HC Deb 03 February 1992 vol 203 cc104-14

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. David Davis.]

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

I welcome very much the opportunity to raise on the Adjournment the question of the working of the police national computer mark 2 and the need for effective safeguards, and I am delighted that this debate is starting at a relatively civilised hour.

The police national computer mark 2 came on stream last autumn, and I understand that its direct access capacity is 190 million bytes, with a further 80,000 million bytes available as back-up on disk. Already, about 60 million records are included on it. I welcome very much developments such as this one. This national computer will enable the police force to prevent crime and to be more effective in catching criminals.

I regret that during my research for this debate I found that, in the field of computers, one of the least well-equipped police forces is that in my own area, Greater Manchester. I understand that the Greater Manchester force still does not have the necessary computer capacity to take full advantage of the police national computer mark 2. Cynics in Manchester claim that the last chief constable there had a direct link to God and, therefore, did not see the advantages of computers. Whatever the explanation, it is very sad that the Manchester force does not have the necessary computer capacity. I hope that achieving that capacity will be one of the priorities of the new police committee.

As I have said, I welcome computers. However, like all modern inventions, for all their advantages they must be effectively controlled. That is the point of this debate. The need for control of computers was well anticipated by the Lindop committee in the 1970s. A whole chapter of that committee's report is devoted to the question of the requirements concerning data collection by the police force and the security services and the necessary controls. I am worried about one of the Lindop committee's central recommendations—that, with the recording of any information on computers, fact should be separated from supposition or intelligent guesswork. The Home Office and its Ministers accepted that recommendation in respect of both the mark 1 and the mark 2 computers. I gather, however, that about 1982 the Home Office changed its mind. However, it made no public statement concerning its decision that factual information and suspicions could be mixed in one computer. I hope that the Minister will be able to tell us why that change took place.

The Lindop report made it fairly clear that safeguards with regard to access and illegal use are needed. I hope that the Minister will confirm who is entitled to have access to the police national computer. Obviously the police have that right, although I understand that there is some doubt in respect of the Royal Ulster Constabulary. That may be for technical reasons, or a matter of policy.

There is the question also of the extent to which Customs and Excise and the immigration authorities have access. Also, given the meetings of the Trevi group of Ministers and the development of Europol, perhaps the Minister can say how soon it will be possible for other EC police forces to gain access to Britain's police national computer and what restrictions will apply.

One wonders whether the Department of Social Security fraud branch is able to request information, and what checks there are on its legitimate use. I understand that local authorities have pressed hard for access to the criminal records section, in particular in vetting potential employees—particularly those who would be working in sensitive areas, such as the social services. I am informed that local authorities currently have to make their requests through the police.

In the past, there have been a number of stories about illegal use of police computer information. I am sure that the Greater Manchester force takes that aspect very seriously; all inquiries by police officers are logged; and a senior officer checks about 3 per cent. of all entries each month to ensure that they were made for legitimate purposes.

However, one still hears all sorts of rumours to the effect that it is possible for others to obtain information, yet one or two of my constituents found it difficult to obtain information about the identity of a car owner involved in an accident. I should like the Minister to state clearly what checks are made to ensure that police computer information is not available to debt collectors, bailiffs, and other such persons.

When 60 million items are included on a computer, and however carefully information may be segregated—I understand that the system used is known as NASCH, meaning name, age, sex, colour, and height—one is worried that it could be easy to confuse one John Smith with another John Smith. I hope that the Minister can give an assurance that there is no risk that information that should have been entered in respect of one individual is recorded in the name of another.

In order to reassure the House and the public, perhaps the Minister can explain what is the procedure when a police officer uses the powers given in the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 to stop someone in the street or someone driving a car. In the case of a driver, the officer will ask for his or her name, address, driving licence, and insurance documents. Either the investigating officer, using his own personal radio, or the officer accompanying him is then usually able to check those details almost immediately on the police national computer.

Can the Minister say whether other information about the individual is also presented? It is obviously important to know whether the car has been stolen or whether the driver has a criminal record. It would also be logical to know whether there are any outstanding warrants for the individual's arrest.

I understand that any such information is presented by the control computer, which can then convey it to the police officer concerned. One or two police forces are experimenting with notebook computers, and perhaps it is intended that they will receive information from the control computer. Perhaps the Minister will clarify that point.

