HC Deb 04 March 1991 vol 187 cc72-8

Not amended (in the Standing Committee), considered.

Order for Third Reading read.

7.13 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health (Mr. Stephen Dorrell)

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

This is a short Bill of a technical nature and it has received the support of the official Opposition, for which I am grateful. The Bill has served to draw attention to detailed aspects of census confidentiality, on which we had a useful discussion in Committee. I hope that I was able to reassure Committee members of the importance that the Government attach to the confidentiality provisions of the census legislation.

It is important to be able to give an assurance to every citizen filling in his census form that the information given will be the subject of complete confidentiality. The need for the Bill arose because the repeal of section 2 of the Official Secrets Act 1911 left two gaps in the confidentiality provisions which the Bill plugs. The Bill now allows us to say, as we should properly be able to say, that the information given in the course of completing the census form will be treated with absolute confidentiality.

Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Port Glasgow)

Can the Minister assure me that the people taken on as temporary employees for the purpose of gathering census information will have impressed on them during their training programmes the need for such confidentiality?

Mr. Dorrell

Yes, the importance of confidentiality will be stressed to short-term employees in the census office taken on for the purpose of collecting census information. They will be governed by the same statutory duty of confidentiality as everyone else who is, under the terms of the Bill, under the control of the registrar-general.

I believe that the Bill represents a small but important step in securing that absolute duty of confidentiality. I commend it to the House.

7.15 pm
Mr. Jeff Rooker (Birmingham, Perry Barr)

The Minister has said that this is a short, technical Bill, but it deals with an important matter.

More than a year ago the House agreed that the census should take place on 21 April. As the Minister said, the Bill remedies a defect in the legislation that arose as a result of the reform of the Official Secrets Act 1911.

There is no doubt in the mind of the official Opposition that the Bill has been scrutinised and that, as a result of the Bill, the personal information given by fellow citizens in the census will be more closely guarded and protected than in any previous census.

The census is a vital instrument of social policy and the information in it is as useful to the Opposition as it is to the Government. The census is used more by health authorities and local authorities than by anyone else because they are in closer contact with our fellow citizens.

We want to reassure fellow citizens that there is no connection whatever between the census and the poll tax. Anyone who seeks to give the misguided advice that the census should not be complied with because of the poll tax is making a fundamental error. There can be no connection between the two. The Opposition are satisfied about that and, therefore, we give the Bill our full support.

7.17 pm
Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Denton and Reddish)

I do not want to detain the House for long, but I want to discuss an issue that I have pursued for the past 18 months—my concern that the protection of the confidentiality of census information does not go far enough.

I am certain that my constituents welcome the idea of the census, as it provides the basic raw material to provide better education and health services and to improve the general government of the country. My constituents are concerned, however, about the further possibility—one that the Government seem keen to develop—of selling census material to commercial organisations that will use it for their own profit.

Census material has been sold in the past and I do not believe that that caused many problems. This time round, however, that material will be sold on the basis of postal codes. Since the previous census, methods of handling data by computer have developed greatly. People are concerned that after the next census has been completed, census material will be available within 18 months on the basis of postal codes.

It will be relatively simple to run that census material through a computer and to match it to information on the electoral register and on poll tax returns. Commercial organisations, having done that, will use the lists generated, based on names on the electoral register and the census information, for mail shots.

My constituents, in common with many others, already receive far too much junk mail. It would be of considerable concern to them if, having completed census forms to improve good government in this country, they found that their letter boxes were stuffed with more items of junk mail. When we discussed the census order, the Minister said that my constituents should not complain if junk mail is more accurately directed rather than inaccurately directed as it is now. Many of my constituents do not want mail shots at all.

If I am concerned about mail shots, I am even more concerned about the present practice of insurance companies refusing insurance cover to certain areas of towns because of their postal codes and, in some cases, dramatically increasing premiums. If that policy is based on crime statistics for an area, together with census material, my constituents and others have reason to be concerned.

Even at this late stage the Minister should think again about allowing census information to be made available on the basis of relatively small postal code areas of about 2,200 households because of the way in which it can be used for commercial purposes. We have had more than 100 years of almost universal co-operation with the census on the basis that it is to provide information for the good government of this country, and it would be very sad if people reduced their co-operation because they were unhappy about some of the uses to which census material was to be put.

It might be better to forgo income from the sale of such information to commercial organisations so that we could continue to receive the goodwill of the general public rather than to risk that general goodwill by making information available on the basis of relatively small postal code areas. Although I shall not vote against the Bill, I still hope that the Government will reconsider their decision to sell census information on the basis of postal codes.

7.21 pm
Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Port Glasgow)

I promose to be very brief. I wish to voice my concern about confidentiality and to seek an assurance from the Minister. Am I to take it that those who are employed temporarily or otherwise by the registrar in Scotland in the collection of highly confidential information will not collect such information from the neighbourhoods in which they live?

