HC Deb 20 February 1987 vol 110 cc1165-223

Order for Second Reading read.

9.35 am
Mr. Archy Kirkwood (Roxburgh and Berwickshire)

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

As stated in the explanatory memorandum, The Bill provides individuals with a right of access to certain classes of records containing information about themselves; it entitles them to have records amended where this is appropriate; and to be compensated for damage caused by inaccurate information.

It is true and fair to say that in essence this is a simple measure and it is based on the entirely reasonable proposition that people should be able to see the records held on them by public authorities and other institutions and to check that they are accurate.

I am sure that every hon. Member knows that our constituents do not have the luxury of being able to be treated by a single individual when they seek professional guidance and help from statutory bodies and public undertakings. They are inevitably involved perforce, whether they know it or not, with a collection of individuals, perhaps other members of staff, many of whom they have never met or seen but who, nevertheless, are involved at some stage in discussions or decisions about them. Many of the staff inevitably cannot act on first hand personal knowledge. They are obliged in many cases to rely on the material available to them through the vehicle of the personal file.

The information held in those files will not always be recent or comprehensive. There may be old correspondence, for example, about a problem that may or may not still exist. There may be incomplete forms or illegible notes. There may also be memorandums listing tentative conclusions reached some time ago but with nothing in the file to show whether those conclusions were later rejected or confirmed. There may be comments which mean something to whoever wrote them but which could give a different and perhaps misleading impression to someone who does not know the person to whom they relate or the context in which the notes were taken.

Therefore, a decision suddenly has to be made, but no one who knows him or her personally is available. Therefore, inevitably someone else reaches for the file and sits down to decide what to recommend based on information, which could, as I have said, quite easily be misleading in nature. We have the prospect of important decisions about people's job prospects, health, children's education, intervention that social workers may be seeking to make or entitlement to some badly needed service or benefit being taken against that background.

Happily, it is not surprising——

Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North)

I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman, especially so early in his speech. However, may I ask him to consider the difficulty faced by head teachers in giving total access to parents of other children's records? I am not saying that there should be any secrecy, but there is a need for some aspects of head teachers' files to be confidential in the interests of the child.

Mr. Kirkwood

I am obliged to the hon. Gentleman. That is an important point. I hope that I shall be able to satisfy him in the course of what I have to say and during discussion on the Bill that there are some safeguards and exemptions that I hope will meet his important point. However, he must accept that there has to be a balance between allowing unfettered discretion to head teachers, which would, in effect, drive a coach and horses through the Bill, and the need to protect the situation that he has rightly described. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not oppose the principle of the Bill because of his attitude to an important but subsidiary matter. If the Bill is given a Second Reading today, we shall be able to examine the issue in more detail in Committee. I accept that it is an important one.

It is not surprising if mistakes are sometimes made in the keeping of records on others. It is not surprising either that people may feel that something which they once said may have been misinterpreted. They will therefore be anxious about what their records show. Obviously it is impossible to ban mistakes, but we can allow individuals to see what is recorded about them so that they can identify errors, omissions or misleading or irrelevant information. If they disagree with something, they can ask that their point of view is acknowledged explicitly on the record. That is what the Bill seeks to allow individuals to do.

The principle of access is surely beyond dispute and non-controversial. I say that because the principle forms part of the Government's computer legislation. From November, the Data Protection Act 1984 will allow people to see the personal information that is held on them provided that that information is held on computer files. However, they will have no right to see information about themselves that is kept on ordinary paper files and records, and that is where most important information is still kept. The Bill seeks to extend the right of access to certain classes of those ordinary manual records.

The Bill is already familiar to the House. It is based on a measure that was introduced by the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Smith). I acknowledge the valuable support that he has given me as a sponsor. I value his judgment on some of the difficult decisions that have to be taken in the process of drafting a Bill. The idea is essentially a simple one, but, as so often is the case, trying to translate that into parliamentary language can be difficult. The hon. Gentleman has been a tower of strength in that respect.

I pay tribute also to the work and assistance given to me by the hon. Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Norris). With his usual wit, drive and intelligence he has assisted me in gettting the Bill as far as Second Reading. I cannot imagine why the hon. Gentleman, as the possessor of such sterling qualities, feels so comfortable as part of the ministerial team at the Department of the Environment. If he ever gains access to the personal file that is held on him by the Government Chief Whip, I advise him to ensure that a doctor, psychiatrist or psychologist is present when the contents are revealed to him. That is a matter that I shall not pursue further.

The House will know that I introduced the same Bill under the ten minute rule procedure in October 1985. As well as enjoying support within the House from sponsors and others on both sides of the Chamber, I underline the fact that the Bill has attracted an extraordinary degree of support from more than 130 organisations, which have written to tell me that they support the principle and general approach of this measure. I appreciate especially the support that has come from bodies which represent those who hold records that are covered by the Bill. These include the Association of District Councils, the Association of County Councils, the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and the Association of Metropolitan Authorities.

There has been an enormous amount of support also from voluntary organisations, such as Dr. Barnardo's, the Children's Society, the Family Welfare Association, the National Union of Townswomen's Guilds, the Scottish Women's Rural Institutes — Scottish Members will understand that the institute's support gave me particular pleasure — and the National Council for Voluntary Organisations. These organisations hold records about the voluntary social services that they provide and they would be subject to the Bill. Some of them already allow voluntary open access to their records. I take their support as a sign that the Bill, taken with the important safeguards that it provides, is regarded as a practical, viable and valuable measure which does not interfere with their ability to keep the information that they need if they are to be effective.

I shall deal with the Bill's main features. People would have the right, on making an application and satisfying the record holder as to their identity, to see their own records and to obtain copies of them. If they find errors or misleading or irrelevant information, they can ask for amendments to be made. If the record holder is not convinced of their case, the applicant would have one of two options open to him. If he feels strongly enough about the matter, he can appeal to the court, and the court will then decide whether he is entitled to access. A less daunting alternative would be to prepare a statement setting out his or her own views on the matter that is in dispute, which the record holder would be required to incorporate into the record so that anyone consulting it subsequently would be able to see that the individual did not accept the view that had been stated officially.

The Bill would ultimately allow individuals to seek compensation in the courts if they had suffered damage that they could prove was the direct result of action taken on the basis of inaccurate or misleading information. The record holder would not be liable if he could show that he had taken reasonable care over the quality of information. The House will know that there is a similar provision in the Data Protection Act, which covers computer-stored information.

A number of those who hold records that are covered by the Bill have asked several questions and I shall deal with one or two of them briefly. First, there is concern that they might find themselves facing libel actions. For example, someone might see his record and feel slighted by a comment that he considers to be uncomplimentary. Record holders would enjoy qualified privilege that would protect them from such actions provided that what had been written was in good faith and disclosed only for legitimate purposes. The holder would properly lose such privilege if any comments had been made with malicious intent.

Retrospection has caused some concern. I reassure the House that the Bill's provisions would relate only to records written after the Bill took its place on the statute book and after the date of enforcement and implementation. I accept that to try to introduce a right of access that applied retrospectively would involve complications, to put it mildly. The right of access under the Bill would apply only to information written after the Bill's enactment. When people record something in future it will be in the knowledge that the person it concerns may see it at some time. As I have explained, earlier records will not be available.

A measure of this sort requires carefully balanced safeguards. I submit that the Bill as it stands contains them. There would be no right of access to personal information affecting the privacy of another person—for example, another member of the family—without that person's consent. In some instances a member of the family, or in rare circumstances even a neighbour, might need to speak to the record holder in confidence about a problem in the home: a family member suffering from a mental illness; or if he suspected that child abuse was occurring. At present he can do so in confidence, and he would be able to continue to do so under the Bill. Information that would identify someone who had provided information to the record holder would not be disclosed. This protection would apply only to members of the public or the family, not to someone acting in an official or professional capacity. Doctors, social workers or other professional staff are under an obligaton to communicate such concerns, and rightly so. They could not refrain from doing so because they would be embarrassed to be identified. Indeed, the purpose of the Bill is that those acting in such professional capacities should be prepared to justify what they say to the person involved.

Information that might expose a person who had recorded information, or anyone else, to risk of attack would also qualify for exemption under the Bill. This is an important issue that the Bill must confront. That situation would also qualify for exemption under the Bill, though strangely enough no such exemption seems to exist under the Data Protection Act. That is a matter of concern that the House may wish to return to at a later date.

The Bill contains special provision for difficult cases where it is thought that somebody might be badly upset, or even harmed, by what he reads in his records. I accept that people, particularly if they are in a vulnerable state, whether it is physical or mental, may react adversely to certain material. The Bill makes it possible to respond to such situations without denying access. It is difficult to imagine how a person can be told that he is not to be allowed to see his file because it might upset or harm him without that producing enormous anxiety about what terrible information the file might conceal.

The Bill sets out two safeguards, which can be invoked only on the advice of a doctor or qualified social worker. First, if a doctor or qualified social worker thinks that somebody may be distressed at what he reads, the Bill allows the record holder discretion to ensure that someone is on hand to provide an explanation or counselling, or both, when the record is viewed. Instead of a copy of the record being sent to the home by post, the person will be invited to make an appointment to come into the office and read the record, where somebody can explain it or discuss it with him. Afterwards, the person should be able to have a copy of the record to take away with him. That is an important safeguard, and I hope that it reassures the House as an attempt to deal with those cases where distress might be caused.

There is also the safeguard that if a situation were more serious, and a doctor or social worker thought that somebody might be harmed by what he or she read, access could be deferred for up to six months. This would, for example, allow access to be given after rather than in the middle of a serious emotional crisis. It would allow time for treatment or counselling to he provided or make it possible to reveal information step by step rather than all at once. Deferring access would avoid the anxiety and suspicion that an outright refusal would produce. Handled sympathetically, it would probably be accepted by the applicant. If not, the Bill provides an appeal procedure.

I shall now describe how I see the Bill working in real life. I see people seeking access to their records only in certain restricted situations. For example, people may want to learn something about their past health or treatment or earlier life which is described on record. For some people, particularly those who have grown up in care, the records held about them may be a unique source of their personal history.

Another example concerns people who might want to see records because they feel that someone has misunderstood or misinterpreted something that they have said and they want to satisfy themselves that no false impression, which could prejudice the way in which they are dealt with, has been recorded. Again, they may feel that they are being kept in the dark about something, perhaps from the kindest of motives, as with the doctor who wishes to protect a patient from disturbing news about his condition or illness. Sometimes, such lack of information is as much a cause of anxiety as the news being withheld.

People may feel that they are simply not getting the help that they deserve or the benefit that they expect, and they want to know whether their circumstances have been accurately and fairly described. Nothing is worse in such situations than to be told that the file is confidential and cannot be seen. That confirms people's worst fears and suspicions and poisons the atmosphere.

On the other hand, if the request is treated as perfectly natural and reasonable, tension is immediately removed. An invitation to see the file is a sign that the record is there not to enable the record holder to exercise control over the applicant but to provide the best service. That gesture is enormously appreciated.

Many doctors, social workers, schools and local authorities that already allow access on a voluntary basis report that, although people often ask for the record out of suspicion, they usually go away impressed at what they have, for the first time, discovered is being done on their behalf. I suspect that opening such records will help many, even if relatively few formally ask for access.

The Bill covers a wide range of subjects, detailed in the schedule. I accept that this is an ambitious measure. The Government have said that they would find it difficult to countenance legislation to this extent and embracing such a wide scope. However, they have also said that they would not oppose the principle of the measure and if we were prepared in Committee to restrict the Bill to sectors such as education, housing and social work records we could continue discussions on some other sectors later.

As education covers 8.7 million children at schools in the United Kingdom, housing covers 11 million council house tenants and there must be 1 million social work records, even if the Bill is confined only to these three sectors it is a substantial advance in the rights available to individuals. Because it is important to see the principle of the Bill in legislation, and because even a restricted measure would be of great value to many people, I hope that I can persuade the House that even on that more constrained and limited basis the Bill should be enacted.

Mr. Greenway

I apologise for interrupting the hon. Gentleman for a second time and I assure him of my support for the principle that he is advancing. However, I wish to put my earlier point in another way. Some children need to be protected in some schools and open access to their files may take away that protection. What protection does the hon. Gentleman envisage for head teachers and teachers involved in setting out files for such children? I do not need to labour the point; I think that the hon. Gentleman will know what I mean.

Mr. Kirkwood

Difficult situations can arise. We have tried to meet those objections. We had a series of consultations with a large number of bodies in education. We have refined the exemptions and safeguards as best we are able. If there are points in the Bill that the hon. Gentleman thinks need to be refined, I hope that he will consider putting his name forward to serve on the Committee, because his valuable experience would be welcome to the sponsor, and we could make sure that the Bill, if it reaches the statute book, meets the points that he has rightly raised.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Denton and Reddish)

About 20 local authorities have instructed that school records will be available to parents, and there is no evidence of a problem in any of those authorities. Some of them have run into difficulties in that they still have to keep a small part of the records hidden from the parents or from the child, when the child is older, because it contains information from educational psychiatrists or from professionals outside the school. That leaves a lingering anxiety. However, with school records and information that the head or other teachers put on record, there is no problem. That part of the Bill has been demonstrated to be working. The big advantage of a national Bill is that people will realise that they have the right to look at records. Unfortunately, in some local authorities, that right is not well publicised.

Mr. Kirkwood

What the hon. Gentleman says is probably the best way of answering the point. It is working in practice in many areas and causing no problems. The first consequence of this legislation will be a general improvement in record keeping. In future, records will be compiled with much greater care and thought. People would avoid recording unsubstantiated speculation because they would know that at some future date they might have to justify what they had written down.

The other main effect would be to create an atmosphere of openness in which people are told or shown what they need to know when they ask for it. It would not require the rigmarole of any formal request for access because questions are much more likely to be answered informally when they arise. Unfortunately, that does not often happen at present, but it would follow as a consequence of this Bill is accepted.

We need access as of right to information recorded about ourselves, and we need to have the right to ensure that such information is 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 Bencher through the private Members' procedure. On that basis, I hope that the Bill will find favour with the House.

10 am

Mr. Steve Norris (Oxford, East)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood) on his good fortune in winning sixth place in the ballot.

Mr. David Steel (Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale)

And on his wit and intelligence.

Mr. Norris

Yes, not to say on the ease with which he assassinated me politically, because his congratulations are, I suppose, the nearest equivalent in my party to a recommendation for the Order of Lenin or a place on the short list of directors-general of the BBC.

However, I pay genuine tribute to the hon. Gentleman for the way in which he has brought forward the Bill and for the tireless amount of work that he has put in behind the scenes to prepare support for the measure and to prepare the Bill and negotiate its way to this debate. I also pay tribute to Maurice Frankel, the director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, and to his staff, who have been equally tireless in providing information for those of us who have a special interest in this subject, and in circulating hon. Members with the logic of the arguments to support the Bill.

The unanswerable logic behind the principle of the Bill commends it warmly across the whole political spectrum. I am delighted to see in his place the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Smith) who is a cosponsor of the Bill. I am equally pleased to see my hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, South (Mr. Aitken), who is a long-time supporter of the Bill, my hon. Friend that most fair-minded and reasonable of men, the Member for Richmond and Barnes (Mr. Hanley) and my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Squire) whose endeavours in this field culminated, if that is the right word—perhaps I should say whose endeavours along the way have included the Local Government (Access to Information) Act 1985. That in itself is a tribute to his dedication to the principle of access to information. I am also pleased to see in his place my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Sir G. Johnson Smith). [Interruption.]—My hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Mr. Cash) reminds me of his own undying devotion to the cause, if only because it may give him another opportunity to make one of his pithy speeches which so delight the House on many occasions and to which I am sure we all look forward. It is a pleasure to listen to my hon. Friend, and I hope that he will have the good fortune to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

I also see in his place my hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich (Mr. Bowden), whose dedication to this Bill is unquestioned—at least by him. How could I omit from such a glittering list assembled to debate this important measure my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Greenway), whose continuing interest in matters of this sort he has already demonstrated in this debate.

This measure commends widespread support across the political spectrum. Over 50 Conservative Back Benchers responded to an invitation from me to support the campaign. We recognise that if hon. Members are sufficiently interested in the subject to return one of the thousands of questionnaires that they receive every week through the post, that in itself is indicative of a considerable degree of support, certainly on the Government side, for this measure.

I commend to my hon. Friends the conclusions of a recent MORI poll which established not only that there was overwhelming support in the country for the principle of access to personal files but that that support was marginally higher among Conservative voters than among supporters of other parties. Perhaps I may be forgiven for making that partisan point. Therefore, there is no reason for any of my hon. Friends to feel that support for this measure is not entirely consistent with the aims and aspirations of our party.

Mr. William Cash (Stafford)

In connection with that poll and for my benefit, will my hon. Friend distinguish between the issue of freedom of information generally, which carries much broader implications, and what is contained in this Bill?

Mr. Norris

My hon. Friend has made an important point that brings me to the first of the principles that I want to discuss—the philosophical basis for the concept of access to information. Very little distinguishes the philosophical principle on which both freedom of information and access to personal files are based. They are both founded on a concept which at least on the Government Benches is regarded as possibly the most important of all—the individual rights and freedoms to which we attach such great importance.