What concerns me is the extent to which any warning signals included on the computer record are made available to the control officer and conveyed to the officer on the beat. An answer that the Under-Secretary gave me on 15 October 1990 suggested that a fair number of warning signals would be available.

I asked the Home Secretary to list the kinds of information currently held on the police national computer under the data class of warning signals. The Minister—this Minister—replied: Warning signals are intended to alert officers to potential difficulties or risks in dealing with the individual. They may be used only in cases where there is supporting evidence of the need for them to be included in the record. Their inclusion and removal is at the discretion of the force which enters the record on the police national computer. The information held under the data class of warning signals is intended to indicate individuals who may possess firearms, may possess weapons, may resort to violent behaviour, may attempt to escape, may suffer from mental disorder, may possess explosives, may make false allegations against the police, may be a hazard to others as a carrier of contagious diseases (e.g., hepatitis)"— I suppose that HIV and AIDS are included in that category— may suffer from a medical condition and/or require medication, e.g., heart condition, claustrophobia, epilepsy, alcoholism, may attempt suicide, may be in unlawful possession of controlled drugs, may impersonate male or female."—[Official Report, 15 October 1990; Vol. 177, c. 721.] Some of those warning signals relate back to criminal convictions. I consider it legitimate to require that officers have such information when dealing with individuals on the pavement or in cars. Some of the information, however, will be merely conjecture, based on guesswork by police officers—albeit, on occasion, quite good guesswork. I wonder how much of that information is passed on to individual police officers. Surely, if someone has been convicted of possessing weapons or explosives, it is vital for the information to be passed on as quickly as possible, so that the officer concerned can take it into account.

I am not sure about the question of persons suffering from mental disorder. The trouble is that, as soon as anyone is given a piece of information, he will tend to treat the person involved in a slightly different way as a result. Occasionally I attend functions with my wife. If I am introduced as "Gill's husband", I am treated in a certain way; if I am introduced as a Member of Parliament, I am generally treated in a very different way.

On social occasions, of course, that does not matter. However, if a police officer is suddenly told by control that the member of the public with whom he is dealing may be suffering from a mental disorder, he may start to deal with that individual differently, and in a way that may not be particularly helpful. I hope that the Minister will be able to tell us at whose discretion all the information is passed on— mainly with a view to protecting the officer concerned, if any risk is posed to him, but also with a view to protecting the individual from being treated in a different way by that officer.

Let me also ask the Minister to deal with the whole question of the inclusion of suspicions. I pointed out at the beginning that the Lindop committee had said that suspicions should be dealt with differently. Two studies have been made of police records relating to suspicions, one in the Lothian and Borders region in 1982 and the other in the Thames Valley in 1984. The Minister may tell me that there is a much more up-to-date set of statistics relating to police suspicions. I understand, however, that in 1982, in the Lothian and Borders region, there was an entry on the computer for one in six of the population suggesting some kind of suspicion. In 1984, the statistic for the Thames Valley was one in 10.

That is a large number of people in those two areas to have been entered on the computer. Had that led to a dramatic detection of crime, it would have been good, but I understand that the surveys then carried out suggest that in only 0.03 per cent. of detected crime did the suspicions on the police national computer lead to convictions. I hope that the Minister will be able to tell us that more recent studies show that the number of suspicions, as a percentage of the population, has been dramatically reduced and that the detection rate has been much better.

One understands why information should be put on the computer in the first place. The question that one has to ask, however, is how quickly that information is used. When children are molested, for example, people come forward with information. The police draw up a list of five or six people who, it is alleged, were seen in the vicinity and upon whom suspicion falls. It is perfectly legitimate for the police to have that information. In the past, a notice was usually put up in the local police station. When somebody had been convicted of the offence, or no other offences had been committed for some time, the names were removed from the police station notice board—the police needed the space there—and put in a file or destroyed. The temptation now, however, is to leave the information on the police national computer. Although the information was absolutely accurate in the case of one person who was apprehended, in the case of the other individuals it was completely mistaken.

Can the Minister tell us how information is taken off the police national computer? DNA information was collected for one purpose many years previously in the case of Ray Williams. It then turned up in another court case much later. How many entries on the police national computer are deleted each week? Is the Minister confident that when information is no longer relevant, because somebody has been convicted of the offence, the information relating to other people is removed as soon as possible?

