrong hands.

We may have got it right. I share one view of the hon. Member for Yeovil: the Opposition would not have approached the problem in this way. Nevertheless, the Government chose to produce the Bill based on the principles contained within it.

The first task of Mr. Eric Howe will be to ensure that the principles of the Act are upheld by everyone, whatever the circumstances. That in itself is a formidable task. He must also oversee the codes of practice with which we became familiar during the passage of the Bill, not least in medicine and the social services. The registrar must also consider employment data, which worried us. Where there are exemptions, such as in the case of the police and the security services—we understand that and we debated it fully—he must ensure on behalf of the authorities that the security of the realm is properly maintained, and must ensure that there is adequate explanation and safeguards to a citizen whose access to data information is denied on the grounds of national security.

As the registrar must carry out all those tasks, he must be properly compensated. It is for the Government to judge the correct payment, although I should have thought that, having regard to the sophisticated duties of this officer, his proper compensation could have been related to that of judges and senior counsel, who have similar responsibilities. I have little information about salaries in private industry or in the judiciary at that level, but I assume that the Government have considered everything and believe that this salary is adequate. If so, I accept their judgment.

I believe passionately, as should all hon. Members, that public service should not be devalued in terms of remuneration, as we in the House often devalue our services to the nation when we deal with such matters. I welcome the fact that his salary will be fixed to a known appointment in the Civil Service—in this case the rank of deputy secretary. For such appointments, and in relation to Members' salaries, we should be consistent in deciding the appropriate rank in the Civil Service to which a salary should be linked. That would remove from the area of public debate much of what I believe to be the unnecessary friction that occurs. It is another reason for supporting the order.

All that it remains for me to do on behalf of the Opposition is to welcome Mr. Eric Howe's appointment and to wish him well. He has a formidable task to safeguard the liberties of our subjects and the rights of the nation, but I am sure that he will do so. It should be recorded that he will do so with the blessing of hon. Members on both sides of the House.

6.36 pm
Mr. Waddington

With the leave of the House, I shall reply briefly to the debate. All those who have spoken in the debate agree that this is an important Act of Parliament and that the registrar must perform important functions. Whenever we referred to the registrar in Committee we said that we were determined to appoint a man of high calibre and a person of integrity who could fulfil these onerous duties with distinction.

The motion deals only with the appropriate salary and £35,000 is a lot of money, but we looked for a man of high calibre and it was necessary to pay a fairly generous salary to get such a person. To put the salary into perspective, may I say that Mr. Howe earned £31,000 as the deputy director of the National Computing Centre. Often during our debates we compared the duties to be performed by the registrar with the duties performed by, for instance, the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration. I should remind the House that the latter earns £44,000 a year. His salary is on the level of that of a permanent secretary, whereas Mr. Howe's salary will be on the level of that of a deputy secretary.

With those few words, I once again commend the order to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the Data Protection Registrar shall, from 20th September 1984, be paid a salary which shall be the same as that payable from time to time to a Deputy Secretary of the Civil Service.

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