One simply cannot exist as a free person in a democratic sociey unless one is aware of why and how decisions are being made on one's behalf by those who serve in Government the society of which one is a member. Following from that, in a democracy one of the most fundamental freedoms to which one is entitled is the freedom to know what sort of information is being kept by that multiplicity of organisations which these days hold files on people. Those files are power in the hands of those who hold them.

I should like to turn to the principles on which the Bill is founded. As the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire said, the Government have already accepted the logic of the principle contained in the Bill. As the hon. Gentleman said, the Government did that in the Data Protection Act 1984. That Act enshrines the European convention on data protection and, in turn, that convention is based on two broad principles, although there are more than two principles in the schedule. The two broad principles are first, the right of a person to know what is said about him in a file held by a third party, and secondly, the ability of computers to disseminate information worldwide. That may render a person especially vulnerable, because errors in the information could also be disseminated worldwide in a micro circuit.

There is one important distinction. Although access to a personal file is a cardinal principle, it must be clearly distinguished in the minds of those considering this Bill from a right of privacy. A right of privacy is an equally important right for every individual. As Access to Personal Files Bill does not mean an open access to files Bill, it means a particular right of access for an individual to the file that contains information relating to him.

Let us consider the principle of the right to know what is said about one on a file. Why is that, in practice, so important? One of the principal reasons—in my view, the dominant reason—is that files, almost by definition, develop a life of their own. If files are used only as an aide-memoire by a person with a note of names, ages, occupations and characteristics to remind himself of the person with whom he is dealing, and if that information never goes any further than the individual who collates it, it is hard to see why it is so desperately important that that person's privacy—just as important a concept—should be invaded. Almost by definition, in the vast majority of cases filed information will either be used for example in medical records to determine a pattern of treatment long in the future when the file note is the important starting point for the diagnosis of the patient's debility, or it will be used when a third party examines a file to find information which may have arrived from a variety of sources.

That is where the danger of not giving an individual access arises. That is also how errors occur. Hon. Members will know of the old story of how the message in the trenches in the first world war was translated from "Send reinforcements, we are going to advance", into, "Send three and fourpence, we are going to a dance." In a series of references from one person to another the information became ever so gently and ever so innocently transmuted into something which, in the event, bore no relation to what was originally intended.

Mr. Robin Corbett (Birmingham. Erdington)

It was a good idea though.

Mr. Norris

The hon. Gentleman intervenes from a sedentary position with his usual good humour, and he is quite right. However, if one was looking for an advance on the three and fourpence, one might have been disappointed by the message that was eventually received.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman—who I understand will not oppose the measure, and to whom I hope to have the opportunity to listen—agrees that one of the most important considerations is that once an error finds itself on to a file it assumes the status of fact. It then assumes the status of eternal truth, and from then on it forms the basis of subsequent judgments. That is precisely the danger with which we are faced over the Bill. There is no question but that the life which a file obtains is a major reason for needing to be able to control it and assure that at all times this live animal is what it says it will be.

Files in this modern age are appallingly powerful weapons. I use those words advisedly. Files are collected by a huge variety of organisations — governmental agencies, local authorities, public bodies of various types and even voluntary agencies. Those files can affect a person's health; they can determine where or how a person lives; they can determine for parents how their children are educated; whether people are promoted or demoted at work; whether they are offered credit to buy items that they may need to improve their standard of living; whether they are entitled to benefits on which to live — which entails going though that morass of complicated legislation which forms the basis of our social security laws. All of these areas of a person's life can be vital in terms of their general comfort and the general standard of living that they enjoy. While it may be perfectly justifiable and lawful to maintain such files, individuals must have the right to see, correct or dissent from judgments on the files and to be compensated where errors have caused them harm.

Recent events are important in respect of this measure. It will not have escaped the notice of hon. Members that the recent "World in Action" programme dealt with the Economic League files, which apparently are held to provide employers with a list of so-called black-listed employees, whom, it is felt, it would be unwise to employ. The hon. Members who saw that programme will agree that it was a rather disturbing revelation. Many of those who support the broad terms of the Economic League—I would find sympathy with a lot of what it says—will be concerned at the existence of such files.

What is particularly important is that if a person wishes to keep a file, on which he collates a number of names and items of personal information, that is his perfect right. I do not deny anybody the opportunity to collate that information. Indeed, based on that information, he may wish to make judgments — right or wrong, foolish or otherwise — as to whether he will employ somebody. There is a crucial point here. An individual, so named, fully qualified for a job sees an employer. He says, "I would like to do the job." They discuss it, they agree terms, but that person gets a letter a week later saying, "I know we agreed terms. I know that you and I got on well. I know that you are the only applicant for the job, but you're not going to get it." That person is entitled to say, "Hang on a minute. Why is that? What has happened?" If the answer is, "I am not prepared to tell you", or, "I got my information from a source that told me that you were not the kind of person that I want to employ", it seems that a right exists which is as important as the right to maintain the files. It is the right of the individual to be shown the information relating to him and on which that judgment was made. That individual may then have the facility to say, "Hang on. You are making lots of assumptions about me having had a career of political involvement, or having been responsible for all sorts of industrial disruption or disorder. That is not me. You have confused me with my cousin, with my brother or somebody who merely shares the same surname, or my file has simply been entered under somebody else's name and you have been misled in drawing your conclusions." In those circumstances, a reasonable employer would say, "In that case. I will rethink your application." One hopes that that would lead to the person not suffering a loss as a consequence and that he would be able to take up the employment.

Ultimately, let us assume that the employer says, "Frankly, I have looked at it. You may disagree with the conclusions that I have drawn about you, but they are factually correct. I believe that the fact that you do nothing but wear red ties and CND badges is clear evidence that you are a wholly unacceptable subversive. On that basis I refuse to employ you." The employer has a right to do that.

If the employer does not want to employ the chap, it is his own hard luck. Certainly, if the applicant is the best qualified, the employer is a fool to himself. But if he wants to do that, let him do it. The rights that would be conveyed by granting access to personal files would mean that that potential employee could go to his local newspaper and say, "Look, this is the basis on which these people are making judgments about employment." That is a very powerful weapon in his hands, and one that would ensure a greater degree of equity between the potential employer and the potential employee. It would convey to both parties an elevated status, which they do not enjoy at present, but which they should enjoy.

I shall now deal with some of the practical implications of granting access to files. I want to deal with them, essentially, in two areas. First, with regard to professionalism and, secondly, with regard to error.

Probably the greatest benefit to be conveyed by this measure is that when professionals — social workers, housing officers, doctors, teachers and head teachers—know that the records which they are keeping about an individual are liable to be looked at by that individual, the quality of record keeping improves. It is ironic that although many organisations and individuals have independently introduced access, almost always, when a professional body has to be convinced of the value of access, those people who are among the makers of policy and ideas and who are sufficiently interested in the profession for its own sake and do not regard it simply as a job from nine until five, lead the profession forward into providing it.

Mr. Richard Page (Hertfordshire, South-West)

Does my hon. Friend believe that this legislation will help doctors to improve their writing so that it is legible and understood?

Mr. Norris

My hon. Friend touches on an important matter. The other day I received a letter on what I am sure was a frightfully important subject from a medical practitioner in my constituency whose qualifications were endless—in fact, together with his address, they took up a half his first sheet of writing paper. Having read his letter from about a quarter to 10 until 11.30 last night, I am none the wiser as to what on earth he was talking about. I feel frightfully inadequate. I am sure that I shall have lost his vote, if I ever had it, because he will think that I am a total fool when I reply in respect of the abolition of dog licences legislation when he was talking about defence policy.

The quality of record keeping is important. A doctor may understand his illegible script but if someone else is required to read it — which often happens — the possibility of error arises.

Mr. Robert Adley (Christchurch)


Mr. Norris

I see that my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr. Adley) wishes to intervene. I am delighted that we have been able to attract him from his duties elsewhere. Of course, I give way.

Mr. Adley

I hesitate to interrupt my hon. Friend in full flow, so good is he. I support his comment about professionalism and increased performance. I remind my hon. Friend that, during the passage of the Local Government (Access to Information) Bill, the chief executives and chief officers of Bradford city council and one or two other councils which had taken a national lead in introducing these measures in advance of the legislation were insistent that there had been a major improvement because their records were tidied up. Their officers felt that the records were more accurate.

Mr. Norris

I agree with my hon. Friend. It is right to pay tribute to Bradford. All political parties on the council supported the idea of access to files. In support of the comments by the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett), I must say that, if these principles are adopted and the files are opened—there is nothing to stop any local authority, Government Department or statutory body from deciding to do so now—the end of the world does not occur. What happens is to the benefit of greater professionalism and improved service to clients.

I have referred to the circular which I sent to colleagues inviting them to support the Bill. In response, I received one or two representations from colleagues who said, "I am very worried about this legislation. I keep files on all my surgery cases. Constituents come to see me and I write things down. Frankly, I would be appalled at the idea that the people involved were going to see my files."

This leads us into territory with which all hon. Members will be familiar. We all have the white plastic bag constituent who arrives at our surgeries. I have a constituent — I hope that he will not read these comments, but I do not believe that Hansard is his bedside reading—who has been to see me at, I think, every surgery I have held over the past four years. Such is his enthusiasm that, the other day, I received a message saying that he was very sorry but he was ill and would not be able to come to see me. I thought that it was very kind of him to enter that apology, but, although of course I am keen to do everything that I can to help him, I must admit that I have probably reached the limits of my endeavours with him and that the file notes which I now keep on him are somewhat desultory. However, I set myself a target, saying, I shall keep my records in such a way that, however illogical the requests by constituents or however odd the stories that they want to tell me, I shall merely record what I am told, what they say they want and what I was prepared to say or do.

Mrs. Virginia Bottomley (Surrey, South-West)


Mr. Norris

It is a great pleasure to see my hon. Friend. Of course, I give way.

Mrs. Bottomley

Does my hon. Friend agree that greater openness may lead to greater difficulty? I am thinking particularly of the example of child abuse. It is difficult to assess and detect what is happening and there is great resistance among families to acknowledging what is happening in the family. If a social worker has suspicions which he may not be able to substantiate, what does he do? I am concerned that social workers will risk euphemisms or will make no note on the file because they are afraid that the family will come in greatly affronted. In the early stages of the case, it is often a matter of surmise and suspicion. I am concerned that there will be an overreaction to my hon. Friend's proposals and that very little will be recorded.

Mr. Norris

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who has made a serious point. Professionalism in record keeping and the knowledge that a record will become public do not mean that euphemism is the order of the day, or that neglecting important information, because it might be thought sensitive, is the way to proceed. We have taken very much on board the circumstances to which my hon. Friend refers. Her interest in this matter is well known.

Clause 5 deals with exemptions to the right of access. Clause 5(1)(c) refers to where disclosure would expose some person other than the applicant to the risk of serious or mental harm".

Clause 5(1)(b) refers to where disclosure would reveal the identity of an individual, other than a person acting in a professional capacity, who has provided information". Clause 5(1)(a) refers to where disclosure would affect the privacy of another individual who can be indentified from that information". The legislation refers elsewhere to circumstances in which disclosure might harm the individual—I hope that hon. Members will forgive me if I do not refer to the precise line in the Bill.

I remind my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey, South-West (Mrs. Bottomley) that we are talking about allowing the individual access to his file. We are not talking about allowing an individual access to any other file. If we have protected information — as in the paragraphs which I have read — supplied by a third party which might enable that third party to be identified, the risks to which my hon. Friend referred, — for example, in child abuse cases, would to some degree be catered for. I am sure that the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire would agree that those are precisely the types of issues which we would wish to debate in Committee. A great deal of attention was paid to those issues during the passage of the Data Protection Bill in 1984 and it is vital that we get them right if this legislation is to be of service to clients and is not to be an impediment to the proper course of social work.

Mr. Cash

I should like to refer to one point which arises from clause 6 and is connected with the point to which my hon. Friend has just referred — "suitably qualified" practitioners and what that means. There are circumstances in which a person goes to an acupuncturist or chiropractor. What about them? I speak as one who is chairman of the all-party committee on complementary and alternative medicine and I declare an interest as an adviser to some of the bodies involved in that work. A serious problem arises. We need to be careful that, in extending the rights as proposed by my hon. Friend, we do not end up by restricting other people's rights.

Mr. Norris

I agree with my hon. Friend's comment. He knows that in clause 6(2) of the Bill a "suitably qualified practitioner" is defined currently as meaning a registered medical practitioner or a person holding the Certificate of Qualification in Social Work or the Certificate in Social Service. My hon. Friend the Member for Stafford has put his finger on a detailed matter which I did not intend to mention, but which should be considered in Committee. That is whether the definition of a "suitably qualified practitioner" is yet adequate. My hon. Friend may have exposed the point that it is not.

I am sure that my hon. Friend will agree that the phrase "suitably qualified practitioner" is used in the Bill in the context of when and how it should be gauged that exemptions should apply. Clearly, there must be some sort of expert advice in those circumstances, and advice that will be quickly available to the person charged with the responsibility for the records.

I note that the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire agrees with that point. That aspect must be looked at in Committee. Before my hon. Friend intervened on this important subject, we were talking about professionalism and how the leaders of professions, those who set standards of competence and move professions forward, are in favour of the Bill. On the matter of medical records, the Royal College of Nursing, the Royal College of Midwives and the Health Visitors Association have all expressed support for the principle and general approach of the Bill.

In 1983, an inter-professional working group chaired by the then president of the British Medical Association, Sir Douglas Black, reported in favour of a legally backed right of access to health records provided that adequate safeguards to protect those who might be harmed were included.

Although it is true that the BMA annual conference last year narrowly voted against such a right — the voting was 183 votes to 169—the BMA's ethical committee and its full council were in favour of an access right. The BMA's general practicioners committee still remains in favour of a right of access subject to safeguards.

The Lancet said of the Access to Personal Files Bill it is a development that should be welcomed rather than resisted by doctors".

I shall give some examples of what poor professionalism can do. I mentioned some of these examples during the proceedings of the Education Bill, now the Education Act, 1986. They bear repetition because they are some appalling instances of how sloppy unprofessional reporting has left a scar on an individual that he will find difficult to overcome. I have some quotations from pupil records which the Campaign for Freedom for Information has gathered. Has a reputation for petty theft, which we are sure of, hut there is a lack of proof in several cases".

If my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister of State, Home Office, who has a distinguished legal career, had that submitted in evidence against one of his clients, it would not take him long to demolish the prosecution's case. I have a further example: A bit concerned over X's honesty, though as yet no evidence". That is fairly damning. It is damning without the slightest reference to fact on which to base that extraordinary conclusion about an individual's veracity and, who knows, his suitability for a position of trust, for promotion within the school, for subsequent employment and other matters. A further example is: This girl is a thief and a liar and sly". It is interesting that that comment was forwarded from the girl's previous school and that a teacher at the new school reported on the same girl, This young lady seems honest, truthful, frank and extremely helpful. Either that young lady underwent the most extraordinary transformation of character or someone wrote a report hastily, at the end of a long tiring week when perhaps things had not gone as they should have, when he allowed himself a lapse of professionalism which has left an unforgivable scar on that person's record.

Occasionally, a rather clipped approach is taken. The approaches taken go from the discursive to the curt, such as: Pasty, podgy, vacant, moribund, harmless, frustrating". I used to know a party game that went something like, take the following words and list them in an intelligible sentence. I defy any hon. Member to come up with a sentence that links Pasty, podgy, vacant, moribund, harmless, frustrating. We are not talking of six people but one. Another example said of a young girl: Very much inclined to sulk. Wants to be liked, and likes to hang around and curry favour with teacher. Very much inclined to cheat. Rather lovable in spite of all.

That is a lovely thought. One can just imagine that. The important question — I am sure hon. Members will appreciate—is what on earth is the conclusion that one may draw about that young person? How is that comment helpful to that young person? Just out of interest, that was written on a primary school record when that young girl was seven, and it was still on the file when that young lady was 14-years-old. That is the sort of nonsense that can be perpetuated by sloppy record-keeping. I shall quote one or two other examples that I hope will not bore hon. Members unduly.

Mr. Cash

Does my hon. Friend mean the Whips' Office?

Mr. Norris

My hon. Friend rather dangerously asks me to allude to the Whips' Office. If he is referring to my file there, I dare not ask for access, not because it would be denied, but because I dare not see what is said there.

I have two further examples. I believe he is moving inexorably towards a life of crime and terms of imprisonment"——

Mr. Robin Squire (Hornchurch)

My hon. Friend has been to the Whips' Office.

Mr. Norris

I had always taken my hon. Friend as a friend. I shall have to question his approaches in future. The quote that I have just mentioned is a wonderful example of lack of professionalism. I must continue. I believe he is moving inexorably towards a life of crime and terms of imprisonment. He affects a nice side to his character but this is not genuine". Come to think of it, one could say that about 649 of the 650 hon. Members, the exception being yourself, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Ernest Armstrong)

I am sure that the whole House wants to hear these examples. The hon. Gentleman should not really turn his back on the Chair when addressing his colleagues.

