HC Deb 02 May 1995 vol 259 cc175-80

  1. '(1) Nothing in this Act shall entitle any person or persons to whom anything is transferred by a transfer scheme under this Act to have access to any criminal record information held on the police national computer, notwithstanding that any such access was held by the Authority at the time of transfer.
  2. (2) In this section, "criminal record information" and "police national computer" shall have such meaning as the Secretary of State may by Order made by statutory instrument provide.'.— [Mr. Cohen.]
Brought up, and read the First time.

3.42 pm
Mr. Harry Cohen (Leyton)

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

New clause 1 is designed as a probe to try to get some answers from the Government on this issue. Serious implications arise from extending access to the police national computer to the Atomic Energy Authority. New clause 1 seeks to stop such access.

According to official crime statistics, about one in three males in this country and one in 10 females have a criminal record and that excludes most motoring offences. Some of those convictions are minor, some happened a long time ago and some are spent under the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974. That is sensitive information, which should not automatically preclude someone from getting a job. Such status should not constantly be used against the individual by the state, employers, would-be employers or other individuals.

There is a danger of unauthorised access to and use of the police national computer data and widening direct access to it broadens the scope for malpractice.

On 22 March, in a parliamentary written answer to the hon. and learned Member for Burton (Sir I. Lawrence), the Government agreed to widen direct access to the police national computer to include the Atomic Energy Authority on behalf of the whole nuclear industry. There are many implications, and I shall deal with some of them.

In 1986, the Police Complaints Authority investigated a misuse of personal data on the PNC, and a report was made to Parliament—HC 425—in July 1986. The report suggested that the following recommendations should form the basis of instructions to each police force. It said that access to personal data held on the PNC must be permitted only for purposes necessary for the efficient discharge of bona fide police duties, and personal and private use must be strictly forbidden… It is essential to secure the integrity of the PNC. To achieve this, relevant transactions must be subject to monitoring and validation by random sampling; validation must reach the actual reason for a transaction being originated. Will the same rules, guidelines and recommendations apply to the AEA when it has access, as the Government are allowing?

3.45 pm

The report continues: accurate records of transactions must be made which identify the persons responsible for initiating and handling a request for information … all officers who may have cause to access the PNC must be directed and reminded from time to time that PNC records are confidential, that such information must not be disclosed to unauthorised persons and that abuse of the system will render them liable to disciplinary or statutory sanctions. Again, will that be the case once the AEA has such powers?

The report then says: since originators may be called upon to justify their transactions possibly weeks or months after the event, they should make a record of sufficient detail to refresh their memories in order to avoid unwarranted suspicion of malpractice… officers who receive requests for information from any person which would necessitate access to the PNC must satisfy themselves that the purpose can properly be regarded as a genuine police matter before responding to such requests. Those were the recommendations of the Police Complaints Authority in 1986. Can the Under-Secretary of State give a firm guarantee that similar recommendations will be met by those to whom the functions are being transferred—in this case, the AEA, if it obtains access to police records as proposed in the parliamentary answer on 22 March?

It is worth noting that the 1990 annual report of the Police Complaints Authority said: over the past year there has been a noticeable increase in the number of complaints about police officers making use of the PNC or force intelligence records for other than official purposes". The 1990 report also drew attention to the fact that the PCA had used its powers on several occasions to recommend disciplinary charges to be preferred against officers who break the rules… this seems to have upset a few of the chief officers (of police) who do not consider it serious enough to warrant taking formal disciplinary action. What will be the view of the AEA in this respect? Will disciplinary action be taken against those who breach the rules, whatever the rules are? That is one of the questions I am asking the Government.

In 1992, the PCA emphasised that the guidelines are still relevant and we commend them to forces. That is a gentle reminder that the recommendations of the 1986 report are still required for the police. They should therefore apply to the AEA and others who will get access to PNC records.

The 10th report of the Data Protection Registrar, in 1994, noted: there is something special about criminal convictions. This suggests that the body responsible for the protection of individuals is hinting that criminal record data should be afforded statutory protection. There should be statutory protection for those records across the board before handing out access powers to Government Departments and agencies such as the AEA.

The implication of all of that is that, nine years after the publication of HC 425, the PCA's recommendations have not been adequately implemented by all police forces, and personal data held on the PNC are not safe. If the police are having difficulty getting their house in order, how can private sector organisations that receive transferred rights be expected to do so?

On 15 December 1994, the Prime Minister revised the vetting procedure, and steps were taken to widen access to the PNC. Government Departments now have some direct access to the PNC, but there has been little discussion of the safeguards that are required to protect those who are vetted and to protect individuals from misuse of wider access to the PNC.