Furthermore, if information is to be sent abroad, will other police forces be told that we, unlike some of them, do not separate suspicion from factual information on our computer? Most people here would be very worried if information about them turned up in Greece, or in other European Community countries, based upon suspicion. The safeguards here may be very good, but they may not be so well understood by a police officer in another country who read about that suspicion.

I understand that the only guidelines for the police national computer were produced by the Association of Chief Police Officers in 1987. The guidelines contain a foreword by the Data Protection Registrar who had a few reservations about the guidelines. He said that they sounded all right, but that he would like to know what was happening in practice. Those guidelines were produced for the police national computer mark I. It is now almost five years since they were published. It is certainly five years since they were drawn up. What discussions has ACPO had with the registrar about the guidelines? Has he looked at the way that they are used by individual police forces? How many people have asked to see the data relating to them? Is the Minister satisfied that the 1987 guidelines are still sufficiently detailed and effective, or does he think that they ought now to be updated?

I am interested in whether the police national computer is linked with poll tax registers, electoral rolls and telephone numbers. Every telephone directory is now available on disk. I assume that that is readily available to the police—it certainly should be, because sometimes they have the nasty task of tracing accident victims and informing the next of kin. It is therefore important for them to be able to verify addresses quickly.

Concern has been expressed about people's HIV status appearing on returns. I hope that the Minister will give us some more idea of the circumstances in which people's HIV status will be entered on the computer.

The police national computer has a list of prostitutes, but I understand that it applies only to London. Are lists being kept by other big cities? Will the Minister confirm that the list contains male and female prostitutes, and what conditions apply to removing names from that list? I assume that people are put on the list if they have been connected with an offence relating to prostitution or have been cautioned. It is reasonable and sensible that, if the police are trying to implement a rational policy whereby, first, someone is cautioned and then prosecuted, that information should be available.

I make no complaint about such information being kept, but I am worried about it appearing on the police national computer when the original request had nothing to do with prostitution. Suppose someone's name is entered on the computer as having been convicted of prostitution in London and they report an assault in York or perhaps somewhere totally different. It would be perfectly reasonable for the police to check their address and details such as car ownership on the computer. Does the computer then disclose their conviction for prostitution? If that information became available to the police officer investigating the assault, would it affect the way in which he pursued the investigation? Will the Minister assure us that information on someone's behaviour as a prostitute would be accessed only if they were being charged for similar offences?

The Government should have made a statement on the way in which the police national computer operates; it should not have been necessary for me or the National Council for Civil Liberties to prise information from them. The police and the Government can be proud of the police national computer because it fights crime, but it is important that they offer assurance to the general public that it cannot be misused and does result in people being dealt with differently.

I apoligise for putting a long list of questions to the Minister, but I gave him advance notice and I hope that he will answer most of them.

9.28 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Peter Lloyd)

I am glad that the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) selected this subject for tonight's debate. Numerous questions have been asked in the House about the police national computer, but to my knowledge this is the first opportunity we have had in recent times to discuss wider issues. As the hon. Gentleman said, he let me know some of his particular areas of interest in advance. I am grateful for that because it enables me to provide him with a fuller response on those points than I might otherwise have been able to do. However, he has added some detailed questions. I shall read his speech and where I am unable to reply as fully as I might, I shall write to him.

Like the hon. Gentleman, I shall make a few general observations to set this important subject in context.

The police national computer has been in operation since 1974. It has become an established part of police operations. Many police officers today, even in the higher ranks, cannot remember carrying out their police duties without the assistance of the computer, and it is now as much a part of police back-up as the police car and police radio. That is what it is, a tool to help police officers carry out their difficult task of investigating and detecting crime and bringing offenders to justice.

The police national computer is one of the most comprehensive record systems in the world and it gives police officers across the country rapid access to vital information round the clock, every day of the year. In seconds police officers can obtain details of a stolen car or a wanted person, and establish whether an offender has previous convictions for serious crimes. The police service takes this service for granted, and that is how it should be.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State formally unveiled the new police national computer on 17 November last year. The new system continues the services provided by its predecessor, but it takes advantage of the latest developments in technology to provide a high quality service in the most cost-effective way. The transition to the new system went very smoothly, and those involved in the Home Office and in the police forces deserve congratulations on this significant achievement. But replacing the old by the new is not the end of the matter. The police are increasingly looking to technology —and to information technology in particular—to help them combat increasing crime. We are, therefore, proposing to provide a number of new information services which the police believe will make a significant contribution to their operational effectiveness. These will necessarily have to be spread over the next five or six years as, and when, resources become available.