Mr. Norris

I beg your pardon, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I turned my back only to point out to my hon. Friends that the one exception, the 650th hon. Member, was your good self. I give one last example. Jimmy is a cancer to the student body—if he didn't commit this offence, then someone else in his family did In my village there used to be a family like that. I do not know how many of the multiplicity of offences committed in the village were committed by that family, but, my goodness me, they were damned for all those for which they were not caught with their hands in the till.

Although all this is amusing and one can enjoy some of the examples, they are serious and they demonstrate that those sort of records occur all too easily when the belief is that the persons concerned will never be able to look at that record and say "That is outrageous. It is subjective. It is unprofessional. It is damaging. It is gratuitous." All of those records exist. They have been discovered. They are bona fide records, and every one of them, as all hon. Members will understand, has had or could have had the most damaging effect on the individuals concerned.

I have dealt with a lack of professionalism. Let me also deal with cases where it is not lack of professionalism per se, but simple error that may cause difficulties for individuals. I shall give an example on housing. A man who was living in highly unsuitable private accommodation, and who applied to be put on the council's housing waiting list, was surprised to be turned down on the grounds that he was "reasonably accommodated" already. He asked the council to show him the information that he had entered on his application form. Incidentally, there is a right of access to that information on his personal circumstances under the Housing Act 1980 that the Government introduced and which is evidence of their good intentions in that whole area. Having obtained that information, the man discovered that one factor—hon. Members may find this minor or critical — had been omitted. That factor was that the man was blind. He wrote again and was supplied with the housing visitor's notes. That degree of disclosure is not normally practised by most authorities. Although those notes recorded his blindness, they overlooked some other important factors — that the man had to reach his flat by climbing an external staircase and that his wife was pregnant. He drew those errors to the authority's attention and soon afterwards received council accommodation.

Equally, in many cases errors can be made in medical records. A study of 1,500 general practitioner records in the Leicester area found that 1.4 per cent. got the patient's sex wrong. I imagine that it might have been possible for most doctors to determine that error on consulting the patient, although with fashions these days, who knows? If the doctors recorded the sex incorrectly or omitted it, it is potentially dangerous. Patients' dates of birth were wrong or omitted in 5.8 per cent. of those records. Eighteen per cent. of patients in the Oxford area who were sent a summary of their medical history found that additions, corrections or deletions were required.

In another survey 12 per cent. of patients who saw their records at a London general practice found errors, ranging from the wrong address to information about one child being recorded in the notes of a brother or sister. In one case a woman was described as having had an abortion when she had specifically refused one. In America 62 per cent. of patients in a psychiatric ward who saw their notes said that it gave them a chance to correct inaccurate information, 69 per cent. of the staff said that they became more accurate in recording because of the access policy, and 63 per cent. said that open records were more valuable as a clinical tool. In all those cases I have the data and the base material to justify those statements.

Hon. Members will not need to be convinced that faced with that error rate, whether 18 per cent. or as low as 6 per cent., there is a case for saying, "The person who will recognise the error because it will be obvious to him is the patient. For goodness sake, it is in the interests of both doctor and patient that access should be permitted."

My hon. Friend the Member for Surrey, South-West touched on the important question whether access to a file may cause the individual harm. We must examine that important subject. However, in my experience, a constituent or a patient with a particular paranoia who believes that his doctor, Member of Parliament or some other agency is conspiring against him, is much less likely to be convinced of the conspiracy if he is shown the notes about him than if they are denied him. He would regard that denial as evidence of the conspiracy. Sometimes in cases which superficially seem to be those where access should be withdrawn, on closer examination are not. If the notes are written properly and professionally there is nothing to fear from access and, if not wholly therapeutic, they may have a positive influence on a patient's treatment.

The campaign is not irresponsible and has also addressed itself to the exemptions that were discussed in extenso during the passage of the Data Protection Bill. It deals with the provisions of national security, the detection and apprehension of offenders, the prevention of crime and the collection of taxes or duties. I wish to make it absolutely clear that none of the Bill's sponsors believes that its purpose is to allow individuals to subvert the work of legitimate agencies or national security, or in any way to disturb the proper passage of the Government's work. We believe that exemptions must be tightly drawn in the interests of individual freedom and to ensure that on every possible occasion where doubt arises, it is exorcised in favour of access. Nevertheless, we believe that there is a proper place for exemptions.

Finally, I draw attention to a most important distinction which we must consider. So far everything that I have said could have been said about the Data Protection Act 1984. If every record to which I have referred is held on a computer, it will be covered by the Data Protection Act which comes into force in November and which will allow individuals access, subject to various exemptions, as agreed, and subject to various orders made by the Secretary of State, as agreed. Yet, there is an absolutely ludicrous anomaly. If a record is held on a computer, access will be granted, but if it is in a little black book, a manila folder or stacked in a drawer from A to Z, access will be denied. That distinction is indefensible.

In the early days of the Data Protection Bill that took on serious overtones. A pamphlet was issued under the aegis of the National Computing Centre, but with the usual disclaimer on the cover. In giving advice to computer professionals about how to apply the Data Protection Act it stated, "This business of serious confidential records is terribly worrying, so if the information is extremely serious, my advice is to take it off the computer and put it back on a manual record where it is not covered." There was, rightly, an outcry at that advice and the National Computing Centre disclaimed responsibility for what was said in the pamphlet and amended its advice.

In "World in Action", Economic League representatives were asked whether they kept records on computer, in which case the right of access would be granted under the Data Protection Act, and they replied, "Oh, no." In effect they said that they were not so stupid and that they knew that so long as the records were kept in a certain form, they were sacrosanct.

Mr. John Powley (Norwich, South)

I have been listening with interest to my hon. Friend's remarks. Will he speculate whether there is a possibility—I put it no higher than that—of an unofficial file being created for some of the areas which he eloquently outlined? In that way one file would be subject to access under the provisions of the legislation while a discreet unofficial file would be available only to a few eyes. I am not suggesting that that would be a proper practice or that anybody should undertake it, but will my hon. Friend consider whether that may result?

Mr. Norris

My right hon. Friend is right to draw attention to that point, which was made during the passage of the Data Protection Act. We can do absolutely nothing about an organisation which is prepared to go to such lengths to be covert in its retention of confidential information on individuals. Such people have set out from the outset to embark on a practice which they know is, at best, anti-social and, at worst, illegal. I have no doubt that such files are kept now and that their existence is formally denied. In this place we must often deal with the law as we wish it to be and we must presume that every law-abiding citizen will obey it and that if he fails to do so, he will suffer the consequences. I cannot answer my hon. Friend's point except to reiterate that all hon. Members would hope that that practice would not be pursued by responsible employers and agencies.

The Government have no objection in principle to access to personal files, but hon. Members may recall an episode of "Yes, Minister", which is our favourite viewing, and which reached the summit of its achievement in a most wonderful programme on precisely this issue. In that programme Jim Hacker said to Sir Humphrey: "This access to information stuff is unanswerable. Surely we should do something?" Sir Humphrey said: "Yes, Minister. You are absolutely right". Sir Humphrey went away and within days came back and said that he was frightfully keen to pursue that course, but did Jim Hacker realise that it would involve the employment of an extra 10,000 civil servants at £15,000 a year, plus on costs, who would be needed to handle the volume of applications that would arise. He said that it would cost £80 million a year. It would require substantial computer facilities plus the introduction of a right of appeal. Obviously, that would place a load on the courts and the Lord Chancellor would not be keen. Moreover, the Chancellor of the Exchequer would be breathing down his neck, but of course, subject to all that, Sir Humphrey said "Yes, Minister it is possible".

That programme brilliantly illustrated the wonderful technique of senior civil servants who never have to say no, but always say yes, but make it clear that when they say yes they mean no.

I congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend on his appointment to the Privy Council. I had intended to circulate him with a copy of that script—it has been published in book form—and to circulate it to my other right hon. Friends whose officials—I avert my eyes from the Box—may have already circulated advice to them.

We are in danger of making precisely the same mistakes regarding costs that are implicit in that amusing script. In evidence of that I cite information, now available, about the difference between anticipated and actual levels of requests. That information is derived from the number of requests received in Australia after the passage of its Freedom of Information Act 1982. They make interesting reading. In Britain the Secretary of State may be told: "Minister, there are 12 million people in council housing. If 1 per cent. of them wish to have access to their files that represents 120,000 applications and 120,000 applications costing £50 to process is"—My maths leaves me, but no doubt hon. Members know the answer before me.

The Department of Employment in Australia estimated that the number of requests would be between 100,000 and 200,000. In practice the number of requests received in 1983–84 was 166. The Australian electoral office reckoned that about 86,000 requests would be made. In practice there were 19. The Department of Immigration and Ethnic Affairs—an important area involving individual files—estimated that there would be 103,700 requests for access. In practice there were 1,069. We need go no further.

If my right hon. and learned Friend is prepared to take a step of faith with us, I am sure that he will discover—it needs a step of faith as I recognise that there is no way that my right hon. and learned Friend or myself can estimate what the statistics will be — that, as has happened in every other country where access has been permitted, the actual rate of take-up will be substantially less than that predicted.

It is no secret that the sponsors of this Bill have had extensive negotiations with the Government on how practicable it will be for this Bill to pass through its remaining stages—on the generous assumption that it receives its Second Reading today—and in what form it will finally emerge. I shall not discuss those negotiations, because I want to hear what my right hon. and learned Friend has to say. I do not need reminding of the desirability of consultation before any measures are introduced. I accept that we must get the Bill right and that means that, in Committee, we must discuss all the implications of the Bill and any possible amendments.

I stand by two cardinal principles. In this life half a loaf, a quarter of a loaf or, as I have heard some of the sponsors of the Bill say, even an eighth of a loaf is better than no loaf. I have heard it said elsewhere that one should never let the perfect be the enemy of the good. I make no bones about the fact that I would have liked the Bill to have passed untrammelled, but for improvement in Committee, on to the statute book. I believe that, however tortuous the process, in due course that will happen.

It is impossible to object to the Bill in principle. It will be possible to meet any objections in Committee. The campaigners for this Bill accept that there are necessary exemptions and exceptions that must be built into the Bill. The cost will not be astronomic, but will be a small price to pay for improved professionalism. It is necessary for the Government and for supporters of the Bill to take a step of faith. They must put aside their timidity and the objections of those who see every social development merely in terms of a few pounds, shillings and pence and give enthusiastic support to the Bill. I commend it to the House.

10.55 am
Mr. Chris Smith (Islington, South and Finsbury)

I wish to add my warm congratulations to the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood) on his success in the ballot and on choosing such an important and fundamental issue for discussion in the House. The Bill has attracted all-party support, and I hope that it will receive a confident Second Reading.

I also add a word of congratulations to the hon. Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Norris), who is clearly not only a man of intelligence and wit, but, from his speech, a man of stamina. He has played a major part in the discussions that have led up to this morning's debate. He has ensured that there is at least some chance of the Bill reaching the statute book in some form this year.

For most people in Britain freedom of information is a worthy-sounding, rather grand concept. Because it sounds worthy and good they believe, quite rightly, that it is a good thing. However, it is also rather remote. Freedom of information to open up the workings of Government, the thinking of Ministers and the operation of the state does not impact directly upon individual citizens. However, this Bill does have such an impact. It represents the front line on freedom of information and deals with those areas that matter most to ordinary citizens.

I well remember one of my constituents who came to my surgery and told me how she had been receiving treatment at St. Bartholomew's hospital. When she had been visiting the consultant in his office at Bart's, she happened to see her medical file open on his desk. Written across the inside of the front cover in large capital letters were the words "Husband in nick". Her husband was in prison at the time, but she was deeply upset that that information had been recorded on her medical file. It had no relevance to her medical treatment. She came to me to complain and I took up the matter with the authorities at Barts. They agreed to remove the wording from the file and instead it stated that the patient was currently unsupported at home and, therefore, that that factor had to be taken into account when considering her medical treatment. That information should have been on the file in the first place—not the form of words that appeared in it.

Mr. Jeremy Hanley (Richmond and Barnes)

The hon. Gentleman knows that I fully support the Bill. However, should not that particular phrase — in language more acceptable to the hon. Gentleman and me — have suggested the need for some form of tranquilliser for the person concerned because of the additional stress that had been caused by the location of her husband?

Mr. Smith

The hon. Gentleman has anticipated the point that I was about to make: that on the file there should be information about the particular circumstances of the individual that is couched in non-prejudicial terms and that is relvant to their medical needs and treatment. If access were made available to that file, doctors and consultants treating the patient would ensure that any possibly prejudicial information was not contained in it in a form that might be detrimental to the medical treatment involved. There is a wide measure of agreement across the House that it would be sensible to legislate to give to citizens in a proper, sensible form the right of access to what is written about them.

The hon. Member for Oxford, East referred to the Government's intentions. We shall hear later about the Government's view of the Bill. However, it is no secret that the Government are not entirely happy with the Bill as it stands. I am deeply unhappy about the prospect of losing certain parts of the Bill. Already there has been the inclusion in clause 4(2) of the provision for a maximum fee to be charged for access to records.

The original Bill that I introduced about two years ago under the ten-minute rule procedure did not provide for the charging of a fee for access, apart from the cost of photocopying any record that the individual concerned wished to copy and take away with him. To my considerable regret, the charging of a fee for access is now included in the Bill because the Government are worried about cost. The charging of a fee will probably remove the practical possibility of access from millions of people. About half of my constituents will now be prevented from gaining access to their records because a fee is to be charged. I hope that in Committee the Government will have second thoughts.

The other change that the Government have not yet secured but that they are likely to seek, with some degree of acceptance by the mover of the Bill in Committee, is a restriction on the types of record that the Bill can cover. I understand that the Government have said that they would be happy for access to he made available to educational, housing, social services and welfare records but that the other records listed in the schedule to the Bill should not be made available. They include medical, benefit, employment, bank and credit and immigration records. The Government want many records to be excluded from the Bill. I regret the Government's intention to try to secure their exclusion. Again I hope that they will have second thoughts—in particular about the exclusion of medical records, as most people would like to have access to their medical records. I shall return later to the question of medical records, because they are important. We need to explore further the Government's reasoning about their exclusion.

Why do the Government want to exclude these types of record? First, there is the problem of administrative difficulty. It is interesting to note that the types of record that the Government accept should he included in the Bill are administered by local authorities, not by Government Departments. Secondly, the Government are worried about cost. It is nonsense for the Government to be worried about cost. The hon. Member for Oxford, East referred to the Australian experience. One could also refer to the experience in the United States and Canada.

In Canada and the United States the predictions about the number of applications for records, the cost of meeting those applications and the number of people who would need to be employed have been wildly exaggerated. The impact upon the nature of Government administration has been proved to be minimal.

Mr. Cash

The hon. Gentleman says that the cost has been exaggerated, and he referred in particular to the United States. It was said in 1966 that the United States Freedom of Information Act would cost the Department of State involved $55,000 a year. In fact, last year the cost was $35 million for that department alone. The source of that information is unattributable, but it is most authoritative.

Mr. Smith

The hon. Gentleman is confusing two completely different points. We are dealing with access to personal files. The experience in the United States is that the number of requests received has been far fewer than was expected. I shall give the hon. Gentleman one example. A study was published in 1980 of patient requests in a Massachusetts general hospital. This relates directly to the hon. Gentleman's point about access to files. It does not refer to generalised freedom of information — to access to secret information or to the requests to the Department of Defence that form most of the applications under the various bits of sunshine legislation in the United States. This study relates directly to files. The Massachusetts general hospital said: To identify those patients who requested and read their charts we monitored six medical and surgical wards, comprising 150 beds with 5,000 admissions annually, continuously for six months". This is absolutely accurate information from a survey that was conducted over six months. The report then said: 11 patients were thus identified as having requested and read their own charts. That is a take-up rate of 0.44 per cent. I could provide other examples.

Another factor that may be of concern to the Government in relation to medical records is the attitude of the medical profession. The hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire referred to the Royal College of Nursing, the Royal College of Midwives and other major bodies that represent the professionals in the National Health Service who support this measure. The council of the British Medical Association has voted in support of the principle. At its annual general meeting there was a very narrow vote against that principle, but opinion is clearly moving within the medical profession on this issue. I hope that it will move further.

One of the reasons that it is likely to move further is that increasingly medical practices and a few hospitals are already putting into practice the principles of this Bill. They allow and encourage patients to read their files and see their records. The universal experience of those who have done it suggests that it helps the process of treatment and makes it easier to conduct a proper professional relationship.

There are many reasons for supporting the Bill. As I have said, I regret the Government's decision to try to amend it and thereby diminish its scope and content. However, on the principle of a quarter of a loaf being better than none, I strongly support the Bill, although I am disappointed that it does not go as far as I would wish.

I should briefly like to state why the principle of the Bill is important. First, it will lead, as the hon. Members for Oxford, East and for Roxburgh and Berwickshire have said, to more careful record keeping by officials. The fact that less sloppiness and fewer sweeping assumptions about the character and nature of individuals will be put on files—which would otherwise have stayed there and haunted their welfare for the rest of their lives — will be of benefit.

