HC Deb 22 February 1989 vol 147 cc1070-5

`(1) A person who is or has been a Crown servant or government contractor is guilty of an offence if without lawful authority he discloses any information, document or article relating to the personal affairs of an identifiable individual which has been supplied in accordance with any requirement to do so imposed by or by virtue of any statutory provision or so supplied in connection with an application under a statutory provision for the grant of any benefit, approval or other permission, or which is held by any police authority, and which is held on terms requiring, or in circumstances in which it would be reasonable to expect, it to be held in confidence.

It is a defence for a person charged with an offence under this section to prove that the disclosure was required in order to prevent serious injury to the health, safety or welfare of any person or a serious risk to public health.

It is a defence for a person charged with an offence under this section to prove that at the time of the alleged offence he did not know, and had no reasonable cause to believe, that the information, document or article in question was such as is mentioned in subsection (1) above.'.—[Mr. Richard Shepherd.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Richard Shepherd

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

Again, I shall go as quickly as I can through new clause 3. The clause proposes to add a new category of information—personal information about individuals—to those protected under the Bill. At present, the one area in which section 2 of the 1911 Act is still being used, and where its use is least controversial, is to deal with improper disclosures of personal information.

Earlier this month, two police officers and five private investigators were convicted under section 2 for conspiring to obtain information from the police national computer about criminal convictions and car owners. In 1986, a clerk at the DHSS was convicted under section 2 for revealing to a rival councillor details of social security claims made by the husband of a local councillor. Such information would no longer be covered by the new Official Secrets Act. The only police information that would be covered would be information whose disclosure would impede law enforcement.

Disclosures may still be offences under other statutes. If the information is held on computer, unauthorised disclosure by an individual may be an offence under section 5(3) of the Data Protection Act 1984. If the information is held on paper files, however, it is not covered by that Act. There are other prohibitions in individual statutes on the disclosure of certain types of personal information, but it is not clear how comprehensive they are. I recall that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State actually said that one of the things that the Department would be doing would be to review the existing legislation to ascertain whether there are omissions. We have not had the Minister's view on that yet. It may, of course, turn out to be the case that some types of information covered by the amendment are already adequately protected by other statutory provisions and that the amendment is therefore not required, but I have some doubt about that in respect of the national police computer.

The new clause recognises that the protection of personal privacy is an extremely high priority for the public and should be recognised by legislation. The amendment would cover the following types of personal information held in confidence about an identifiable individual. First, it would cover information that an individual is required to supply by statute. That would, for example, include income declared to the Inland Revenue—I should like to hear my hon. Friend the Minister's view on whether that is protected by existing legislation—census information or car ownership details. Secondly, it would cover information supplied in connection with an application for a statutory benefit or permit, such as social security or legal aid. Thirdly, it would cover information held by the police. The new clause refers to information held by a "police authority", but perhaps it should have referred to a "police force".

Subsection (2) of the new clause provides a defence for an unauthorised disclosure if the disclosure was required in order to prevent serious injury to the health, safety or welfare of any person or a serious risk to public health. That principle is incorporated in the Prevention of Pollution Act 1974. Such disclosure might arise in an emergency when, for example, someone was carrying a highly dangerous infectious disease such as smallpox. A need for an exception of this nature is also recognised in the Data Protection Act 1984. Section 34(8) of that Act allows disclosure which otherwise would be an offence where it is urgently required for preventing injury or other damage to the health of any person or persons".

8.30 pm
Mr. Corbett

I shall make a brief contribution to the debate because the conviction of a clerk at the DSS, which was mentioned by the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd), happened in my constituency. I do not want to cause any trouble by saying that the councillor involved was a Liberal, but whatever else he did, he should not have asked for that information.

Mr. John Patten

Name him.

Mr. Corbett

He is no longer a councillor, so it does not matter.

When the Minister replies, he may well assure the House that the restrictions on the passing of information that citizens have to provide on a statutory basis, such as information to the taxman, the DSS, or whatever, are protected by other legislation. If that is so, we shall be able to dispose of this debate fairly rapidly.

Mr. John Patten

During the course of my speech I hope that I will be able to bring a smile to the face of my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd).

Ms. Diane Abbott (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington)

I doubt it.

Mr. Patten

Wait and see.

We explained in the White Paper—a document long since forgotten in our debates—why we did not consider it right to give blanket protection to information provided by individuals. I am sure that my hon. Friend is aware of the arguments that were adduced in the White Paper. I am sure that it is better for Parliament to look at particular kinds of such information individually and decide whether it is right to give it the protection of the criminal law. I shall develop that argument and then make some announcements to the House.

The elements of the offence, and of any relevant defences, need to be considered in the context of the purposes for which the information is supplied in the first place and the circumstances in which it, quite properly, might be disclosed. The new clause tabled by my hon. Friend also outlines the circumstances under which information should be properly disclosed.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills suspected—it was also implicit in the contribution by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Corbett)—there are already a number of individual offences that protect information provided Ito Government under statutory requirement or for some other purpose. My hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills mentioned census information, which is already protected by the Census Act 1920. There are other examples that might interest my hon. Friend. Section 74 of the Airports Act 1986 makes it an offence, subject to certain exceptions, to disclose information obtained from airport operators by, amongst others, the Civil Aviation Authority. We have had a brief discussion of value added tax during the previous debate and section 44 of the Value Added Tax Act 1983 makes it an offence to disclose information obtained by the business statistics office of the Department of Trade and Industry for the business register or any other statistical survey other than to a Government official who needs it for that purpose. In practice, where prosecutions are brought for the disclosure of the categories of personal information referred to by my hon. Friend, they are normally brought under those specific offences. It is extremely rare that such offences are brought under section 2 of the Official Secrets Act 1911.