Plans are being prepared for a new communications network which would enable rapid and cost-effective exchanges of information between the police national computer and forces, and between police forces themselves. This could be extended later to other agencies in the criminal justice system, but it has not yet been so extended.

The Government have declared their intention to computerise the national collection of criminal records currently held at the national identification bureau. Some concern has been expressed by the Select Committee on Home Affairs and others at the incompleteness and inaccuracy of the records because of the difficulties of updating the present manual system. A computerised national criminal record system on the police national computer will enable police forces to enter information directly on to the national collection. This should ensure that it is accurate and up-to-date, but the benefit would not simply be in having tidy records.

I have no doubt that, by providing instant access to comprehensive records of offenders, the national criminal records system will become an indispensable aid to the better functioning of the whole of the criminal justice system. It will be of significant benefit to the police in investigating and detecting crime. Comprehensive and accurate information on antecedent offences will assist in the prosecution of cases and in sentencing, and it will help the prison service to determine the appropriate prison regime. This is a major project which will be introduced in phases over a number of years.

It should be clear from what I have said so far that the police national computer is exactly that—for use by the police in the United Kingdom. The use of the computer is subject to guidelines agreed and approved by the police service. How it is used, and by whom, is monitored by the police national computer organisation, and auditors in forces and in the police national computer organisation ensure that the security and operational procedures in forces are complied with.

Apart from the police forces—and here I move on to one of the hon. Gentleman's questions—only the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency and Her Majesty's Customs and Excise have direct access to the PNC, but they can see only some of the information and only to read it. They are not able to enter or to change data. The information held on the PNC can be disclosed via the police to a wide range of bodies. They are listed in the data protection registration for PNC and continental police forces cannot themselves retrieve information from the PNC.

The chief police officers are responsible for ensuring that PNC terminals—

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett

What will happen under the Trevi proposals? Is it intended that there should never be an interchange of information directly by computer but only by request between all European Community police forces?

Mr. Lloyd

The nature of closer interchange is already being discussed. The hon. Gentleman is right on that. There has been no agreement on the subject and, at present, no police force on the continent can take information from the PNC and no such police force has access to it. If a continental police force requests particular help from the police forces here, the police in their own judgment may release what information they think it desirable to release in the common fight against crime.

The chief police officers are responsible for ensuring that the terminals are sited in secure locations away from public view and operated only by properly trained and authorised personnel. Security is maintained by terminal operators using unique identification and password codes to gain access to the system. The communications network is designed to prevent unauthorised access to the system from external sources. A full list of the security measures that forces should take in relation to the computer system is set out in the code of practice of the Association of Chief Police Officers. Information on PNC is not generally restricted to officers of a certain rank. The level of access for operational purposes is determined by role rather than by rank.

I turn now to the information that is held on the national computer about which the hon. Gentleman asked a number of questions. On a number of occasions, I have been glad to set out for the hon. Member in response to his questions in the House detailed information about the contents of the computer records and how many are held on the system at any one time. Indeed, the hon. Gentleman quoted one reply this evening. This information is recorded in the Official Report and it would not be especially useful to dwell on it here.

I should like to emphasise that the police national computer is subject to the provisions of the Data Protection Act 1984. The various applications on the system are registered in accordance with the law, and state the purpose for which the data is held and to whom it may be disclosed. The safeguards provided by the Act should not be dismissed lightly.

In addition, the police service itself has issued a code of practice setting out how the principles underlying the Data Protection Act should be applied to the PNC and to other police computer systems. The code has been agreed with the Data Protection Registrar and a copy is in the Library.

There are clear guidelines in the code on the manner in which information should be added to computer systems, how long it should be kept on the system and the security measures that should be taken to prevent unauthorised access. It sets out in some detail the means of complying with each of the eight principles that underpin the Data Protection Act.

The ACPO code of practice for computer systems contains a foreword by the Data Protection Registrar welcoming the code. The code is kept under review, which is one of the points to which the hon. Gentleman referred.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett

If the code is kept under review, is there any intention to issue an updated version with any alterations to the 1987 edition which is the one that was supplied to me when I asked for a copy?

