HC Deb 29 October 1985 vol 84 cc851-3 5.43 pm
Mr. Archy Kirkwood (Roxburgh and Berwickshire)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to provide access for private individuals to information relating to themselves maintained by certain authorities, institutions and persons; to allow individuals to obtain copies of, and require corrections to be made to, such information; and to provide for the enforcement of these provisions. The House will be aware that a similar Bill was before us as recently as last Session. In July 1984 the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Smith) introduced a measure in very similar terms. This Bill, as did that, has all-party support. This Bill, as did that, will no doubt fall when the House is prorogued tomorrow afternoon.

The sponsors of the Bill have deliberately sought to draw the attention of the House to this measure on the last day of the parliamentary Session. This is done on the basis that it has merits which are unique and on which I hope to address the House briefly in a moment. We also seek to highlight opportunities in the forthcoming ballots for private Members' Bills, bringing with them, as they do automatically, the parliamentary time required to translate any such Bill to the statute book. Statutory provision for putting this Bill on the statute book is the goal of the sponsors, and nothing less will do.

If I did not run the risk of straying out of order, Mr. Speaker, I would spend the rest of my 10 minutes engaging in a commercial or a trailer for the private Members' ballot, because this Bill is unique in as much as it is achievable, it is non-controversial and a lot of time has been spent in making it such. It would have a profound impact in changing attitudes to secrecy in this country, and it would have widespread support. If it found favour this afternoon, the Bill would be in a printed form.

The timing of the measure is particularly appropriate. It is the next most obvious step in the whole campaign for freedom of information, which it would be in the interests of the country to achieve.

The need for the Bill is urgent and self-evident. Two major problems currently arise. Factual errors can be made, sometimes caused by carelessness, and at other times made in good faith. However the errors are generated, they can result in Executive action and administrative decisions leading to quite inappropriate treatment, in a health context, or other equally serious personal injustices.

The most recent example that has come to my notice was the tragic death of four-year-old Jasmine Beckford, where it became clear in the subsequent inquiry that the report on the foster parents, when Jasmine Beckford was taken from them, was quite inaccurate and may have contributed to the decision by the social work department to return her to her stepfather and natural mother. Alternatively, situations can arise where information of a highly subjective or speculative nature or pure opinion can be included in a file which, if promulgated unchallenged, can cause distress and damage which can be prejudicial to individuals. As an example, health records may contain comments such as "Doesn't like doctors." This health record pursues the person throughout his medical history and can have unfortunate and unjustified results.

There have been some encouraging signs. Some of these problems are being recognised in some quarters. Some authorities and professional bodies already actively encourage a policy of free access, and the results of this experience, such as have been reported, are wholly beneficial. The experience reported from other countries which operate a policy of free access is also wholly encouraging. The House should study with care the results of the introduction of free access in America, where a staggeringly high number of reported errors and inaccuracies was found when the policy was introduced.

Our Government have, in a limited way, introduced systems which allow some access in certain situations. For example, the Housing Act 1980 means that housing applications are now covered to some extent. There is also the Education Act 1981 and the DHSS circular of 1983 on guidance to social work authorities. These are all encouraging and very welcome signs.

The Bill will also redress the anomaly that will exist in November 1987 after the full implementation of the Data Protection Act, which creates a statutory right of access to electronically but not manually stored information. We shall then be in the ridiculous position that if a person lives in a part of the country where records are stored electronically he can have access, but if they are not so stored he is denied access.

The powers of the Bill allow an individual to discover whether certain records are held, allow for the supply of copies of any records, allow inaccuracies to be corrected, allow individuals to seek compensation where damage or distress can be proved to have flowed from errors, and allow recourse to the courts if the authority holding the information fails to comply with the law.

The Bill embraces the principal public authorities providing services to the public. This includes health authorities, individual doctors, education authorities, social work departments, any credit agencies that keep records of the ratings of an individual and certain administration of justice records, and authorities whose duties include the administration of benefits, grants and other types of assistance to the public.

The restriction to these public authorities is a deliberate compromise. Some sponsors would like the Bill to be much more widely drawn, but it is deliberately limited to enhance the prospects of wider acceptance, and therefore increase the chances of its getting on to the statute book.

The important part of that compromise, and the important exceptions built into the Bill, can be briefly stated. They are that information will not be released when it involves the privacy of any other person, when it reveals the identity of someone who gave information on a confidential basis, when someone other than the applicant might be subjected to physical harm as a result of the release of the information, or when, in a few cases, it is the opinion of a doctor that it could cause mental distress to a patient. Finally, information will not be released when it would breach established legal, professional privileges.

The Bill is well thought out and properly drafted. I pay tribute to the work being done by the Campaign for Freedom of Information, which is widely respected and straddles all strands of opinion in the country, political and otherwise, and which has done a great deal of work. The past 18 months have been spent in extremely thorough consultation with the interested parties and in winning over some of the professional bodies which originally had doubts about the Bill. It is a highly popular issue with the public, and therefore it is extremely unlikely that it would be actively opposed by the Government.

We need access as of right to information recorded about ourselves, and we need the right to ensure that such information is both fair and correct. The legislation to create those rights will do more to enhance the quality of our democracy and redress the balance between the administrative arm of government and the individual than almost any other Bill that could be introduced by a Back-Bench Member. I hope that hon. Members on both sides of the House will give the Bill careful consideration when the private Members' ballot is held. I hope that the Bill will find favour with the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Archy Kirkwood, Mr. Robin Corbett, Mr. Robert Maclennan, Mr. Steve Norris, Mr. Chris Smith, Mr. Donald Stewart, Mr. James Wallace and Mr. Dafydd Wigley.