My hon. Friend's new clause would bring back the blanket protection in a manner that would not be consistent with our proposals. As we said in the White Paper, in general the civil remedies available to those who provide the information and the disciplinary procedures that penalise disclosure by a Crown servant provide sufficient protection for private information.

Mr. Richard Shepherd


Mr. Patten

I shall develop this argument before I give way to my hon. Friend.

In the White Paper we acknowledged that there are circumstances where, as the Franks committee argued, it is in the public interest that private information should be given the protection of the criminal law. I do not believe that anyone would dissent from the view that in certain circumstances such information should be given the protection of the criminal law.

Mr. Bermingham

indicated assent.

Mr. Patten

I am glad that I have the assent of the hon. Gentleman. We see no reason why all such information should automatically be given that protection. Generally we believe that Parliament should have a selective attitude when considering the nature of the information that may be provided and the harm likely to arise from its disclosure.

The new clause contains no test of harm. It protects every piece of information that is provided in the broad circumstances covered by the clause. I am sure that right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House would agree that a person who provides information about himself or herself to a public official has the right to expect that that information should be kept in confidence. In the White Paper we undertook that we would consider whether the repeal of section 2 left without the protection of the criminal law any information provided to the Government in confidence which needs such protection. Tonight I can tell the House that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer proposes to continue to provide such protection for those who give private information about themselves and their businesses in confidence to the Inland Revenue and to Customs and Excise.

Mr. Richard Shepherd

Does that mean that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer will propose new legislation to the House? What legislation protects the national police computer?

Mr. Patten

The protection given to those who provide information to the Inland Revenue and to Customs and Excise will be a continuation of previous practice, but it must be hallowed in legislation in this place—

Mr. Shepherd

Will it be a criminal offence?

Mr. Patten

It will be a criminal offence.

Mr. Shepherd

So it is new legislation?

Mr. Patten

It will mean the continuation of previous practice. The offence will apply to personal information only about taxpayers, including companies. It will not protect information about tax policy or about prospective tax changes.

My hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills asked whether the repeal of section 2 of the Official Secrets Act 1911 would leave personal information on the police national computer without the protection of the criminal law. I can give my hon. Friend some reassurance as personal information held on that computer is covered by the Data Protection Act 1984. It would be an offence for those responsible for the operation of the police national computer wrongly to disclose such personal information. Equally, I can tell the House that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Security proposes to make provisions in relation to private information provided to his Department, similar to those to be made by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer, in the Social Security Bill which is currently before the House. I hope that the House will welcome those proposals by my right hon. Friends the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Secretary of State for Social Security. However, I must not pre-empt those debates as the House will have the opportunity to discuss those matters.

Mr. Corbett

What about the guillotine?

Mr. Patten

That is not a matter for me—that is a traditional answer to the traditional question, although it was asked from a sedentary position. The House will have the opportunity to consider those details in Committee, when they are published in relevant Bills.

At present, we have not yet identified other categories of personal information which would not be protected other than by official secrets legislation, and which merits the protection of the criminal law. That can be considered in the context of any relevant legislation which is brought before the House.

The new clause goes wider than we believe is needed at present to ensure the protection of personal information. We agree that such information should be protected, but, if my hon. Friend presses his new clause, we do not agree that all such information needs to be protected by the criminal law under all circumstances all the time, nor that such protection should be given by official secrets legislation. That is probably the wrong route and I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills will consider withdrawing his new clause.

Mr. Bermingham

It is interesting to hear the Minister announce new legislation. However, like the money changer, he comes with almost empty hands and high interest rates.

The Minister has really missed the point. Of course some categories of information need to be protected, and once again the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) has highlighted them. He mentioned the police national computer and the problems that can arise when that information is made available to other people, for legal or illegal purposes. We know from experience that information in the possession of the Inland Revenue is not always safe, and that information passed to the Department of Social Security about legal aid applications and other matters has leaked into the hands of third parties. Computers are not free from hackers and that information has a curious way of leaking out, often to the detriment of ordinary men and women.

We seek to ensure that such information is protected. If our society is worth having, if people want to go to the Inland Revenue and feel that it is their duty to disclose matters which involve companies and interlinking between companies, they need to know that the information that they provide will be safe. That occurred some years ago in the lump scandal in the building trade when an enormous amount of tax was defrauded. There are people within Government Departments involved in tax, social security and so on who for a quick £1 or £2 will disclose information. We need to know that those people can be prosecuted.

I become concerned when I hear the Minister say that the Government will cover any particular information in another Bill, such as the Social Security Bill. I heard my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Corbett) ask about a guillotine, but I shall leave aside that argument. We need the legislation to be in a composite form. If it is not, there is no guarantee that the legislation on each category of information will take the same form and that there will be the same certainty about that legislation. That is why I still have very grave reservations about the Bill as it stands.

Once again I am grateful to the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills for moving new clause 3. It is not word perfect, but its spirit is right. I hope that if the hon. Gentleman does not push the new clause to a vote, the Government will take it away and examine it with care, and perhaps consideration will be given to statutory protection when the Bill passes to another place.

8.45 pm
Mr. John Patten

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the Government have demonstrated their good intentions through the two announcements I have made this evening about future legislation from the Treasury and from the Department of Social Security, particularly dealing with the income tax matters to which the hon. Gentleman referred?

Mr. Bermingham

I hear the Minister and I hope that the actions which will follow are as pure as his words. The Government are prepared to listen, and I am prepared to give them one more chance. However, the Government's track record on the Bill to date has been pretty awful and therefore I have little faith in the dulcet tones of the Minister. Let us hope that he proves me wrong for a change.

Mr. Richard Shepherd

I accept what my hon. Friend the Minister has said, and I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.

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