HC Deb 02 July 1998 vol 315 cc617-21

Amendment made: No. 69, in page 77, leave out lines 34 to 36 and insert— '10. Schedule 2 to the Education (Student Loans) Act 1990 (loans for students) so far as that Schedule continues in force shall have effect as if the reference in paragraph 4(2) to the Data Protection Act 1984 were a reference to this Act.'.—[Mr. Robert Ainsworth.]

Order for Third Reading read.—[Queen's Consent and Prince of Wales's Consent signified.]

The Secretary of State for Health (Mr. Frank Dobson)

Hear, hear.

9.36 pm
Mr. George Howarth

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

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health on the important role he has played in the passage of the Bill. His presence was not felt in Committee or on Second Reading, but between Report and Third Reading he made a significant contribution.

Mr. Greenway

Yes, but does he understand the Gaskin amendment?

Mr. Howarth

My right hon. Friend's stalwart work on the health service shows that he has the wisdom of Solomon—so I am sure that he does.

The House knows that the principal purpose of the Bill is to give effect to the 1995 EC data protection directive, which has the worthy aim of improving the single market by establishing a common standard of protection of the highest order for individuals. But it is not always an easy instrument to make sense of; the subject matter with which it deals is technical and complex—those who sat through the Committee can only assent to that.

The Government have always had in mind as a target date for implementation 24 October of this year—the date by which the directive requires member states to have implemented its provisions. If, as the Government hope, the Bill reaches the statute book before the summer recess, we shall have made good progress towards meeting that target.

The passage of the Bill is not the end of the matter, however. The Bill provides for a large amount of subordinate legislation. Some of its powers have been put in place at a fairly late stage of the Bill's progress through Parliament; many of them will need to be in place before the new data protection regime will work. We have made a start on that work at the same time as the Bill has been progressing through Parliament so as to minimise the interval between Royal Assent and commencement. Some progress has been made, but we are not as far forward as we would have wished. With just over three months to go to the due implementation date, a great deal of work on subordinate legislation still needs to be done.

The Government have a choice. We could rush forward in an attempt to meet the target date, which would mean no public consultation, even on important matters, and little or no opportunity for those affected to make the necessary changes to their systems.

Mr. Soley

During the consultation period, will it be made clear to the public that they can complain about inaccurate material that appears in the press; that they have a right to see those files, subject to the conditions in the Bill; and that the press has a duty to correct inaccurate information that it holds on people in its files? It is important not only that the public know that, but that editors and owners know it.

Mr. Howarth

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for those comments. I can confirm that we debated the matter at length and that we attach great importance to the arrangements that have been drawn up. I know that my hon. Friend has a long and distinguished history of raising such concerns.

There is no guarantee that we would be able to meet the 24 October implementation deadline. The alternative approach, which the Government strongly prefer, is to proceed in a more considered way, carrying out public consultation, as appropriate, and allowing reasonable periods for those affected to prepare for the new regime. That means, of course, that the 24 October implementation date would no longer be a realistic target. Although that is regrettable, the Government believe that it is undesirable to rush through the next phase, at the risk of giving imperfect consideration to important matters, and possibly producing a defective regime.

We may miss the target by a short period, but, in the Government's view, it is more important that the Bill should be properly implemented. From information available to us, it seems that a number of European partners are unlikely to meet the 24 October target, and some major countries are likely to be well behind us.

I hope that there is as much understanding on that point as has been shown in all our debates on the substance of the Bill. On Second Reading the right hon. Member for North—West Cambridgeshire (Sir B. Mawhinney) agreed with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State that the best way of taking forward the work of the Bill would be in a non-partisan manner. For the most part, that has been the central feature of the Bill. The Government welcome the positive and helpful spirit that representatives of all parties have contributed to our debates. I pay a particular compliment to the hon. Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway), who throughout has been constructive in his approach. That applies also to my hon. Friends.

I am sure that the detailed consideration and attention given to the Bill and the amendments that have been made mean that it is in good shape as it returns to the other place. I commend the Bill to the House.

9.42 pm
Mr. Greenway

I am grateful to the Minister for his remarks. The Bill takes the issue of data protection considerably further than the Data Protection Act 1984. It is a complex Bill, but, as the hon. Gentleman said, we have dealt with it in a co-operative spirit, as the Second Reading debate promised.