Secondly, the Bill will provide an opportunity to correct inaccuracies. At the moment, there may well be inaccurate information in or omissions from files that can affect crucial decisions taken by people who are trusted by the community to take decisions about the welfare, career and figure of individuals. Such inaccuracies cannot be justified and opportunities must be available to correct them.

Thirdly, there is an imbalance between access to records that are kept in computerised form and access to those that are kept on paper. It is nonsense that, because one social services department keeps its records on computer and another keeps its records on paper, someone served by one local authority can have access to his records, but someone served by another authority cannot. That imbalance should not exist and, in the interests of equity, it should be corrected.

Fourthly, there is undoubtedly a benefit in the relationship between the professional and his or her client as a result of access being available. Too often, the relationship between doctor and patient, DHSS official and applicant social worker and client, or teacher and parent, is one of arrogant assumption on the part of the professional that he or she always knows best. That is not the right sort of constructive relationship. A constructive relationship that would make for good treatment, care and social work practice is one of partnership and not of patronising paternalism, and part of that partnership is access to information and files.

When I proposed my ten-minute Bill two years ago, I received a letter from a team of doctors in a Birmingham health centre which stated: 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. The word "like" was underlined. Quite clearly, that experience, over a period of about 10 years, shows that making access to the files available to the patients who come into the practice has improved the relationship between the doctor and the patient and that it has improved the standard and the quality of the medical care that is given.

Fifthly, over and above the practical issues, and practical benefits of enshrining the principle of access to information in our legislation, there is an overriding moral reason. Individual citizens should be able to see what is written about them, supposedly on their behalf, by people who are entrusted by the community to serve them and to administer services to them. Surely this House of all places should support that basic principle.

Too much has been done in this country over the past few years that is fundamentally unliberating and restrictive to the freedom of the individual, and too often it has been done in the name of liberty. We now have an opportunity, as a House, to endorse a fundamentally liberating idea and I very much hope that the House will take it.

11.15 am
Mr. John Browne (Winchester)

I pay an unreserved tribute to the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood) for the superb way in which he presented his Bill and also for the amount of work, and preparation, to which I have not been privy, that it reflects.

His Bill will do for manual files what the Data Protection Act 1984 does for computer files. I strongly support the whole principle of the right of the individual to have access to his or her personal files, especially credit rating and medical files. Therefore, I support the Bill in its general terms because it heightens public awareness and brings pressure to bear to ensure that personal files are fairer and more correct.

However, when one looks into it, the principle of personal access to files is not a simple one. It has serious practical implications. The Bill needs more serious thought in certain areas—I do not wish to disparage the hon. Gentleman — and I shall try to bring those to the attention of the House.

First, the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire assured me in his opening speech that the Bill will allow for retrospection. I accept what he said.

Secondly, there is the question of libel. Although the hon. Gentleman referred to this, I still think that it is a difficult area. Although I entirely accept the thrust of his idea, I urge some caution.

Thirdly, caution is required on specific issues such as school records. The Bill could have the effect of dissuading school authorities from putting on their files the quite legitimate comments of school children—for example, at times when there is a suspicion or even evidence of cruelty to the child from the parents. It may be that the parents could demand access to the files of a minor and see that the child has told his or her teacher of the parents' cruelty. They might then take it out on the child.

Mr. Kirkwood

That is an important point. Although I was unable to cover it in as much detail as I should have liked in my initial presentation, I refer the hon. Gentleman to clause 11(I) and especially to clause 11(I)(d). We have tried — I put it no higher than that — to meet that objection so that any information would only be available to any parent if it quite clearly would not conflict with the interests of the child.

Mr. Browne

I accept the general thrust of the hon. Gentleman's remarks, as I do his words about libel. I am not criticising the hon. Gentleman's proposal, but am simply trying to say that this is a difficult area that needs revision and that we must make sure that we get it right.

Mr. Richard Page

I have followed with great interest what my hon. Friend has said. Does he agree that a possible danger is not what is on the records but what is not on them? Therefore, every child will be described as honest, unless he is not, in which case that will not be recorded on the file. Does he agree that one might look for the negative, rather than the positive, aspects?

Mr. Browne

I think that I understand what my hon. Friend is saying. I almost intervened in the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Norris) when he talked about getting credit. He made an illuminating and amusing speech, but, underneath the good jokes and the analogies, I sensed a similar suspicion. The granting of credit by a financial institution is not only a question of analysis, but a personal assessment of the character of the individual, say the entrepreneur or the man starting up in business. When that great banker, J. P. Morgan, was tried in the Medina case in the 1930s, he was asked whether he had ever refused a loan to someone whom he had never met. He said, "That is not the question you should be asking me. The question is, have I ever made a loan to anyone whom I have never personally met? The answer is no. It is not the ability to repay the loan, but the willingness to repay the loan, that matters."

An important point that could have been overlooked in my hon. Friend's amusing speech is that the impressions given by a person applying for credit from a financial institution or a lending officer could be very important to his credit assessment. That illustrates vividly one of the dangerous areas which the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire may have considered, but which it is difficult to put into legislation without overkill and the creation of a destructive measure. The Bill is a very constructive measure.

Mr. Norris

My hon. Friend is generous in giving way to me, especially in view of my lengthy speech—[HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear!"] Having heard that reaction, I do not know whether I should bother intervening in his speech. He is making an interesting point, and I accept it. But he must equally accept that, in assessing a person's creditworthiness, the professional must take account of some factors and discount others, such as whether one happens to like the person. If one believes that the applicant's personality is a key to his creditworthiness, one should be prepared to say so. Nothing in the Consumer Credit Act forces someone to provide credit. It merely allows an applicant to see the information on which the decision was based. It does not give him the right to question the decision, nor would the Bill.

Mr. Browne

It is an interesting point. I do not use it to attack the Bill, because in general I support it, but it is a critical area. I agree with my hon. Friend that if the file said that the man had been bankrupt and he had not, that is the sort of error which the Bill should catch. But to take my hon. Friend's illustration of someone pretending to be something on the one side and on the other side not being lovable, I am not sure that it would help the person about whom it was said to see the assessment. Indeed, he could not refute the assertion and say, "I am lovable." It is a delicate area on which my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister must concentrate if, as I hope, he accepts the Bill as a serious measure and revises it in the light of the general pressure that has built up.

There was a big disparity between the figures given by the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Smith) and those given by my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Mr. Cash) with regard to the cost of the American Freedom of Information Act. I believe that the Government should push into the background any question of the cost of freedom of access. Unless they can prove that the cost would be inordinate, we should not spend too much time considering it. I speak as a hawk on public spending. We spend much money, legitimately, on defence and on the police—I strongly support both—and money spent, within reason, on these aims would be well spent.

But we must also remember the administrative cost of keeping better files and providing better access to files. As the chairman of the Conservative Back-Bench small businesses committee, I am thinking especially of smaller businesses. The Bill would apply very well to larger businesses which have sophisticated filing systems and ready acccess to information, especially with today's high technology systems. Most big companies have a large back office staff which is sometimes completely dedicated to filing documents and to the retrieval and storage of files. For a relatively large and mature company, the Bill would present no serious administrative problem. There would be a marginal problem in terms of cost.

But it would be a different kettle of fish for smaller businesses, many of which have relatively unsophisticated manual filing systems and few, if any, employees dedicated to filing. The demand by individual traders for access to information could almost break a small business, in terms of the overhead costs that would be inherent in providing access to files. It could be a heavy cost to a small business, especially to the one or two-man business.

It is well known that the greatest deterrent to new start-ups is not the lack of capital or heavy taxation, but the administrative burden. The Government are correct to concentrate on cutting the administrative burden on smaller businesses.

Mr. Norris

I noticed your brow furrow as I rose. Mr. Deputy Speaker! What on earth does my hon. Friend think that burden on small businesses will be? If, at some time during the year, each of 200 employees asked to see his file—which is highly unlikely — that would not be too great a burden. If my hon. Friend is suggesting that files are strewn round the office, the argument is so unprofessional as to be unsustainable. If it is merely a case of saying, "This is what we have", and giving it to the person, I see no problem. No personal files will be held on customers or suppliers of the business which they will want to see. My hon. Friend must not exaggerate the impact of the Bill.

Mr. Browne

There was no exaggeration. I was talking about small businesses with few employees, not about 200 employees, which I would regard as a larger business. Demands for access to files could create a serious financial burden on small businesses. There are two sorts of cost: first, the cost of compliance by the small business and, secondly, the cost of operation.

Mr. Richard Page

Does my hon. Friend agree that a small business man is required to be a VAT expert, a tax expert, a health and safety expert and every other sort of expert as well as doing his job? Is this not yet another task for him to perform in keeping his records and his paperwork together? Although it is a small burden, and we must not make too much of it, will it not inhibit his efficiency in helping his business to grow?

Mr. Browne

I agree with my hon. Friend, who put it much better than I have been trying to do. I emphasise to my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister that the Government's thrust has been to reduce the administrative burden on smaller businesses, which is not just one deterrent but the greatest deterrent to business start-ups. Although it may be a small administrative burden I urge my right hon. and learned Friend to regard it as important. It is an addition to the action which the Government have already legitimately taken.

I strongly support the Bill's general aims. It treads on some very complex areas. It has already been given considerable thought, but the Government must give it more professional thought. That requires time. On this occasion we have time. We need to improve the Bill and we have time to do that since the Data Protection Act is not yet fully effective. That provides an interesting forerunner and we shall see its practical effects vis-a-vis computer files. We shall learn a lot from that Act and so improve this Bill. I do not say that in disparaging terms.

Normally the Government are criticised for doing too little, too late. The danger of accepting this Bill in its present form is of the Government doing to much, too soon. I urge my right hon. and learned Friend to take careful note of the Bill and the genuine and strongly felt pressure behind it. I urge the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire to accept the need for revision and, in the meantime, to persuade my right hon. and hon. Friends that we have time to see the results of the Data Protection Act.

The Government have already introduced important measures which move in the same direction as the Bill. I think of the Local Government (Access to Information) Act 1985 which gives a right of access to documents relating to local authority meetings. That is an important step in the right direction. The circular of 1983, issued under the Local Authority Social Services Act 1970 makes personal information available on request. Social security records are already disclosed on a voluntary basis on request. Similar facilities are available for probation, unemployment and housing records.

The Government are already moving in the right direction. It is right that people have access to personal files as a general principle. I strongly support the Bill's aims. It has heightened and focused public opinion upon the issue and has done a great service by that.

As a result of today's debate added pressure will be put upon the Government and my right hon. and learned Friend's colleagues in the Government to move faster and further in this direction.

All I urge is that the Bill be considered as a forerunner. The Government should look at it in a willing way and revise it — I hope with the co-operation of the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire. It steers us in the right direction, but the danger is overkill and we must be very careful about that.

11.33 am
Mr. Terry Fields (Liverpool, Broad Green)

Anyone reading the Bill and listening to today's debate would think that there was a spirit of bonhomie in the Chamber. The only friction seems to be between a couple of Tories. It might be thought that this was a good Government, but I refer to the headline in The Guardian of 18 February which read: Information bill blunted to win government nod. The schedule, Records subject to this Act lists health, education, housing social services, welfare, employment, bank, building society, credit and immigration records. That is a comprehensive list. It is laudable to progress in that direction.

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Smith) that there are inadequacies in the Bill which are apparently being discussed behind closed doors. I understand that deals are being struck, despite the good intentions of the Bill's supporters.

Mr. Robin Squire (Hornchurch)

The hon. Gentleman claims that deals have been struck. The nature of politics in my 20 years' experience is that that is always so. One of the distinguishing features between the hon. Gentleman and his attitude to life and hon. Members elsewhere is that he does not recognise that.

Mr. Fields

That is an illuminating intervention. I can talk about 26 years in the trade union movement. If I went back as a shop steward, struck a compromise with the boss and achieved only three points out of eight I would be strung up and would not be in office long. Such compromise will not do in the trade union world, although it might in politics and big business.

Mention has been made of retrospection in the Bill. That the Bill is non-retrospective is alarming. The Secretary of State for the Environment has introduced all kinds of retrospective legislation to cover his tracks and to disguise the failure of draftsmen to take account of certain matters. I do not see why this Bill should not have an element of retrospection.

The Government accept the principle of access but do not want to bite off too much at one go. We have not achieved much from this Government. Why do the Government accept the Bill in principle? They accept it because this is election year. In the past weeks all sorts of largesse has been dispensed to us, as well as promises. Why this sudden outbreak of democracy? We must remember the Government's record, in relation to local government, their attack on the people of Liverpool and Lambeth, their attack on the metropolitan authorities and the removal of a tier of government.

Why are we suddenly witnessing a move towards democracy by this Government? After all, the Government support attacks on the BBC's democratic right to broadcast certain programmes; they support phone tapping and assaults on individual liberties.

Reference has been made to the programme on the Economic League shown on ITV on Monday. Perhaps the Government had pre-knowledge of that programme, since they are reluctant to accept the employment aspect of the subject of the Bill.

I draw attention to early-day motion 630 on the subject of the Economic League's secret files, which calls on Her Majesty's Government to immediately allow freedom of access to all personal records and additionally to conduct an immediate inquiry into disreputable organisations such as the Economic League. We must look further at what is going on in relation to the personal files of workers. We must consider the Economic League's links with the Tory party. There is well-documented evidence of that hand-in-glove relationship. It is no coincidence that personal employment files—a key feature in the election campaign—will not be dealt with in the Bill. While concentrating on employment records, we have to say that it is already bad enough being unemployed in the north, north-east, Scotland, Wales and even in parts of the so called affluent south. One of the largest groups of unemployed people are building workers, whose names featured largely in the television programme. The unemployed are suffering difficulties enough but they are in fear and realise the hopelessness of their position and their dignity is being affected. Additionally, we found through the television programme that there are secret files on them and that that is one of the reasons why some of them cannot find work and have not worked in previous years.

To my way of thinking, this is a class issue. The activities of the Economic League and the closed situation in society that stops people knowing what is going on and why they are not getting work, is a sinister aspect in line with the current activities of special branch, MI5, MI6 and other organisations.

In the Financial Times a headline stated: Police help to vet workers claims TV programme. That is the reality of what is going on. There are statistics showing 250,000 people being involved, but that does not deal with the human aspect outlined in the programme about how it affects families because of the inaccuracies, lies and distortions that appear on people's files.

Through the wonders of science and technology a comrade of mine videoed that programme and froze a section of the film. He could read the names and addresses of people who are blacklisted through the Economic League and whose names are given to employer organisations that Conservative Members support. Surprisingly. and rather frighteningly, we discovered the names and addresses of people who live in the Liverpool area. In the past 24 hours I have spoken to four different people whose names and addresses I gleaned from the television. One man in particular was prepared to give me his name, but, because of fear of reprisals against his son who currently works in the building industry, he asked me not to disclose his name. That same man and his brother, again a building worker, have suffered blacklisting for the past 20 years because of the activities of the Economic League, in league with Conservative Members.

Since 1956 that man's only involvement in politics has been as a trade unionist seeking to represent ordinary working people in adverse working conditions on a building site. He has tried to get decent rates of pay and look after health and safety but has been labelled as a dangerous revolutionary and subversive who should not be given employment. For a period of 20 or 30 years, that man has intermittently been in and out of jobs. He has been sacked by firms because he has stood up for himself and for his fellow workers. His record was pitted with remarks about him being a good worker. But because he was a trade unionist, not an activist but a spokesman for his fellow workers, he was continually sacked from his job and had to go to industrial tribunals on a number of occasions to be reinstated so that he could start again and seek to develop the job and trade that he had been trained for.

That has gone on since 1966. That same man saved this country during the last war. He was wounded and invalided out of the Navy but he is listed in an Economic League File as being a subversive. His brother has been blacked and his son is also in fear of being blacked.

A second man knew two or three years ago about blacklisting through the Economic League. Over a period of 20 years he has been blacked in job after job by that league. The description of decent members of society in the books of the Economic League can be bought if one applies for membership of that organisation. The league states: We rely on keeping old-fashioned files on people based on party membership lists, attendance at conferences and their bylines in certain newspapers. Therefore, if one has a byline in a newspaper and makes a comment in a certain direction, one is picked up, put on file and the name and particulars can be bought and touted round various building employers' organisations as being a subversive.

The Economic League has about 2,000 members and the companies which support that organisation, which is an adjunct of the Tory party, include Barclays bank, Lloyds bank, National Westminster bank, the Royal Bank of Scotland, Hawker Siddeley, Bridon, GKN, Guardian Royal Exchange and Tysons. When we read about the scandals in the City, we find that some of those institutions are affiliated to the Economic League, which is, of course, in league with the Tory party.