7.22 pm
Mr. Harry Cohen (Leyton)

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) that the census is important, and that is why I shall not vote against the Bill. However, the census depends on public co-operation. Therefore, there should be no fear about how census data will be used or people would be likely to give wrong information.

The Minister should comment on a letter in last Saturday's issue of The Guardian from Mr. David Northmore of Bloomsbury Publishing Ltd. He drew attention to the longitudinal survey that the Office of Population Censuses and Surveys conducts, which traces the activities of 1 per cent. of the population—about 600,000 people—through their entire lifetimes. He said that following the 17th national census—this is the 19th—the National Council for Civil Liberties revealed that OPCS had undertaken a follow-up survey of ex-nurses whose names and addresses had been taken from the individual census returns—although no warning that this might happen was given on the forms. Mr. Northmore hopes that that will not happen with this census, and particularly in respect of the longitudinal survey. He went on to ask an important question about whether OPCS computers will be registered under the Data Protection Act 1984 for the transfer of such information". Those are two very good points and they warrant a response by the Minister.

I made it clear in Committee and on Second Reading that there was poor planning by the Government in relation to the census which is to take place on 21 April. They were slow to get the report on confidentiality from the British Computer Society. They said that it would not be ready until after the census began, but they have since hurried because pressure was applied by hon. Members on the Committee, and they have published Command Paper 1447. The BCS said that the plans are okay and that all that it can do is to look at plans and intentions but that it could not give a definitive view of actual adherence in practice". That point is repeated throughout the report. The report goes on to state that: not all procedures had been defined, not all aspects of systems had been designed, not all equipment had been procured or installed, nor had all accommodation been completed. The census has been poorly organised by the Government.

There is a serious question about information technology. Much new technology has been introduced since the previous census. In Committee I referred to optical discs. British Telecom can put virtually all its telephone directories on optical discs. Presumably census officers will also be able to put information on optical discs in the near future. We had some assurance——

Madam Deputy Speaker (Miss Betty Boothroyd)

Order. I dislike stopping the hon. Gentleman, but I draw his attention to the fact that the Bill is only a three-clause Bill—it is narrow. This is the Third Reading debate. The hon. Gentleman can debate only what is in the Bill, not what he would like to be in the Bill, or what might have been or should have been in the Bill.

Mr. Cohen

I am confining myself to the Bill because it is the interpretation of confidentiality—

Madam Deputy Speaker

In that case, perhaps the hon. Gentleman would refer me to the section of the Bill to which he is referring. That would be extremely helpful.

Mr. Cohen

I am referring to confidentiality, which is in the short title of the Bill and in the long title. If confidentiality is not assured, the census will fail in its essential purposes. I am trying to restrict my remarks. I made speeches on Second Reading and in Committee and I do not wish to repeat them.

The Government are not allowing subject access, and that is a mistake. People should be able to see their own personal data to check that they are not misused. That is how the Bill is relevant to the data protection legislation. The OPCS seems to be saying, "We are keeping your information confidential, but you cannot look at it to check that we are doing that." That is not a good aspect.

I echo the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish about information being provided for commercial purposes. It was a mistake for the Government to open just a window for that to be done on the basis of postal codes. The minimum of 16 households and 50 individuals to which the Minister referred is too small. The Minister should have increased that minimum to protect confidentiality. Good assurances about the poll tax were given in Committee. I even put out press releases relating to those assurances so that people would fill in their forms properly. However, there is an abiding fear among many people, including some of my constituents, that the information might yet be used for poll tax purposes. In view of the assurances that we were given in Committee, I do not think that it will be. However, if the Government want to make sure that this is not a problem, they should scrap the poll tax. We are told that that tax is still under consideration. I suggest that the Minister who is responsible for census returns should put in his tuppence worth towards scrapping it.

7.30 pm
Mr. Harry Barnes (Derbyshire, North-East)

I know that the Minister is disappointed when I make short speeches. Well, I am afraid that I shall have to disappoint him on this occasion, as I want to make only a few brief points. Indeed, my points will be developments of those made by my hon. Friends the Members for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) and for Leyton (Mr. Cohen), who talked about the problems of confidentiality.

My hon. Friends referred in particular to information that could be derived by way of postal districts. If people feel that there is not full confidentiality, it is difficult to secure their co-operation and good will. Despite the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Leyton, the Bill does provide protection with regard to information given to poll tax registrars. Such information cannot be used for census purposes.

However, I argue that the Government ought to be consistent. The issue of confidentiality affects many aspects of British politics and the British constitution. The census is a key element of constitutional law. Written in this measure, or perhaps into a separate measure, should be a provision that information supplied for electoral purposes must be kept separate from information supplied for poll tax purposes. It is my intention to seek to introduce a measure entitled the Electoral Registration (Confidentiality) Bill, which will be entirely consistent with this measure. Thus, I hope, the Minister will have an opportunity to support the protection that I seek.