Was the Data Protection Registrar consulted on giving the AEA and others that access to police records? What did she recommend, if she was consulted? That is a question that the Minister should answer. For instance, what instructions has the Minister issued about access to the PNC by the AEA? Perhaps he can place that information on the record.

When I asked the Department of Trade and Industry about its access to PNC records, it said that it would be confined to a small number of personnel within the DTI security section, and that similar levels of operational, technical and physical security would be applied to information obtained from the PNC as would apply at the PNC itself. In addition, compliance audits would be undertaken by representatives of the police service and Her Majesty's inspectorate of constabulary. That is all very well for the DTI. Will the same conditions apply to the AEA?

My new clause does not prohibit access to the PNC for all time. The existing arrangements could apply: the AEA police could liaise with the official police who control the PNC for information. The Minister must be aware that the Home Office is about to outline its own action following its consultation paper "Disclosure of Criminal Records for Employment Purposes", Cm 2319. That paper explored the option that official vetting should be sanctioned by legislation.

The envisaged circumstances in which vetting is, or might be, appropriate included national security; maintaining probity in the administration of the law; protecting the vulnerable—for example, children and the elderly; national treasures—for example, museums; licensing "fit and proper" persons—for example, taxi drivers and school inspectors; investigation of crime by prosecuting agencies other than the police—for example, the Inland Revenue and Customs and Excise; and crime prevention, if there was a clear public interest at stake and evidence of serious risk to members of the public.

Will those categories, or perhaps other specific categories, be extended to the AEA—by stealth, perhaps—for obtaining direct access to the PNC information?

Clearly, the effect of my new clause can be changed by Home Office legislation once Parliament has established a vetting agency. We should not really be making this change before the procedure is looked at as a whole. Parliament would have to approve the vetting procedures; unlike the current Bill. under which the Secretary of State can transfer the ability to vet without recourse to Parliament. In my view, that should be unacceptable in a democracy.

There is no need for an automatic transfer of vetting powers. Private organisations that need to vet against police records will be authorised by the Home Office legislation, which establishes a vetting agency, so I do not think that there is a case for extending that now.

Those are the most general points in relation to the new clause, but I shall make some wider points as well.

This Bill is about preparing for the privatisation of the Atomic Energy Authority. Various parts will be privatised—perhaps AEA Technology or schemes involving various companies, sections or individuals. The disposal of those parts of the AEA can take place without any further reference to Parliament. Clause 7 allows the AEA to sell off the companies established, as long as it has the consent of the Secretary of State and the Treasury.

Where does that leave security vetting and PNC access by the AEA as a whole? Will the powers pass to those parts that have been privatised? That would be a major extension of the powers. It would mean giving privatised firms access to state records—people's criminal records—on the PNC. Will the access be allowed just to the Government division of the AEA? If so, will it be only for its own purposes, or will there be extensions, so that it will be able to use that access for all sorts of other purposes? We need answers.

As well as being in the nuclear business, the AEA covers many other areas, such as the environment, energy, engineering and research and consultancy services. Will access to the records relate to those parts of its work? On the environment, could it mean that someone who had a criminal record as a result of taking part in an anti-road demonstration—we have seen many of those recently—would be automatically banned from a job once the AEA gained access to those records?

What about access to the PNC for the research and consultancy services in which the AEA now participates? That potentially involves a huge widening of the powers. At the far end of that, the AEA could make a business out of its access to PNC records. What are the limitations?

What are the role and the scope of the AEA police? The Bill is about the Atomic Energy Authority, and there are huge implications for the AEA police. Despite that, they are not even mentioned in the Bill. That is incredible Government neglect, and I hope that the Minister will tell us what their role will be, particularly in relation to the would-be privatised sectors. Will they receive the information from the police national computer, which they could then hand to the privatised companies? I hope that we will have a statement about that.

According to the parliamentary answer of 22 March, the AEA gains access to PNC records on behalf of the entire nuclear industry—Nirex, British Nuclear Fuels and so on. What governs the transfer of the data obtained by the AEA to the rest of the nuclear industry? What governs the subsequent use of that information by the rest of the industry?

We need answers about that before the Government continue to give access in the way specified in the parliamentary answer of 22 March. That answer was the thin end of the wedge. It implies security vetting for employees, potential employees and contractors—that is allegedly its purpose—but it does not lay that out specifically. Access might be obtained for other purposes as well.

The parliamentary answer talks of limited access to the PNC, simply to find out whether an individual has a criminal record. That is only one step away from direct access to the entire record. It is only one step from extending access, which, according to one parliamentary answer is "solely for security vetting" of employees, potential employees and contractors, to other purposes about which we have not been told. Those extensions could easily come about by just another written parliamentary answer, as happened in relation to access to the PNC. We should know those points. That is the thin end of the wedge.