We have to be careful about warning workers and the Labour and trade union movement about the nature of society and the suppression of information in the secret files that exist. The Economic League is well aware of that. It points to the instability within society and the capitalist system, the economic problems that will develop in the future and the need for the bosses to look out for subversives, deal with them and isolate them. For our part and my part, as a representative of working people, we give warning to the workers of the country that it will be their strength, organised through the trade union and labour movement, which will seek through the bourgeois democracy, to change society. We need to understand the powers that are used against us in seeking to suppress democracy as we know it.

When we see and read the files on people we have to ask who appoints the members of the Economic League? What right do they have to dictate whether a man, woman or youth works? Those files are on sale. We must pose the question; who are the subversives in society? Is it a man who will stand up in front of his workmates and bosses demanding decent conditions for his fellow workers or those who go behind the backs of people in a clandestine way touting for business on their own personal prejudices about people? We have to understand why such things are emerging today. We see it as an indication of capitalism in crisis and the forces of reaction coming out to combat the forward movement of the Left and the working class in particular.

There are economic difficulties ahead, and the suppression of democracy in this country will be an increasing feature of industrial life. We have to root out and expose those people and explain to workers what is going on in society. The openness that the sponsors of the Bill are looking for will not be obtained by making compromises with the Government and the leaders of the Tory party. Only with complete openness and democracy in society can any of us feel safe.

I shall be supporting the Bill, limited though it is, and seeking assurances from the sponsors that when it gets to Committee they will seek to reinforce it and incorporate amendments that will ensure that working people who are trying to do a decent job on behalf of themselves, their families and their workmates, are not subjected to tyrranical pressure. I shall give my support to the Bill with reluctance.

11.50 am
Mr. Gerald Bowden (Dulwich)

I wish to give my warm support to the Bill and to congratulate the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood) on introducing it. I had some slight misgivings when I read it, but I appreciate and support the idea that freedom is best preserved by individuals having the right to know what is said and written about them and placed on a file.

I recall my own experiences in the teaching profession at several levels. I realised that it was important when teaching primary school children informally to consult other teachers so that one could understand behavioural problems in the context, for example, of a difficult home background. These exchanges, which took place in semi-confidence—they were not covered by any technicality or privilege — allowed one to understand and make provision and allowances for any difficulties.

I accept the contention of the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Smith) that the recording of facts in a file should be done formally. As my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Norris) said, files have a habit of becoming a body of their own. They have a life of their own which continues independently of those who make them or hold them. I recognise that there was a need for formalising any facts that are recorded about people while maintaining the opportunity to exchange ideas and opinions without having them subjected to scrutiny.

I discovered at a later stage in my teaching career, when I was involved in interviewing children from secondary schools who were about to go into higher education, how the facts recorded about them by their headmasters and headmistresses on testimonials or references could damn or, as it were, elevate them. When I was first undertaking interviews I asked the person who had carried out the interviewing for many years before I arrived how one went about it. He replied, "First, you sit the candidate down. You have read the papers beforehand. You go through the formality of putting him at ease. You pick up a piece of paper and say 'I want to read your headmaster's report.' You read it through, allowing your face to light up as you do so. When you get to the end of it you say 'He seems to have a pretty good idea of what you are like and he has a good opinion of you. Now, tell me about yourself.'" Whatever was set out in the headmaster's report, I was told that that was the way in which to get the best out of the candidate.

I found recently that it is difficult to get any understanding of what is in medical reports or in the references that are recorded about employees by their employers. Two cases have come to my attention during the past week, and I think that both of them are covered by the broad provisions of the Bill. Both raise the difficult question of where we draw the line between what is passed on confidentially by word of mouth and what is recorded formally.

The first case—this has been a matter of some public discussion—concerns a mother who has had difficulties with her family and her family circumstances. However, by her own admission, and by the acknowledgement of the social services department concerned, she is in many senses a good mother. Unfortunately, certain facts were recorded against her, which she was unable to discover, and these operated against the family. She took up the matter with a firm of solicitors, which wrote to me about it. I wrote to the director of social services in Kent where she was then living and who was responsible for the problems which had arisen. I have recently received the director's reply and it is a mixture of acknowledged fact, innuendo, rumour and smear. I felt that I could no longer deal with the matter personally, so I sent the director's letter to my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister of State for him to consider and make a judgment upon. If that mother, that firm of solicitors and I could have had access to the social services file in Kent, a great deal of trouble might have been saved.

Another case has come to my attention. The decision on it was made on Monday and the appeal must be lodged by next Monday. I think that I am in order in alluding to it because it is not at the moment sub judice. At present, no appeal is pending. The case involves a woman who was a part-time receptionist in a medical centre, a clinic where doctors see patients on a panel basis. It was alleged against the receptionist that she had made racist remarks. There was a difficulty within the medical centre and there was a physical assault. This woman had the opportunity to pursue that by private prosecution but she chose, or has chosen for the moment, not to take that course.

The assault was accepted and the cause of it was alleged to be racist remarks. The two parties involved were suspended. The disciplinary hearing and the grievance procedure which surrounded it were due to be heard. I contacted and went to see the chairman of the health authority concerned and asked, in a meeting with his other officials, that I should be given the facts about the alleged remarks made by my constituent. I was told that they were not available.

I then wrote to the health authority saying that my constituent should know of what she had been accused before she should answer any particular charge, and her trade union, the National and Local Government Officers Association, has followed that up. She was then told that there was to be a hearing last Friday, and I wrote and advised her that she should not go to any such hearing until she knew of what she was accused. No such facts were forthcoming, she refused to attend the hearing, which was heard in her absence, and she was sacked.

That was disgraceful. I acknowledge that the chairman and general manager of the Camberwell district authority are honourable men trying to do a good job. However, their supporting staff have been inadequate in giving the required professional support. It is intolerable that somebody should be sacked from a job without having heard of what she is accused.

One might think that I was telling the story of an unpublished novel by Franz Kafka, but this happened last week. There is to be an appeal. I shall publicise the case as much as I can. I welcome the opportunity given by the Bill for people who might find themselves in such a situation to be saved the trauma and trial suffered by my constituent.

On that basis, if on no other, I welcome the Bill. This case prompts me to congratulate the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire on introducing a Bill, which will solve the problems from which my constituent is suffering at the hands of the Camberwell district health authority.

11.57 am
Mr. Austin Mitchell (Great Grimsby)

I echo the congratulations to the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood). This is a significant and important Bill, which may be a major advance in strengthening democracy. The House should congratulate the hon. Gentleman, first on winning the ballot—many hon. Members go for years without doing so—and on having chosen this as an advance that is beneficial, popular and achievable. The tone of the speeches today, every one of which has welcomed the Bill, although in some cases praising with faint damns, has shown that that is so. The whole weight of the argument has been in favour of the Bill.

I cannot conceive that the Government, or any other body, should want surreptitiously to quash the Bill at the last minute, because they have not dared to show opposition by putting the argument clearly here, and having it discussed openly. I repeat my congratulations to one who is my hon. Friend for this purpose. I am happy to be both a supporter and a sponsor.

People have a basic right to see information about them that is held on file. We have to face the fact that in this democracy, and with our increasingly complex bureaucracy, information is power. In many respects, it gives Governments power over people, which is why Governments want to be so secretive when they should be more open. Information and files give institutions and organisations power over people.

I want to redress the odds in favour of the people and against the institutions. Our purpose, certainly that of the Opposition, should be to empower the people, strengthen the odds in their favour and give them more control over their destinies, lives, work and housing and over the whole circumstances of their lives. We cannot give them that control unless we give them access to information.

Democracy is far more than just simply giving people the vote if they are willing to turn out every four or five years. Democracy is about giving people the power to make a nuisance of themselves, giving them control and power over their destinies because that is what they want. That is a tide that cannot be resisted. There is a growing inchoate feeling that I cannot express as articulately as the hon. Member for Oxford East (Mr. Morris), but people certainly want that power. They feel that they are not being consulted and, therefore, feel frustrated.

It is right that we should give people the benefit of control in every aspect of their lives. We should give them that power at work where, clearly, what is recorded about people on employment records has a bearing on their ability to get jobs. In education, a cluster of attitudes can settle about a pupil and can damn him throughout his career because records are transferred with the pupil from school to school or into secondary education. We know how teachers' attitudes are often conditioned not by the intellectual ability of a child, but by irrelevant factors such as gossip and hearsay and in some cases by prejudice, and all those things will follow the pupil. In housing the same thing can apply.

In the field of health it is especially important to redress the odds that are presently in favour of the medical profession and turn them in favour of the consumer. This is part of the general idea of giving people power. They have power to choose as consumers and they want that power in all aspects of their lives. We have a duty to give them that power and that applies especially in medical matters where there is a kind of awe of the medical profession that can shelter incompetence and inadequacy. The only way to get accountability in the Health Service and in the medical profession is by giving the consumer more power, by helping him to know what is going on. Information is that power.

The purpose of the Bill is absolutely right and by passing it we will advance democracy. The power in the Bill about the right to see information will be used more by the middle class than by the working class, if I may use the conventional stereotypes, one of which is the prickly middle class individualist. I do not see any great harm in that. My hon. Friend the Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Mr. Smith) was perfectly right in saying that access will be constrained by the fees required. That is a retrograde step because I would rather see the information provided free. However, that is a detail that we can attend to in Committee because we have to argue the principle today.

There is bound to be a trickling-down effect. David Stockman talked about trickle-down economics where the horse eats the hay and the birds get it from the manure. Power trickles down in exactly the same way, because when people reach a certain standard of living they want the power and the control associated with the freedom to decide their own destinies. Although prickly middle class individualists might be the first to use the power, everybody will have the right to use it and that will make institutions much more scrupulous about the records that they keep.

We are establishing the principle and power will trickle down in the way that we want it to trickle down. 1 am surprised that we should have to argue this principle. It is so obvious, right and self-evident that it is surprising we ar so belatedly debating it. The onus should always be on power to the people. The only real argument against the Bill is that of administrative convenience, the desire of the administrator, the bureaucrat and the people keeping the files not to be troubled. They have a desire for a quiet life and want to be able to put down prejudice, fact, misinformation or information without the nuisance of people coming in wanting to know what has been said about them.

The argument about the convenience of the administrator and the organisation is the only one that I have seen advanced against the Bill, and it is totally wrong because the onus should always be on power to the people. In that sense, for far too long we have had a diffident and a deferential democracy. We shall not have a real democracy until we confer that power.

Let me briefly put the case. The first and obvious case is that this legislation works well. It has been installed in more advanced democracies than ours with no painful consequences. It has the beneficial consequence of enhancing the power of the people. It has been installed in the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. The best example of all is Sweden, where it has worked well for years. Unless somebody in the Government, or anybody who wishes to criticise the Bill, tells us that the system has not worked well in those countries, we shall accept it.

People want this power. An opinion poll was conducted for the Campaign for Freedom of Information. A sample was taken of 1,900 people, which is a representative sample. People were asked what records they thought they should be able to see. Interestingly, on the issue of personal medical records held by general practitioners, 73 per cent. of the people asked thought that they should be able to see those. I support that. A total of 67 per cent. of the people asked wanted the right to see their children's school records. Sixty-four per cent. of the people asked would like to see any records kept on them by banks, building societies or financial institutions. I would like to see the records kept by Barclays bank in Otley Road, Shipley. On second thoughts, perhaps I would not. Of the people asked, 57 per cent. would like to see personal records kept by their employer, 55 per cent. would like to see social security records, and 54 per cent. would like to see Government records that do not have anything to do with national security. There is a discrimination there. Not many of the people asked wanted to see material relating to security — only 30 per cent. The public are discriminating. They clearly want this power.

The third point, which was well emphasised by the hon. Member for Oxford, East, is that undesirable practices flourish in the dark. The Bill is a means of getting greater efficiency by improving the quality of records. If people have access to the records, their quality must, ipso facto, improve. We have seen a series of examples of information retained on files that is inaccurate. For example, "parents are not married". That is an interesting example because the parents had been married for some years. I quote an example: Contacted Mrs. Smith, Health Visitor. Her impressions are that Mrs. Knight is immature, looking years younger than her husband and is always well made up, looking like a 'dolly bird'. One can see how these immediate suspicions are created. It goes on to say that she might be a member of the IRA. That kind of prejudice and misinformation will be impossible if people have the right of access to files. They will be able to correct that information.

As politicians, we all know how inaccurate information can get into clipping files and remain there for ever. Some of us are left festooned with the record of our own past follies around our necks. I will not give examples of mine, the clipping files will show them. But it stays with us for ever. That is wrong for ordinary people. Official records must be maintained accurately if people are to have the right to see them.

I was appalled to watch the "World in Action" programme on Monday night about the activities of the Economic League. Examples were given of people's employment careers being prejudiced by information kept by the Economic League and passed on the telephone to employers. I refer to information such as somebody being a member of the Communist party, or imputations of Left-wing associations — they might be members of the Grimsby Labour party. Imputations were made that Left-wing opinion meant unsuitability for employment. That was all there on the files which were passed over on the telephone. That was wrong. The Bill will not cover that kind of situation. It covers employment records held by the employer. If information is put in that file from the Economic League, or from any such agency, it will be covered by the Bill but the source of the misinformation will not. The files of the Economic League are clearly in need of radical pruning to make them accurate. That information should be covered by the Bill. We can argue in Committee about that and perhaps about extending the measures to cover trade associations. Light should be shed on that information because it prejudices people's employment chances. It is wrong for gosip, misinformation and prejudices to be recorded on files where it can affect careers. We want to stop that from happening. We should extend the measures to the type of files about which I am talking.

I understand that the Government are reluctant for the Bill's provisions to be extended to health although they are acceptable for education, housing and employment. It is important that health should be included and that people should have access to their health records. The Royal College of Nursing, the Royal College of Midwives and the Health Visitors Association have expressed support for the Bill. The Lancet supports it as well. Referring to the Bill, it stated: it is a development that should be welcomed rather than resisted by doctors". I support that view.

I could cite a number of examples of access, but I shall refer to only one — the interesting experiment at St. Thomas's hospital in London. For several years, obstetric patients—of whom I hope never to be one—have kept their own records. Professor Ronald Taylor, consultant obstetrician at St. Thomas's hospital, has commented: My patients are better informed than those who don't have their records". If patients have their reports in their possession, it involves taking a bit of time to explain, for instance, what a blood test report means. As Professor Taylor said: if you're happy to explain everything in the report and the records, patients will be responsive to you when you need to tell them something serious". That is an extremely telling point. Patients who have their records are better informed and have a greater interest in their case.

A London general practitioner whose patients are invited to look at their notes in the waiting room as they wait to see the doctor has said: One of the fears some doctors have is that people will read their notes and jump out of the windows and kill themselves because they are so terrified. It's absolutely the opposite of what happens. In reality it's tremendously reassuring to the vast majority of people. Patients will be reassured if they know that their doctor takes a serious attitude to their case and that serious attempts are being made to deal with it. The principle of allowing access to records is beneficial to the Health Service, to doctors and to patients.

I again avow my strong support for the Bill. All hon. Members who have spoken have favoured it. There is no need, therefore, for me to be more strenuous than I have been in putting the case. The House is dealing with the legislation far too late. We should have done this years ago. This is part of a longer process of spreading power to the people and weakening the powerful Executive. Information is central to that power. The Bill is essentially part of the rational process of growing up as a democracy.

12.13 pm
Mr. Jeremy Hanley (Richmond and Barnes)

I speak in support of the Bill and as a sponsor of it. I pay warm tribute to the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood), who has acted in a non-political way in seeking approval from people of all colours in the political spectrum. He realises that it is important to get general agreement on this private Member's initiative.

Today we have seen the House at its best. It is being non-political and is debating a social matter that requires reform, and Members on both sides of the House can make an urgent plea for reform. The Bill is, if anything, a small island in the middle of a sea of political troubles. I am sure that the House will welcome it, if only for that.

We have also heard—even from hon. Members who have opposed parts of the Bill—approval for the general intentions of the Bill. We have heard some interesting contributions. A great service was paid to a constituent by my hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich (Mr. Bowden). A contribution which will be long remembered by those who heard it was made by my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Norris). His erudition and his good humour make anyone who speaks after him rise in trepidation. There has not been a contribution for many weeks before or since that will rival his speech.

Some other most interesting contributions have been made. The hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) said that he hoped that he would never be an obstetric patient. I remind him that, at the beginning of his life, he was. If he was not, we should be told.

My hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Mr. Browne) made a contribution in general support of the Bill, but he made a specific plea that small businesses should not be hurt by bureaucracy and the cost of trying to adhere to the principles of the Bill. My hon. Friend, who is regrettably not present, will on reflection, realise that Conservative Members, and many Labour Members, would do nothing that would impose increased bureaucracy or cost upon small businesses. Small businesses are the lifeblood of this country. Two million small businesses, incorporated and unincorporated, provide employment, profit, taxation and VAT revenues and are, therefore, invaluable to us all. Anything that would decrease the possibility of those small businesses providing employment would be resisted firmly, if we genuinely believed that to be the case.

In a militant speech, the hon. Member for Liverpool, Broadgreen (Mr. Fields) pointed out certain problems that perhaps existed in society because of secrecy. I agree with him and with other hon. Members that the Bill is a positive step towards openness in other areas. I welcome the Bill wholeheartedly, together with my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Squire), who introduced his Local Government (Access to Information) Bill, now an Act, in February 1985.