7.33 pm
Mr. Dorrell

Once again, I am grateful for the expressions of support from all parts of the House for the principle on which the Bill is based, which is that it is important to establish beyond peradventure that information given in the course of a census is the subject of a statutory duty of confidentiality that is complete and unquestioned. I am grateful for the support of the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) and his hon. Friends for that important principle. I agree entirely with the hon. Member for Perry Barr that the 10-year series censuses in this country provide valuable information. Certainly, the information is valuable for the management of the health service. It is also valuable to the Opposition, because it enables them to support their prejudices with the occasional smattering of facts when they advance their case against us.[Interruption.] It is a tactic which has been used by successive Oppositions down the years.

Obviously, the information provided through a census is an important basis of political debate. As the hon. Member for Perry Barr has stressed, there is no connection—indeed, there can be no connection—between the information provided in the course of a census and information associated with the community charge. First, the information collected in the course of a census is the subject of a statutory duty of confidentiality and cannot, therefore, be passed to those responsible for the community charge register. Secondly, by the time census information was published, it would be out of date for the purposes of compiling a community charge register.

The hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) continues to be concerned about the possible commercial exploitation of the information provided through a census. I do not see how, in a free society, one could prevent information published by census offices from being used by commercial organisations as a basis for market research. I think that that is neither possible nor desirable.

The hon. Gentleman, seeing that information is to be published by the census offices on the basis of postcode sectors, makes the link between those sectors and junk mail. Apart from the fact that both have at least an indirect connection with the Post Office, I do not think that there is an important link between them. The hon. Gentleman's argument rests on the assumption that the publication of information on the basis of postcode sectors involves a greater risk to confidentiality than does the publication of information on another local basis. As I reminded the members of the Standing Committee, the average postcode sector is roughly 10 times the size of the average enumeration district. So far as I know, the hon. Gentleman does not challenge the suggestion that we should publish information on the basis of enumeration districts. The average postcode sector contains 2,300 households, whereas the average enumeration district contains 200 households.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett

In the past, the enumeration district was drawn up for convenience in the collection of information, and could not be easily matched with anything else. It would have been extremely difficult to run information through a computer and quickly match it with names on the electoral list. But, once the postal code is included, it will be extremely easy to match on a national basis.

Mr. Dorrell

The possibilities about which the hon. Gentleman expressed concern were that there could be breaches of confidentiality and that information derived from a census could be used commercially. The point that I am making is that the enumeration district is a building block for the creation of a postcode sector—not the other way round. Of course, the boundaries will not always be precisely the same. Anyone seeking to discover the social make-up of a postcode sector would not find it very difficult—give or take the odd relatively small margin of error—to build up a reasonable picture, simply by taking the information published on the basis of enumeration districts. I do not believe that the hon. Gentleman has shown that there is either a threat to confidentiality or a breach of privacy that could be exploited commercially in an undesirable way by providing information on the basis of postcode sectors.

The hon. Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr. Godman) asked me for an assurance that temporary employees would not be asked to collect information in the locality in which they lived. I can give him an absolute assurance to that effect.

The hon. Member for Leyton (Mr. Cohen) expressed concern abut the contents of a letter in last Saturday's Guardian concerning the collection of information in a longitudinal study. I refer the hon. Gentleman to a written answer that I gave to his hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, South (Mr. Doran), in which I set out the basis of the continuing longitudinal study that the OPCS conducts: The OPCS has no plans to conduct, commission or participate in a longitudinal survey based on the 1991 census. Such a survey would entail repeated interviewing of a sample of the population over a period of time. However, the OPCS administers a longitudinal study which can be used to link together, when required, data for a 1 per cent. sample of the population of England and Wales to produce statistical tables. The study includes the information from the various records of events held by the OPCS. The events include the 1971 and 1981 censuses, births and deaths. The study provides additional insights in the process of changes over time and increase the usefulness of information collected by the OPCS. As announced in the winter 1989 issue of Population Trends', a copy of which is in the Library, the OPCS plans to include the appropriate sample of records from the 1991 census in the study."—[Official Report, 26 February 1991; Vol. 186, c. 467.] As regards the hon. Gentleman's case that the British Computer Society study was published too late, I am bound to say that it could also have been published too early. The purpose of the study was to examine the procedures that were being put in place for the census that is to take place in April. That requires the BCS to see those procedures being put into place and it would have been absurd to advance that ahead of the time when that information would have been available to it.

The Bill is a small but significant step in completing the statutory guarantee of confidentiality surrounding the census, and I hope that the House will give it a Third Reading.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time, and passed, without amendment.