Access acknowledges the extraordinary and excessive power of the nuclear industry. No other industry in the country has, or is being given, access to the PNC. Why is the nuclear industry singled out? Why is it so special that it must have that access to the PNC? If it is so special, why is it being privatised? Surely, if it is so important that it must be carefully controlled by, for example, the AEA police, it should not be in private hands. We need an answer to that.

4 pm

The nuclear industry is almost like a state within a state, with its own police force. Its powers could easily be extended, so that it has its own self-determined powers. Access to PNC records is a step along that path. I do not want this point to be over-emphasised, but I remind the House of the murder of Hilda Murrell in the 1980s. No one knows for sure why that came about, but it has been talked about that she was murdered because of her anti-nuclear campaigning. That point must be borne in mind. That is why we should not give direct access to organisations such as the nuclear industry.

One wonders whether the nuclear industry, after gaining a taste for power exercised in secret, and perhaps after it is privatised, will be restricted purely to security vetting of employees, potential employees and contractors, or whether it might seek to extend its powers and its use of the records to which it gains access.

It is the police's computer. In effect, they are the owners on behalf of the state. They have overall responsibility for its security and safe running. If access is extended, their control is undermined. I wonder whether the Government, when they extended access to the AEA and others, consulted the police? If so, what was their view? The Minister owes it to the House to tell us.

I have spelt out a number of implications. A number of questions arise and need a response from the Minister. I await that response.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Industry and Energy (Mr. Richard Page)

The new clause would introduce a specific clause in the Bill to prevent AEA Technology from gaining access to criminal record information held on the police national computer. I share the concern of the hon. Member for Leyton (Mr. Cohen) that access to the computer should be strictly limited, although, in this case, I assure him that his concerns are misplaced and his new clause unnecessary. Having said that, I welcome the opportunity to give a response for the record, which he has requested.

Where required, the UK Atomic Energy Authority directorate of civil nuclear security carries out vetting of authority staff. As its work has nothing to do with AEA Technology's business, it will not be one of those activities that it assumes after vesting. AEA Technology will not therefore have access to the computer either as an incorporated, publicly owned company or as a privatised company. I hope that that goes a long way towards setting the hon. Gentleman's mind at rest.

Discussions in Committee took a different tack in that hon. Members on both sides were so concerned to ensure that AEA Technology staff working in sensitive areas continued to be carefully vetted. As I explained then, it would be a prior condition that all employees of AEA Technology, of a successor company or companies, or, for that matter, of any company working on UKAEA sites that deal with special nuclear material, meet the authority's vetting requirements.

Where AEA Technology undertakes work for other Government customers, it will also have to meet any vetting requirements that they may specify. That means that it will operate on exactly the same basis, and will be subject to exactly the same requirements, as any other private sector contractor undertaking work for Government customers.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me for not going down the enticing byways and highways which he opened up, which go well beyond the scope of the Bill. I am quite sure that you, Madam Speaker, would call me to order if I went down those routes. I hope that my reassurances to the hon. Gentleman will enable him to withdraw his new clause.

Dr. Lewis Moonie (Kirkcaldy)

I support the new clause. In his lucid presentation, my hon. Friend the Member for Leyton (Mr. Cohen) put his finger on one of the Bill's problems—the fact that it leaves far too much unsaid. It would be left to Ministers to come to the Committee or to the House and give assurances on matters which would be far better dealt with by a clause or subsection in the Bill.

In Committee, we spoke at great length about nuclear proliferation and special nuclear materials, and were given many assurances. This year, we are seeking to renew the non-proliferation treaty, but there is nothing specific in the Bill about that, or about the Atomic Energy Authority police force and its continuing role. If AEA Technology must be privatised, the powers of that force must be spelled out again if possible.

I hope that the Department will seriously consider the matters that we raised in Committee and that we will raise today on Report. They are not intended to frustrate in any way the Government's efforts. We have made it perfectly clear that we are opposed in principle to selling AEA Technology, but the new clause has nothing to do with the form or structure of privatisation. It is about the genuine concern over the way in which security matters will continue to be handled. I hope that, on reflection, the Government will propose changes in another place that will go some way towards meeting our concerns.

Mr. Cohen

I am grateful to the Minister for his assurances. My speech was longer than his and contained many points, none of which he addressed. I am prepared to withdraw the new clause, but perhaps I could ask him to read my speech and write to me, or, as my hon. Friend the Member for Kirkcaldy (Dr. Moonie) suggested, address some of those issues when the Bill is in the other place. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.

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