During the passage of that legislation, which my hon. Friend so successfully and skilfully piloted through the House, we reminded him that 25 years before my hon. Friend's Bill an hon. Member had introduced a Bill on terms similar to those of the Bill of my hon. Friend. That Member was my right hon. Friend the Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher), the Prime Minister. She introduced the Public Bodies (Admission of the Press to Meetings) Bill as one of her first political acts. Therefore, I am certain that this Bill will find favour with my right hon. Friend. In view of what that Bill did for my right hon. Friend, one can only imagine what might happen in the year 2010 for my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch. I hope that I have not lost the sympathy of the House in saying that.

The Bill should be supported, as should any sensible attempt reasonably to remove the veil of secrecy in Government, local and national, where secrets are unnecessarily classified as such, and also because knowledge is power and secrets are the building blocks of that power. There is nothing wrong with building up knowledge. It is when it is built up on false premises, inaccuracies or downright lies that society as a whole, and particularly those who inherit the knowledge of those who have gone before, is damaged.

However, secrecy is often an abuse of power and tends to show evidence of a lack of self-confidence on the part of Governments and authorities which, paradoxically, find that secrecy reduces their standing in the eyes of those for whom they have responsibility sometimes to keep secrets. The same must be true for commercial and non-commercial organisations and companies. Strength can come from self-confidence in one's policies and information which openness of government and personal files help to produce. The Bill is a valuable but modest step towards the desirable openness that I hope will become more prevalent in other areas of our life.

In essence, the Bill allows people to discover whether certain types of records are held about them. I do not believe that people are innately curious and desperately trying to discover what is on file about them. Most people let life run its course and are not desperately trying to find out every piece of information held on them by a local authority, council administration office or commercial organisation.

I, like all Members of Parliament, must be the subject of many files. It is often said that only those with something to hide will want to search their file. However, I must admit that, while I have no curiosity about the contents of many of those files, I am curious when my personal safety is at stake or when those files have affected me or my family in a way which I believe to be unjust. In other words, if something happens to me and I believe that the reason for it is inaccurate information. I am worried. We all worry when we feel that something is unfair. It is not lies so much — one can counter those, strangely more robustly than, perhaps, misinformation. But we must react when our lives are affected by an injustice. particularly when our lives may be in danger. That is why I press the Government to consider including medical records in the Bill.

The Bill also intends to correct inaccuracies. That will mean that those who keep records will feel that they must be more accurate in preparing the files. They will also have to think twice about their choice of words. My hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, East, the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Smith) and others have given examples of words on file which are insensitive and by their nature exaggerate a particular person's condition. Therefore, more accurate record keeping will flow which must be to the benefit of those who keep records.

An example is shown by a brief sent to hon. Members. Yesterday it arrived in my hands and today in other hon. Members' hands. It was produced by the Building Societies Association. I do not know whether building societies will or will not be covered by the Bill, but what it has said in the brief must be mentioned. The association states: It is very important that people who have suffered injustice should be able to have it put right. However, the … Bill will not achieve this: it only provides a remedy for correcting inaccurate information. The real danger is caused not by bad information, but by bad decisions and a bad decision can be based on perfectly accurate information. The Bill provides no remedy for had decisions.

I submit that good and bad decisions may flow from correct information. However, one cannot obtain a good decision based on bad information except by pure luck. The matters covered by the Bill, such as health, are so important that luck should play no part whatever. The Bill provides an important safeguard regarding decisions made by anybody: they must be based on accurate information correctly recorded. Any inaccuracy should be corrected.

I hold the Building Societies Association in high regard, and I hope that it appreciates that my sadness over this brief is perhaps greater than that of other hon. Members. It states that the Bill will be of no direct benefit to people who have suffered injustice. That is absolutely wrong. The Bill will introduce an appeal procedure and incorrect decisions can be put right. Accuracy of information results from the right of an individual to consult his files.

In the brief the Building Societies Association states: There will shortly be a remedy against bad decisions by societies in the form of an ombudsman". I approve of the ombudsman system. The brief reminds us that banks already have such ombudsmen, but it goes on to state that, if the Bill becomes law, it will: hinder rather than help the work of the ombudsman. If accurate information is on a file, how on earth can that hinder the work of an ombudsman? An ombudsman is hindered by inaccuracies. The brief continues: It is wrong to apply the Bill to one group of businesses but not others. For example, both the National Home Loans Corporation and the Department of National Savings compete directly with societies and will not be subject to the Bill or to an ombudsman scheme. That may be true and, if so, it is a matter for the Committee to discuss. It is for the House to decide whether building societies will fall under the jurisdiction of the Bill. It is an over-reaction to say that the Bill is wrong because certain prvileges exist for others. The final part of the brief states: The anti-competitive nature of the Bill is particularly relevant because it will impose considerable administrative costs.

I am reminded of a certain organisation in London, Capital, that stated during the passage of the London Regional Transport Act 1984 that 27 tube stations would close as a direct result of the intended legislation. Since London Regional Transport came into being, an extra tube station has been opened and none has closed. I am not trying to make a party political point against those who opposed that Act, but exaggeration is part and parcel of Opposition tactics. The final result of legislation is nothing like the exaggerated claims made when the legislation was discussed.

There was a most interesting article in The Times by a former Member of the House, Matthew Parris, who gave a list of exaggerated claims made when certain legislation was opposed. In retrospect, those claims looked ridiculous.

Feeding on fears is part and parcel of opposition, whichever side of the political divide one is on. It may be the fear of the imminent dropping of a nuclear weapon or the imminent arrival of Russian troops on our doorstep. There are exaggerations on all sides.

The exaggerated opposition to this Bill is as ridiculous as those past exaggerations. Opponents believe that vast costs will flow from this legislation. Building societies have stated that 130 lists exist with about 30 million names on them. It gives the impression that hundreds of thousands of people will want to look at their building society files.

Today my building society has sent me my annual statement. It shows the amount outstanding, the amount that I have paid in the year, the insurance premium and the final balance. I cannot imagine that my building society file contains very much more information than that, apart from the times that I have written to it asking for a little longer to pay when times were tight, or for details about my house or surveys and alterations. I have no intention whatsoever of visiting the Abbey National Building Society and searching through my file and asking for a copy, even though I am certain that, with the excellent assistance available to the society, it would be able to provide a copy for me in a matter of minutes. I am certain that I speak for millions of people who trust somebody to carry out a job for them and to act upon certain information when I say that I do not intend to look at my file.

The only people who might want to see their files would be those whom the building societies reject. Their 30 million customers do not want to see their files. The few people who would want to see their files would be those whom the building societies reject because their backgrounds suggest that they would be a credit risk if money were advanced to them. The granting of a mortgage is a most important matter. Buying a house is perhaps the most expensive project that anyone undertakes, and the information upon which the building society's decision is based must be accurate. The Bill does not say that if something is true but inconvenient it should be hidden. It provides that if it is true but inconvenient it should be accurate and recorded and that individuals should be able to see the information that has been used against them.

This Bill is the right Bill at the right time. Unlike the hon. Member for Liverpool, Broadgreen (Mr. Fields) I do not believe that it is a failure to achieve three out of eight. Most of the trade union representatives whom I know would be thrilled that even three had been achieved. It is no measure of strength to say, "I have fought my corner and got nothing, but by God I fought it hard." It is far better to come away saying, "I fought my corner and look what I have achieved."

The Bill is fair to the individual. It redresses the balance against the individual versus large corporations, local government and security organisations. People will feel that the Bill advances their rights. Their right to correct things will have been promoted by a Parliament that so often in recent years has complicated their lives by more and more legislation. I am proud to be a sponsor of the Bill and I am grateful to its promotor for the generous way in which he has allowed members of my party and of the official Opposition to participate. It is a tribute to him that he has done so. I hope that the House will show its approval of the objectives of the Bill by moving it a very important stage forward today.

12.34 pm
Mr. Robin Corbett (Birmingham, Erdington)

I should like to join in the congratulations to the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood). I know exactly how he feels on this of all days in his parliamentary career, because I was lucky enough to draw a good place in the ballot and to put a private Member's Bill on the statute book, concerning the anonymity of rape victims. However, in those days I had help from the Home Office and a day of Government time in which to complete my Bill.

Those who support this Bill see no conflict between those who govern and those who are governed. It will be generally accepted that any such conflict would be dangerous to our democracy. Only those with things to hide, want to keep things hidden. As my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) has said, the Bill will help to develop and extend our democracy.

In terms of democracy, a stagnant society is one which runs the risk of losing that democracy. We approach the Bill against the fact that Britain is a citadel of secrecy. We have developed a national passion for secrecy and for making secret things that simply do not justify that status. In a truly free society, there should be no secret records about individuals, save on the genuine grounds of security or the prevention and detection of crime.

The Bill will encourage a better partnership between those whose job it is to make judgments about individuals, —often judgments that will follow those people for many years afterwards—and those who are being judged. As my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Smith) has said, that has nothing at all to do with paternalism, but with partnership. The process of the delivery of services such as housing, health and education or of welfare benefits entitlements, or medical records, will improve only when the professionals who are paid to make judgments involve those about whom they make judgments in the course of their work. It has been said that open files should make for better decisions and lead to better care for those who want to make use of those services.

The Bill should encourage records to be kept in a better form and in plainer English. That should encourage those making judgments to be more thoughtful about what they write and to take better care that the comments that they make can be justified, even though they still may be wrong.

A child at a primary school, for example, may have been judged as difficult or disobedient. Such a judgment is not much help to anybody. We really need to know the behaviour that has demonstrated that, and the reasons why it happened. In any event, children change rapidly during the first few years of life. If a young person, transferring from primary to secondary education, has such a judgment on his or her school record, he or she is bound to start off on the wrong foot with the new teachers. However, that comment could relate more to the standard of the teaching in the primary school, or to the particular teacher who made it, than to the young person concerned. Access to those records by parents and children can only help them to get a better understanding of what lies behind the behavioural problems as a first step in trying to overcome them together. I am sure that that happens in all properly run schools because it is an important part of the process.

If the case is made out, as I believe it to be, why do the Government oppose people seeing their medical records? No doubt the Minister will tell us why the Government will agree that people can see reports by social workers—although not by probation officers—but they cannot see their medical records. In medical records and social services documents, judgments and comments are likely to be made about an individual that are equally significant.

The Government give the impression of believing that when people seek medical treatment they walk into a doctor's waiting room, pliantly thumb through dog-eared copies of ancient magazines, go in to see the doctor and then sit in total silence while the doctor goes on a lengthy hunt to discover what is wrong. That simply does not happen. The best doctors invite and welcome the patient's view on what is wrong as part of the process of treatment. It is even stranger than that. From November, under the Data Protection Act, patients will be able to see medical records that are stored on a computer, but not records that are stored manually. It is like "Alice in Wonderland".

The Minister is likely to make much of the cost of the Bill, but I agree strongly with the hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Browne) that we should not pay too much attention to cost. Indeed, access to the areas set out in the schedule could be phased in to take account of costs. In any event, what price do we put on the extension of democracy? When is it manageable and when it is not? What amounts are we talking about? Even this Government, thank goodness, have not tried to put a cash limit on what we spend to ensure that Parliament works as effectively as possible on behalf of those who sent us here.

The hon. Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Norris) and my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby gave examples of the likely demand. Those who oppose the Bill may say that the demand will be so small that it is not worth bothering about. Indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby said that access is much more likely to be sought by what he described as prickly middle class individuals. That will go down well in Grimsby! Whatever is said about demand, it cannot be an argument for not making access available. If that were suggested, we might as well remove what is left of local government and county council elections, because substantially fewer than 100 per cent. of those entitled to vote take part in those elections. Perhaps I should not say that to this Minister, because he might be tempted to do just that. The point about local elections—the Government misjudged this grossly when they abolished the GLC—is that people can choose whether they vote. Similary, they can choose whether they want to see documents which contain personal information about them.

The hon. Member for Oxford, East mentioned the estimated demand for access in Australia and what happened in practice. But there is no doubt—there is MORI poll information on this—about the support which the Bill and other measures for freedom of information have attracted across all shades of public opinion. The poll showed that 73 in every 100 people believed that they should be able to see personal medical records: that 83 per cent. of the people with children aged under 15 say the same; that 64 per cent. want to be able to see bank and building society records; and 57 per cent. want to be able to see personnel records held by employers. Perhaps not surprisingly—here I disagree with my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby—as little as 55 per cent. want to see national insurance and social security records. I slightly disagree with my hon. Friend, with whom I share an aim, because that low support reflects the despair into which joblessness and deprivation pushes people. Those of us with constituents who have to live in rotting, crumbling, pigsty inner city areas will know that from what happens at advice bureaux and the balance of people who attend them.

Some will see the Bill as some kind of snoopers' charter which enables malicious people to peer into the personal affairs of others. It is no such thing. The Bill contains full protection against that happening. The only people who have anything to fear are those who want to keep information locked away in dark corners because it gives them a sense of importance and perhaps an illusion of power. Those who genuinely believe in the right of personal access have an instant remedy. They can volunteer to make records available on request. I am glad to learn, for example, that the Birmingham city council makes information available to its tenants. Dr. Anthony Bird, a Birmingham GP has been doing that for years for his patients and is surprised—although perhaps we are not—that none of his colleagues in the city do the same.

More than 120 of my right hon. and hon. Friends are supporters of the Campaign for Freedom of Information. The star among them is my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South and Finsbury. We welcome and support the Bill. We shall do everything that we can to get it on the statute book.

Unless I misjudge the Minister totally, I suspect that he will be lukewarm, half-hearted and slightly begrudging about the Bill. I hope that that will not be so, but I say that because I understand that he was one of that gang of villains who helped to mug the Bill on its way to the House in the last few days.

I want to make it clear that the Bill, if needs be, will be replaced by a full-hearted commitment to access by an incoming Labour Government. We shall use powers in the Bill to add further classes of records which can be seen and corrected in the context of our allied pledge to introduce a freedom of information Bill. I say openly that the last Labour Government had an opportunity to do this and did not. The next Labour Government will. That is a firm pledge. I hope that the House will give an unopposed Second Reading to the Bill.

12.48 pm
Mr. Lewis Stevens (Nuneaton)

I add my congratulations to the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood) on introducing the Bill and to those who support him. The Bill is an important step in bringing compatibility between the individual and bureaucracy. That compatability in society as it develops is critical.

I also congratulate the hon. Member on producing a Bill which is almost understandable. I am a member of the legal profession, and I find that a remarkable achievement. The Bill covers a wide and complex set of issues in its details, but it is understandable. It is a pity that in Committee where we shall examine the "ifs" and "buts" we might spoil a well-written and understandable Bill. It is the first Bill that I have come across in this Parliament that has had more than a single page or so that has been capable of relatively easy understanding inside and outside the House. That is an important factor.

The claims of the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Corbett) take little away from the main purpose and what was described earlier as the bonhomie between both sides of the House. It is very easy to claim freedom of information. It is a good piece of jargon that goes down well with almost anybody, no matter what their political persuasion. What we are trying to do and what the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire set out to do and has, to quite a degree achieved, is a practical working document that will give access to files that will help people, whether in education, medicine or whatever. People will be able to use that to their advantage and improve their understanding of where they stand in a particular area.

I have some fears, not particularly about the Bill but about the application of some aspects. As the Data Protection Act 1984 has done for computers, this Bill would bring about an automatic benefit in the accuracy of records kept. The fact that they can be scrutinised means that they will be made into a format that will tend to be more accurate. I do not think that the figures quoted earlier are surprising at all. If one checks records in companies, whether on production items or anything else, it is not surprising to find substantial numbers of inaccuracies. The Bill certainly would have the effect of improving that. In areas such as medical records that is critical. Medical records should be much more accurate than some are at present.

Having obtained, almost certainly, a belief that we would improve the standard of records, I think that we would come across something called costs, which has been dismissed for various reasons. One can perhaps dismiss to some extent the cost of having to show records to people because there may be a fairly low demand. However, what cannot be dismissed, either in terms of companies or Government services, is the need to look at how records are kept, the type of records that are there, how they will have to be modified and how systems will have to be modified to make those records understandable and what it is reasonable to put out.

There is also a little bit of a question about the definitions that may be involved. Can records that are subject to disclosure be satisfactorily defined so that such things as informal notes may or may not be included? That is one of the difficulties that may have to be looked at in Committee.

If the Bill is applied to the personnel records of employers in the industrial sector, which are those that will be involved, many will certainly have to set up systems satisfactory to them and that meet the demands of the Bill. That will almost certainly mean rejigging systems. That has come about reasonably easily with computers because with the discipline of computers we have not yet started to write footnotes on the computer. That will come as computers become more sophisticated and that will waste a lot of computer space as opposed to the amount of paper that we waste now. It will mean looking at systems, and within the public sector that could be expensive.