Mr. Lloyd

I believe that it will be updated as the new computer takes on additional information, but when and at exactly what point is a matter on which I shall have to get back to the hon. Gentleman because I do not know ACPO's plans. The system belongs to the police, not to the Home Office.

The hon. Gentleman raised several other points about the information on the PNC. He asked, for example, whether one inquiry provided all the information on PNC about an individual. The answer is that information on criminal records is kept separately on vehicles and their registered keepers. Information on both can be obtained only by means of separate transactions. It is for the user to decide whether inquiries should be made of the "persons" and "vehicles" files in the course of a single inquiry. Therefore, such information is available to the officer, but he must seek the information from one file, the other or both.

As for deleting information from the PNC, this is a matter for the police. I am able to say that the national identification bureau at New Scotland Yard has removed some 60,000 criminal record entries from PNC in the past three months as part of a weeding exercise. This exercise is continuing. The code of practice which I referred to earlier recommends specified periods for the retention of data.

Generally, PNC records of convictions are weeded out after about 20 years. No special exercise is undertaken to take from the record any non-factual information, but forces should ensure that it is kept up-to-date when submitting information about new convictions.

The Lindop report, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned, recognised that some police computer systems may need to keep "intelligence" as well as factual information. The ACPO code of practice makes it quite clear that officers originating information on a computer should clearly distinguish opinions from matters of fact—and they do, so the status of the information is apparent when it is accessed.

The PNC records may also contain markers about the health of the subject, which may be helpful to police officers. There are some 5.5 million records on the "persons" file, but it is not known how many have such "markers" because they system cannot be searched for these, but only by a person's name.

As the hon. Gentleman dwelt on it for some time, I know that he is concerned that some of that personal information may be available to a police officer and may modify his actions. In fact, the information is there so that the experienced police officer may make a judgment on how he might deal more appropriately with a particular person. As that can often have implications for the officer's safety, it would be quite wrong not to have such information available.

The PNC does not have links to any local electoral or poll tax registers. A number of police forces have adapted terminals to make automatic inquiries on the Phonebase. This is a computer service provided by British Telecom for the ordinary directory inquiries information. The inquiry transactions do not pass through the police national computer.

As for passing factual and intelligence information to other parties, it is for chief officers to decide whether and how much information from the PNC should be disclosed to others and what qualifications to attach to the disclosure.

It has been the practice for some time to disclose information on convictions for the protection of vulnerable groups, such as children; to ensure probity in the administration of justice; and for reasons of national security. An efficiency scrutiny of the national collection of criminal records last year pointed to weaknesses in the present arrangements for disclosing information, and there is pressure from a number of directions to widen the scope of disclosure. The Government are currently considering the matter and have undertaken to put forward proposals later this year for new disclosure arrangements.

Under the subject access provisions of the Data Protection Act, it is open of course to anyone to ask for any information on the PNC which relates to them. Last year, some 18,000 people exercised that right. Under the terms of the Data Protection Act, the police are not obliged to disclose information which might be prejudicial to the prevention or detection of crime or the apprehension or prosecution of offenders. That seems to me to be eminently sensible.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett

What about HIV status or mental health? Would that information be disclosed if inquiries were made? The information is more for individuals' protection than for the protection of police officers. Would that simply be at the discretion of individual police forces?

Mr. Lloyd

That information would have to be released under the terms of the Act and I have just read out what those terms are. If in a particular case the information was there but could not be properly withheld on any one of those bases, it would have to be revealed. When I write to the hon. Gentleman, as clearly I will have to on a number of points, I should like to confirm that my interpretation is correct.

I have not yet dealt with the hon. Gentleman's question about the index of prostitutes held by the Metropolitan police. It is not on the PNC; it is a card index system kept by the Metropolitan police to comply with the provision of the Street Offences Act 1959, which requires that a record be kept of common prostitutes. Therefore, it concerns women only.

The PNC has played an important part in police operations for many years. The new system has proved its worth. I have no doubt that it will continue to play a vital role in assisting the police in the fight against crime in the years to come. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for providing me with the opportunity for saying so. I have answered many of his questions, but I am aware that I have not fully addressed several and that I have given some answers that I wish to confirm. I will do so in a letter that I shall write to him.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at four minutes to Ten o'clock.