There is also the question of how records will be kept in the future. If one keeps records, what does one have to keep? Would one have to keep a job application? The application comes in, one gets references and makes comments but there are time factors about when people can ask for information. What would one keep? If one does not want people to look at things, it is easy to drop them in the receptacle at the side of the desk so that they are no longer part of the record. However, it does not mean that that record cannot be simplified to have bold and simple statements that are just as damning but which do not have to be justifed in the same way.

What is the obligation to keep records and how should they be kept? What records should Government Departments and local government departments keep? In many instances there is no obligation to keep certain types of record. The Bill may raise the issue of what records companies, the Government and local government should keep and the manner in which they should keep them. This consideration does not detract from my view that the Bill is a worthwhile measure to introduce.

My hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Mr. Browne) talked about the burden that could be faced by small businesses. These businesses may feel it necessary to alter their system of record-keeping so that they can deal with the possibility of individuals wishing to read the documents that have been filed and retained by the personnel department. The need to do so may be an imagined one but it will be present. We should not place an extra burden upon small businesses when introducing new legislation.

A great deal of information is currently placed on computer files, which do not take up much space. In many Government Departments, however, there are huge numbers of files and archive documents. The Bill may encourage the keeping of necessary records only, and that will lead to a great deal of saved space and reduced costs. The Bill may also encourage less to be written, with the result that only specific information will find its way into records and files.

At what stage does a child take over from the parent when it comes to access to information? There are some children who would prefer their parents not to see any school records. How confidential are records and references in the education sector and outside it? The Bill may discourage the giving of references or encourage those who write them to make them as accurate as possible. It may make them step back from what they would otherwise supply. That might have a bearing on the references that head teachers supply to employers when children leave school.

I am surprised that there appears to be some reluctance to make medical records generally available to the individual. I accept that in some instances it may be difficult for an individual to accept some of the information that is recorded about him, but the Bill's provisions are designed to try to cover some of the difficulties. Surely medical records should be 99.9 per cent. statements of fact and not of opinion. Subjective assessments appear more frequently in personnel records and these could cause misunderstandings.

The Data Protection Act 1984 has encouraged organisations and local government to release information to individuals in the right circumstances. This movement is encouraging the opening up of information. The Bill is undoubtedly a major step forward, and I welcome it.

There will be problems with applications. Perhaps the Committee can look at this in detail to see what balance will be acceptable and how to get over to the public exactly what the information is there for, and how it is trying to help people. The balance that the hon. Gentleman has tried to draw in the Bill is the one that we need to allow the information to be given in a practical way that can be coped with by employers and local and central Government, with the protection for the parties involved, both individual and professional. Overall, I welcome the Bill and again congratulate the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire.

1 pm

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

It may be for the convenience of the House if I intervene to explain the Government's position. I have much pleasure in adding my congratulations to those that have already been given to the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood) on obtaining a high place in the ballot and having the common sense to introduce such an important measure. I pay tribute to his pertinacity in his support of the objective of individual access to personal records. For some time, he has been a leading supporter in the campaign for a measure such as this, and I recall that, just over a year ago, he introduced a Bill similar to that which we are discussing today. Finally, I congratulate him on the attractive and lucid way in which he opened the debate.

Many of the issues we are discussing are familiar to me, mainly because I took the Data Protection Act through the House not once but one and a half times. The dissolution of Parliament in 1983 rudely interrupted our deliberations, and after the general election we started all over again. On that second occasion, a newly elected Member of Parliament was serving on the Committee. We soon realised that he was in a unique position because he, among all of us on both sides of the Committee, knew what he was talking about. I am referring to my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Norris). That was probably the first Standing Committee on which he served, and it was obvious that he was the sort of person who did not speak without authority, because he did not speak unless he had studied the subject. The hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire has been lucky to have such an ally in his endeavours.

I do not have much to quarrel with in the speech of the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Corbett), who spoke on behalf of the Opposition. However, perhaps he was a little ungracious in not mentioning the Data Protection Act, because both the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire and my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, East spoke about the way in which the Data Protection Act had blazed the trail. It is a bit rich for an Opposition Front Bench spokesman to speak as though the Government have done nothing when the Labour Government did nothing about access to personal documents. That is the only political sentence that I shall utter, because the debate has been all sweetness and light.

During the debates on the Data Protection Act, I felt that there was a special case for legislation on computer records, and it was more than the need to comply with the European convention on data protection to safeguard the interests of business and jobs. We recognised the public perception that computers pose a special threat to privacy because of the ease with which information held on computer can be extracted, transferred, disclosed, processed and handed on to other people. It cannot be denied that the precedent of access to personal information has been well and truly established and the important question that we have to address is whether now is an apropriate time to extend that access to a particular range of manual records and whether that should be achieved by voluntary or statutory means.

I have had discussions with the sponsors of the Bill and I am grateful to them for the helpful way in which they have approached this matter. I do not think that they would agree with the hon. Member for Erdington that I set out to mug the Bill. I made it clear at an early stage that the Bill was not acceptable in its present form. I also said that it might be possible to amend it to produce a modest and workable measure acceptable to the Government, and that that at least would be a step down the road that the sponsors want to travel.

In the time available I have not been able to work out detailed proposals. Trying to do that has proved a complicated exercise, not least because I have to lead for the Government in this matter and the interest of the Home Office is far less than, for example, the interest of my hon. Friend the Minister for Health who is sitting behind me.

I am sure that all hon. Members will be tolerant towards me, because I have obviously had to gather together the strands of the argument by listening to all that has been said. Obviously, it is a complicated exercise to try to work out detailed proposals which it might be possible to put to the sponsors of the Bill. However, it is obvious to the sponsors and they knew before today, that the Government do not think it right to oppose this Bill on Second reading.

We think that the Bill ought to have a fair run in Committee and that we ought to try to produce something that is acceptable to the sponsors and to the Government—not least because we have already recognised the value of access in certain fields by making special provision for it. I am thinking especially of the commitment that the Government have already given to make regulations about the maintenance and disclosure of records kept in schools. I know the sponsors recognise that our efforts to reach agreement with them may not succeed. I also know that there will be no recriminations if that happens, but we shall try our best to reach agreement.

One must accept that if right of access were to be granted to the whole range of records held in Whitehall the result in terms of increased bureaucracy would be considerable. My hon. Friend the Member for Richmond and Barnes (Mr. Hanley), who is not in the Chamber at the moment, was right when he said that estimates of the work involved in granting access ought to be treated with great caution, because very often such estimates come from those who in the first place have no sympathy with a measure of this sort. One looks at all the estimates that are given with caution.

I am told that if this Bill covered the whole of Whitehall, new systems and procedures would need to be established. That point was made by my hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton (Mr. Stevens). It has been estimated that a very large number of registry staff would be needed to carry out the initial work of adjusting the existing record systems and new systems would have to be set up. That has already been mentioned in the debate.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett

Does the Minister accept that education authorities which pushed through this right of access found when they examined their record keeping practice in order to make it available, that they achieved savings through having much more efficient records? Taking that into account, should the Government not offset any cost involved in putting in new systems—given the savings to which those more efficient systems will give rise?

Mr. Waddington

That is true. The hon. Gentleman has picked on one of the areas where something is happening already. That is happening because, first of all, it is considered right to do so, and also because it is considered practical and possible to do so within the resources available. However, it does not alter the argument that I am deploying now that if one were to extend this sort of right throughout the whole of Whitehall it would be absurd to say that the amount of resources involved would not be sufficient to be worth bothering about.

To illustrate the point further, the number of documents involved would be mind-boggling. There are 75 million social security records, most of which are still in manual files, and some of which are extremely bulky. In the Home Office there are 3.75 million personal files in the immigration and nationality department, many of which, I know to my cost, are well over 1ft deep. We can imagine the sheer effort and manhours in picking up the file of one particular person and extracting from a file over a foot deep the personal information which we would be required to deliver to the person under the requirements of the Bill. Do not let us exaggerate it, but neither can I accept the suggestion that the resource implications are not worth bothering about and that no expense would be involved.

Mr. Cash

I agree with my right hon. and learned Friend, but is he concerned about the order-making power, which would modify the schedule by adding further classifications to it? Try as I might—it may be that I am partially blind this morning — I cannot find any reference to the manner in which a statutory instrument would be brought in to deal with this question. At the minimum, were there to be such an extension, one would expect it to be subject to affirmative resolution.

Mr. Waddington

I intended to deal with that matter later, but I shall tell my hon. Friend now that I cannot envisage the Government agreeing with the sponsors that a Bill of this kind should be on the statute book with an order-making power. We have to decide what categories of information it is proper to put in the Bill.

There has been some comment this morning on the rate of access requests. We have a lot of information about the position in other countries, but I am told that most of that relates to information which is on a computer file. There is little information available as to the rate of access to manual files. In so far as there is information about the extent to which the right of access is used, I am told that after a first flurry of excitement it settles down to anything between 0.1 per cent. and 1 per cent.

The argument advanced by the sponsors tha few would avail themselves of the right to access, in a sense, cuts both ways. If one is considering the resource implications one has to ask whether, in a particular category of files, the expense of setting up the system would be justified, bearing in mind the unlikelihood that few people will avail themselves of the right of access. I am not terribly impressed by that argument about the possible low rate of access.

The main point is that many manual files are far more detailed and complex, and contain more by way of comment and opinion than do computerised files. Computer files tend to be far more factual and innocuous. When there is a requirement for information on a manual file, more time, effort and expense will be involved in extracting the personal information.

Mr. Norris

Although that may be true now, my right hon. and learned Friend will understand if he talks to representative companies such as IBM, with which I have had the useful benefit of discussions, that those companies have already moved to an almost completely paperless environment in which the very sensitive information of which he speaks is held on computer. Clearly, where large companies such as that lead many others will follow.

Mr. Waddington

Again, my hon. Friend's argument cuts both ways. If there is going to be a swift trend towards computerisation, this problem will be solved and the Bill, however worthy it may be, will be outdated before it even comes into effect.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett

The right hon. and learned Gentleman takes us back to the argument about the data protection legislation discouraging people from moving on because it gave the right to prevent anyone from looking at information, provided that it was manually held, but allowed that information to be seen once it was put on computer. If there were uniformity, we would not be slowing any progress towards mechanisation and information retrieval.

Mr. Waddington

As for the economic advantages of computerisation, I do not think that there are large numbers of people who say, "It is clearly to the financial advantage of our company to computerise, but we shall not do so in case at some time someone asks us to give him access to our computer files." That is pretty fanciful.

Some hon. Members have commented on charging. There is a provision in the Bill for charging those who seek access, but one big question is whether any charge remotely acceptable to the public would meet the costs involved. We must bear in mind that, if costs were involved, even after charging—as some of us are pretty sure they would be—we would be spending resources which could otherwise go on valuable social causes such as, in the case of the NHS, better patient care. Choices are involved. One cannot ignore costs. I certainly cannot agree with the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Smith) about charging.

There is a power to charge in the Data Protection Act 1984. A charge will be levied from the time the right of access comes into force on 11 November. It would have been anomalous if the Bill had been printed without the power to charge provision in view of the terms of the Data Protection Act. As to the private sector, we would in one and the same breath be telling firms that we were determined to lift burdens from them and inflicting new ones, even if they were not comparatively heavy. That point was made by my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Mr. Browne).

I do not believe that any hon. Member would be surprised at the concern expressed by small businesses. My hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, East gave a colourful example of a person being denied employment, but I do not think that he would suggest for one moment that that was typical. The Bill's sponsors recognise, I think, that if the Bill as any hope of making progress, it is right that we should concentrate our efforts on seeing what we can do in the public sector. To some people, this might sound negative, but I do not mean it to be. The fact is that access to manual files is already being granted within the public sector. That is perhaps an argument not for doing nothing more, but for proceeding slowly, learning from the experience of access being granted voluntarily and also from the experience of access under the Data Protection Act which will not come into force until 11 November this year.

I said experience of access being granted voluntarily. That may be something of a partial answer to the point made by the hon. Member for Erdington about medical records. The medical profession has indicated its willingnes to negotiate more formal access to medical records for patients. It is clear that support for access within the profession is growing. Therefore, things are already happening in the way of statutory and voluntary provision and in the way of persuasion being excercised in particular areas, and movement occurring as a result.

One idea that was canvassed with the sponsors was to establish firmly in a statute the right to access to personal information in manual files by tackling those areas where things are already happening and where it is already accepted that access schemes are practicable.

Since the issue of the 1983 circular under the Local Authority Social Services Act 1970, it is now common practice in many social security authorities for people receiving personal social services to be able to discover what is said about them in social service records.

During the passage of the Housing and Building Control Act 1984, my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton (Sir G. Young), the then Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, said that he accepted the principle of access to records by public sector tenants but that he thought that the non-statutory guidelines approach would be better than a legislative one. I gather that, since then, there have been consultations with interested parties.

As I have said, in education the Government have already given a commitment to make regulations on the maintenance and disclosure of records kept in schools. It is against that background that we have explored in detail the question of whether statutory access could be provided within the framework of the Bill in those specific areas. At present, our view is that even that raises serious problems that we may have the greatest difficulty in surmounting. One of the principal difficulties—this has not yet been mentioned this morning—is in enforcement. The Bill provides for access to the courts. If one goes to someone who, under the Act is required to grant one access and he refuses to do so, one must go to the county court or the High Court, start an action and one hopes that the court will give an order entitling one to the access that was first sought.

I am not sure that it is right to impose new burdens on the courts. That is an expensive way to obtain a remedy from the citizen's point of view. Yet the possible alternatives do not seem attractive, either. Some sort of equivalent to the Data Protection Registrar would be an expensive luxury.

Therefore, it would be better to proceed rather differently. We should examine the possibility of placing on local authorities a duty to devise schemes for access to records, and then rely upon the details to be set out in regulations. That might be a better way of getting around the problems involved in trying to bring into private legislation in the limited time available the sort of qualifications that would almost certainly be necessary to enable a general right of access to be attained. For instance, special arrangements would be necessary for information which it might be to the detriment of its subject to disclose.

My hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, East knows the hours that we spent in Committee on clause 29(2) of the Data Protection Bill and the effort that has since gone into the preparation of regulations to meet the requirements of that section. We could do it that way. Then there may be a legal requirement to report on the development of these schemes to ensure that adequate progress is being made. Those are some of the ideas on which we are working at present. I hope that in due course we may be able to present them to the sponsors for consideration.

On the assumption that these plans will bear fruit, and because the Government do not oppose the principle of access to personal records, I am not advising hon. Members to oppose the Second Reading. However, the House will realise, as the sponsors have throughout, that we cannot accept a Bill of the size and range of the present one and that something along the lines that I have indicated is as far as we shall be prepared to go.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett

Will the Minister give the House an idea of the timescale for the Government's proposals? When will they reach Committee stage, when we can make reasonable progress on them? I understand that at present one or two Government Committees are vacant. If the Government introduced the proposals, we could make rapid progress.

Mr. Waddington

I am not responsible for ordering these matters, but I have been told firmly by those whose duty it is that we must not let grass grow under our feet. We must get cracking in the next week or two. We certainly will and I will not waste any time.

If we can reach agreement with the sponsors on a limited scheme, the Government will be happy to support the appropriate amendments to the Bill in Committee, so let us see how we get on.

1.26 pm
Mr. Richard Page (Hertfordshire, South-West)

First, I wish to make it absolutely clear that I support the Bill. I would not want any queries that I may raise to suggest that I oppose it. I would be the first to confess that I cannot match the quiet determination of the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood), nor the roaring enthusiasm of my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Norris).

When the measure was ably presented earlier, the hon. Gentleman described it as a simple measure. When any hon. Member says that, alarm bells start to ring immediately in my mind because I have never found anything in politics to be simple. There will be a wide gap between the theory and the practice. I seriously wonder about the take-up that will occur on this measure and whether we are creating a sledge hammer to crack a nut. Before anybody leaps up and starts to berate me, I assure the House that I fully accept the importance of the measure, especially if one happens to be the nut in an investigation or in need of help.

I would have liked the dust from the Data Protection Act 1984 to have settled first. I should have liked that Act to have had a year or so in service, to see how it worked and then to introduce this measure, which obviously buttresses the Act. I also fully accept that if one is lucky enough in the ballot for Private Members' Bills, one does not have the luxury of putting a Bill on the shelf for a couple of years. One must seize the opportunity whenever it comes. Nevertheless, the timing of this is not quite right.

The Government have moved a considerable distance in producing more access to information. It is clear from the Bill why the Government in the Data Protection Act drew the line under electronic access to files. I cannot speak for other hon. Members, but when we discussed the Data Protection Bill, it was not large companies who came to me and said, "We are worried about this and we do not know how that will work", but dedicated church workers who had managed to put all the parishioners on their parish council computer to help with the distribution of the parish magazine. They wondered whether it was necessary to have their names recorded on the register. The Bill is a logical extension of the Data Protection Act 1984 and should be welcomed.

I was glad that my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister of State delicately chided the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Corbett) when he launched into the Labour party's present political thinking regarding secrecy. Over the last few years the Government have added an impressive amount to the list of the rights of access of individuals. Those opportunities were available between 1974–79 but were not taken up. The Tory Government introduced the Data Protection Act—a huge measure of great value regarding the rights of the individual. We also introduced Local Government (Access to Information) Act 1985 and that gave access to documents relating to local authority meetings. In 1983 a circular was issued regarding social work records. That circular resulted from measures contained in the Local Authority Social Services Act 1970, which provided that personal information be made available on request.

There is also widespread disclosure, on a voluntary basis, of probation records and I understand that a code of practice on clients' access will be issued early in 1988. Other measures contained in the Criminal Justice Act 1982 have helped some individuals to obtain the right of advance information. That is of particular relevance in the prosecution of cases. Unemployment benefit records are immediately available under the Data Protection Act. I have outlined just some of the measures that the Government have introduced and the cry of secrecy does not stand up. The Government have already done a great deal to give individuals greater access to files on their activities.

I appreciate that the Bill has drawn together many of those measures, but my hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton (Mr. Stevens) did raise other matters of concern and, to some extent, I echo his concern. Those specific matters should be discussed in Committee, where we shall have the chance to define them.

I question the capacity of some bodies that hold records to deal with the greater volume of applications. The bureaucratic delays that are experienced regarding correspondence with council housing departments or social services does not inspire confidence that they will be able to produce those records within the time scales set out in clause 4. However, I accept that the keeping of more accurate records may help speed up the process.

We must also consider the grounds on which a record holder may deny access, especially if the information affects the privacy of another identifiable individual or would reveal his identity. There is considerable latitude within the Bill. There is no clear line drawn between the professional comments of an employee or an agent and the rights of that employee or agent as an individual. That should be put right in Committee.

Disputes are bound to arise over what is relevant to the purpose of compiling a record. That is contained in clause 9. Is there to be a strict definition of the word "relevant", or will the definition be broader than that? I hope that in Committee that word will be closely defined so that people know exactly where they stand.

I was delighted that the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire said that this is not intended to be a retrospective Bill. However, I understand that the hon. Member for Liverpool, Broadgreen (Mr. Fields) would like it to be retrospective.

Mr. Waddington

Does one not have to use the word "retrospective" with a certain amount of caution? There is an element of retrospective legislation in clause 3(2). It says: The Act applies to records of the classes listed in the Schedule to this Act compiled prior to the date of the commencement of this Act which are referred to in documents that come into existence after the commencement of the Act.

Mr. Page

I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for touching on a point to which I was about to refer. As drafted, the Bill is extremely simple, but we are puzzled about some matters which will no doubt be dealt with in Committee. For example, on Wednesday there was a headline in The Guardian that read:

Information Bill blunted to win Government nod. The Independent carried a headline that read:

Personal records reform on course. Those two headlines are explained in a little more detail underneath, but I am puzzled about the intended scope of the Bill. My right hon. and learned Friend's reference to retrospection conflicts slightly with what the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire said when he moved the Second Reading of the Bill.

I see no reason why doctors' files should not be added to the list of records in the Bill. I made a few facetious remarks about doctors' handwriting and about nobody being able to read it. However, if such information is already stored electronically under the Data Protection Act 1984 I see no reason why handwritten records should not be included.

My hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Mr. Browne) spoke vehemently about the effect that the Bill could have on small businesses, but the burden will be very small. The Government have an impressive record of trying to reduce the burdens on small businesses. There are certain exemptions for companies that employ five or fewer than five people under the Employment Act 1982. Perhaps a similar exemption could be made for small businesses in this Bill.

My last point is that there seems to be a trend towards the negative file. We read in a tile what is not there rather than what is there. If one applies to a bank for a reference, it issues a piece of paper that says that the person concerned is good enough for the sum quoted. However, if a person is not good enough for a reference, the hank does not provide a negative; it just does not reply. There will be a great deal of skill in reading the files that will presently he constructed.

In drawing my remarks to a close—I know that one or two of my hon. Friends would like to speak on this important matter—I take up the point that my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister made about cost. Some of the estimates that have been put forward are frightening in their quantity and size, for example, the number of civil servants that might be involved and the millions that might be employed in implementing what is, basically, a simple measure. I appreciate that democracy usually does not come cheap and that there is a principle here that must be maintained. Nevertheless, a degree of wisdom and common sense should be applied in putting this Bill on to the statute book. I support the Bill and wish it a fair wind in Committee but wonder how much it will be used.

1.41 pm
Mr. Robin Squire (Hornchurch)

I begin, as many hon. Members have begun, by congratulating the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood) on his selection of subject and the way in which he moved the Second Reading of his Bill. I have sat through many, but not all, of the speeches made today, and I thought that he spoke in a good and sound way. He knows that, in saying that, my comments are tinged with some jealousy. Having had the good fortune a couple of years ago to carry through an access to information measure, with the permission of the House, I envy his fortune today. In the most unsurprising statement that I shall make, I wish his Bill all possible good speed on to the statute book, where it is much needed.

In fairness, I should congratulate my hon. Friend for Oxford, East (Mr. Norris). whose presence, along with mine, I have come to expect on the occasion of all such measures. I know that he has been a sound supporter of and assistant to the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire in drawing up and discussing the Bill with various authorities. My hon. Friend deserves the appropriate credit for that.

The speeches that I have heard seem to fall into two broad categories—that sounds a familiar statement. Those of us who are clear and unambiguous supporters reiterate, perhaps boringly, the Bill's various advantages with little contradiction. However, some reservations have also been uttered—not all from Conservative Members—about the dire effects that the measure may have. I reassure the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire that there is a sense of déjà vu about this Bill for those of us who took through the Local Government (Access to Information) Act 1985. Most of the comments made today have been variations of the comments made then. We were told that chaos would strike local authorities throughout the country, that it would be too expensive and that, in any case, nobody would want to look at or bother about that information. Surprise, surprise, there has been no chaos, and, as far as I can ascertain from my contacts, the cost has been minimal, if indeed measurable. Some people have asked for access to information, but many have not.:I am sure that hon. Members on both sides of the House would not support the contention that, because only a minority of people seek to take advantage of the law, it is unnecessary. The measure provides the opportunity, but no one is forced to look at his records. However, if he wishes to see them, who is to deny him that opportunity?

For reasons of time, I shall summarise the main reasons why I support the Bill, some of which have been clearly put already. The first is the obvious one of consistency with the Data Protection Act 1984. We shall find ourselves in a strange position if we do not incorporate manual records into the legislation. I shall say a little more later about medical records, but I put a marker down at this stage. It is manifest nonsense that, from November of this year, organisations will be able and required to make available the records that they hold on computer to those who ask for them, if those records are about themselves, but to deny those people identical information simply because it is in manuscript form. It is impossible to justify.

My second reason for supporting the Bill is that it follows smoothly on from other freedom of information Acts. I know that we do not have the big one yet, but we have several others which cover local authorities and community health councils. An individual's access to his files must rank high in any league table of important freedom of information measures, and I welcome the Bill as coming fully and smoothly in line with that progression.

Like those other measures, the Bill challenges the presumption that, when someone asks for information, lie must be asked, "Why do you want it?" We should not be in that position. The reply should be, "Here it is. We have collected it at public expense on your behalf, and there is no reason why you should not have the information." Of course, it is common ground that he should not be given the information if it breaches national security or other important exceptions.

Britain lags visibly behind countries with which we are naturally compared. I shall not repeat the list. Of course, the fact that other countries do it does not mean that we should do it, but when we examine how Canada is governed—its legislature and system of government are similar to those in Britain—we see that it has introduced such legislation without any of the major problems which opponents of freedom of information suggest will arise.

It is worth repeating the points made about security. It is in the interests of the subject and of local authorities administering housing files or doctors administering medical records that the information be accurate. If it is not, the solutions recommended may not be appropriate.

The Bill, which has been in preparation for 18 months to two years, has been honed in the light of comments received and reflects a wide range of opinion. The letters received by hon. Members urging support for the Bill bear witness to its acceptability.

The objections to the Bill are not terribly weighty and need not delay us long. Some people say that it would overload local authorities. In London alone, four authorities already provide full access to the files of housing tenants, and they seem to have had no major problems. Haringey quotes an average of two cases a week. That is not a borough with which I naturally identify on matters that could be remotely described as party political, but on this non-political issue Haringey is telling the truth. At two cases a week, it is scarcely being overloaded.

I shall devote the remainder of my speech to medical records. I regret that I was unable to hear the speech of my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister. I shall read his comments carefully, although I believe from the inspired leaks that we occasionally have, even without freedom of information, that on medical records his comments were negative. I regret that. In many respects, medical records are the most obvious example of records which people will want to see. What right do we and doctors, sheltering under the legislation, have to deny people details of their lives, illnesses and ailments? However, I know that if I wished to see my records—I am not sure that I would—I would resent any suggestion that some other authority had more right than me to know about my life. One thinks of the immortal title of the famous play, "Whose life is it anyway?" If a person is ill, he may wish to see information. If he does not want to know, he will not be affected by the Bill because he will not ask. If someone wants the information, who has the right to deny access to it? I do not believe that anyone should be able to do that.

Various medical bodies, including the Royal College of Nursing, the Royal College of Midwives, the Health Visitors Association and 130 other organisations, support access to medical files. Safeguards are built into the Bill to preserve the position of the patient. The doctor might believe that a patient would be unduly distressed or react adversely to certain information. Under the Bill the doctor can insist on being present when the record is read so that he can explain and counsel. That will allow a crisis to pass.

The BMA is divided on the issue, not so much because it is concerned about patients being badly upset, but because the doctor might be upset by being with the patient and having to explain entries on the record. I understand that fear, but it is not a strong enough reason to deny access. The patient, or the customer, comes first. Medical records are maintained not for the convenience of doctors, but for the treatment of the patient. We should remember that.

The other serious issue concerns the accuracy of files. In terms of medical records, it is not a case of somebody being denied credit, which is serious enough, or of people throughout their lives carrying an inaccurate school record. We are talking about people possibly being prescribed drugs which are positively dangerous because their prescription is based on inadequate or inaccurate records. A doctor was reported in the journal of the Royal College of General Practitioners to have done a check on records to discover a 27 per cent. diagnostic error rate. That is so frightening that I hope and believe that hon. Members on both sides of the House will appreciate why medical records should be included in the measure.

I reiterate my full support for the Bill. If it reaches the statute book—I hope that it does so in its present form —it will be a small but important step towards our society being much more open.

1.54 pm
Mr. William Cash (Stafford)

I welcome aspects of the Bill. I accept that it could perform an extremely useful purpose. I am concerned about the thin end of the wedge aspect. I endorse all that the Minister said about the legislation becoming greatly enlarged by the use of ministerial orders. I go further and say that the Bill has in it an order-making power in a Henry VIII-type clause, which enables the measure to be altered by order without providing for a statutory instrument, let alone one that is subject to the affirmative procedure. That is such an obvious and extraordinary omission that it cannot have been done deliberately. If it were deliberate I should be extremely surprised. Therefore, I endorse what the Minister had to say. After the Bill has been through Committee it should be much more precise and any future extension of activity in this area would need to be constrained by an Act of Parliament and not by an order.

I see that the Minister of State, Department of Education and Science has taken her place on the Front Bench. I am particularly glad to see her, because I tried to telephone her earlier, not directly, but her Private Office, because I have an interesting case in my constituency. I wrote to her, admittedly with short notice so I am not criticising her for not replying, and asked whether I could have some further information by the time I meet my constituent. It is a ticklish problem. Interestingly enough, not only am I seeking information from the Minister but it is a question of the educational records of a constituent that is causing me a good deal of concern.

A report has been prepared in a school relating to a child in my constituency in which, as I am informed, he was described as "dangerous" by certain people. I am deliberately not going into detail, but I use this as an illustration of the case. It was apparently also the case that he had been punished and regarded as impossible and disruptive by certain teachers.

All that arose in the context of a report and I am checking on the facts to see whether that report is accurate. The important point that lies behind that is that I have discovered from further information that the child is dyslexic. There is an important problem that can arise when there are questions relating to access to personal files, which can in themselves throw up an enormous amount of confusion and can lead to a child or person being misrepresented in some way. That could easily arise in the context of AIDS.

There are a whole host of issues that make me extremely concerned that we should tread warily and carefully in extending the right of personal access to files. I appreciate that the Bill talks about personal access by the individual concerned and I have great hopes that the provisions, as and when they are enacted, will perform a useful task, not least because I have the same name as my son. I always worry about whose bank statement I am opening and, as he has pointed out on several occasions, there are letters that he might receive from some of his girl friends that I am sure he would not want me to look at. Although that is not strictly a manual file, the principle I am discussing is important. For example, in America they have Henry Heinz I, II and III. Once those are in the filing system it will be difficult to distinguish between people if there are mistakes in the compilation of the filing system or, in the case of the Data Protection Act 1984, with the computer itself.

I was given an example at a conference recently—I accept the fact that in the case of this Bill there is an exemption for cases where crime and criminal matters are involved—where a journalist who had reported on a terrorist case ended up by being described as the terrorist. That caused him immense concern, not least because he was being shadowed all over the place. He was apparently being harassed on the grounds that he was the terrorist. In the whole business of data protection and in relation to manual files we must be extremely careful.

There is a good case for clarification and I am sure that our consideration of the Bill in Committee will lead to elucidation of many of the problems that could arise.

There is a bag of tricks employed by Government departments in America, which includes the charging of fees without justification, refusing to act on request until money is paid for information that might be useless or that is never released, ignoring response times set by law, intentionally understaffing departments and the forcing of expensive court cases.

A Bill of this sort could be used for the purpose of pushing for a Bill of which I would not approve. Any pressure for a general freedom of information Bill would have to be resisted. I see difficulties in extensive and expensive litigation being incurred when attempts are made to push back the boundaries of the Bill to achieve a broader objective. I do not wish to exort people not to misuse the Bill because I am sure that they will not do so, but there is the possibility of the Bill being used as the thin end of the wedge.

The Government's record in extending access to information has been chronicled today and I do not propose to go through it all. It is a good one and I believe that by taking the process in stages we are likely to be able to make some significant progress.

There are those in society who feel that it is possible to dispense with confidentiality, or who do not appreciate sufficiently that confidentiality is essential to the proper workings of society as a whole and to the workings of the machinery of Government and properly constituted authority. I could easily spend more time talking on that issue but I shall not.

I conclude by repeating what I said earlier about costs. It was said at a recent conference that one of the United States departments was told in 1966 that it would cost $55,000 a year to run its brand of freedom of information. That was in 1966, and the cost last year was over $35.5 million. We were told also that every United States citizen has 18 files on the computer. That is the other side to the argument. It is clear that we must get the balance right.

I am not in principle against the provision of reasonable information, but I am against that provision when the information is misused or when it is used in an anarchical way by journalists or others for the purpose of being troublesome and without helping to preserve security either of the individual or of the state.

2.3 pm

Mr. Kirkwood

With the leave of the House, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I should like to reply to the debate.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Harold Walker)

Does the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood) have the leave of the House to speak again?

Hon. Members


Mr. Kirkwood

I am grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and to hon. Members for allowing me to sum up the debate, which is now drawing to an end. I am obviously grateful for the generous remarks that have been made about my success in winning a high place in the ballot. As the hon. Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Squire) said, these remarks are often tinged with a shade of green. I am aware that I am fortunate, following my third attempt to win a place in the ballot, to have the opportunity to introduce a measure of this nature under the private Member's Bill procedure.

The generous remarks that have been made about the Bill as it stands are right and proper. Such a Bill is never the result of any one Member's efforts. The hon. Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Norris), in his usual generous way, adverted to the work that has been done by the Campaign for Freedom of Information and by James Cornford and Maurice Frankel in particular. If generous recognition is due to anybody, it is due to these two individuals.

We have had a constructive debate. These Friday debates have much to commend them. Those in which I have taken part have been sensible, with much cross-party consensus, as has been the case today. The debate has reassured me. We had valuable contributions from the hon. Members for Ealing, North (Mr. Greenway), for Winchester (Mr. Browne), for Hornchurch (Mr. Squire) and for Richmond and Barnes (Mr. Hanley), all of whom raised potential problems. However, we had already anticipated those problems. Although we may have not got the formula right to deal with them, I give the House a cast-iron guarantee that the sponsors of the Bill will bend over backwards to meet these objections and accommodate these genuine fears. I am reassured by the fact that there was nothing new in today's debate.

I recognise the Government's position, and I am grateful for the way in which the Minister reponded on their behalf. I know that the Government have not been idle, and there has been progress in some of these matters. I should like the Minister of State to take away for careful consideration the fact that not one hon. Member was opposed to the principle of the Bill. The House is the better for knowing that.

Nearly every hon. Member mentioned health records. I understand and fully accept that the Government will give no undertaking on those. However, I ask the Government to listen carefully to the arguments about this. We may not reach accommodation, as the right hon. and learned Gentleman said, but if that happens, there will be no recriminations from sponsors. As the right hon. and learned Gentleman said, the best thing that we can do is give the Bill a Second Reading, take it into Committee and see what progress can be made.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time, and committed to a Standing Committee.