I thank my hon. Friends the Members for Esher and Walton (Mr. Taylor), for Poole (Mr. Syms) and for Cheadle (Mr. Day) for their help and support in the Standing Committee, and my right hon. Friend the Member for North—West Cambridgeshire (Sir B. Mawhinney), who was a great source of help and encouragement to me in preparing for the Committee stage.

I shall now introduce a less co-operative note. It ought to be a matter of concern that, notwithstanding the complex nature of the legislation, both in Committee and on the Floor of the House tonight we have dealt with an extremely large number of amendments—well in excess of 200. This evening, we agreed no fewer than 74 amendments to the Bill, which has only 75 clauses.

The Minister says that a delay in implementation is likely. The Bill will give rise to a huge amount of subordinate legislation, which will undoubtedly have an even greater impact on organisations and individuals than some of the structural legislation that it contains. Given the choice of rushing to meet the implementation date set out in the Bill or doing it properly, I would have taken the same decision as the hon. Gentleman. I think that it should be done properly because this measure will have far-reaching implications for every commercial and voluntary organisation in this country. That is why it was so important to conduct detailed scrutiny of the Bill. I believe that that will be necessary also when the subordinate legislation comes forward. Time will tell whether everything works as intended and complies with the directive in every respect.

I have two more points. We have dealt with the first satisfactorily, but I still have concerns about the second. When the Bill came from the other place, two issues had caused the Lords concern. The first involved the then clause 28, now clause 29, and the exemption that we discussed earlier in relation to crime, taxation and Government Departments. The Government have dealt entirely adequately with the issue raised in another place when an important subsection was deleted, and we supported in Committee the inclusion of new clause 29(4).

The second issue of concern involved the then clause 31, which is now clause 32. That clause is unamended, so it will be difficult to amend it in another place. Notwithstanding that fact, we place on the record our lingering concern that the scheme in that clause, which deals with the important issue of journalistic, literary and artistic purposes and seeks to balance press freedom with individuals' freedom—the House debated that issue at some length during consideration of the Human Rights Bill—will not do what the Government expect it to. Time will tell who is right.

We had this debate in Standing Committee—I see the Minister nodding. When proceedings are stayed so that individuals may seek to obtain information, rectify inaccurate data or block processing and they come up against an organisation that claims exemption for journalistic, literary or artistic purposes, it is clear that proceedings will be stayed pending a determination by the commissioner and subsequently, on appeal, by the tribunal. However, the Bill does not say that publication will necessarily be allowed to continue. My impression is that that will happen in the majority of cases, and that is the spirit in which both sides have proceeded both in Committee and on the Floor of the House and during our earlier consideration of the Human Rights Bill.

I believe—this is very much a personal view—that, given the scope of the exemption in clause 32, some people may seek to abuse the provisions of that clause by claiming that they are processing data because they wish to publish something that they believe to be in the public interest. That will be true in the majority of cases, but some people will seek to abuse that position. That will prompt lawyers to challenge whether the legislation says that publication must be allowed to go ahead pending determination of the concern. At that point, the Government will need to sit up and think whether they have dealt with the problem as adequately as they think they have. We could have improved that provision by amending it, but we failed to persuade the Minister of the case for so doing. I have a feeling that we shall return to the issue, perhaps in several years, and it is on the record that I am not satisfied.

Apart from that, we have done a pretty good job of scrutinising the Bill, and I hope that those who take the trouble to read the report of our debates will find it helpful in understanding the Bill's provisions.

9.48 pm
Mr. Cohen

I have presented four data protection Bills to the House, and I congratulate the Government on presenting this Bill. However, I was not selected by the Whips to serve on the Standing Committee that considered the Bill because, obviously, there was great interest from other Labour Members.

The Government have made a worthy attempt to improve data protection and to implement the European directive, although they have not been altogether successful in some aspects. Recital 10 of the directive requires that 'approximation' of the laws of the Member States 'must not result in any lessening of the protection they afford but must, on the contrary, seek to ensure a high level of protection in the Community'. A lot of the Bill achieves that higher level of protection, but several aspects fail that test. The Government have been unduly influenced—and, I think, misinformed—about the possible costs of implementing data protection in relation to the directive. In her briefing note on the Bill, the Data Protection Registrar says, in respect of the —1,892 million estimated costs, that she cannot see why data controllers should have to incur increases in compliance costs of this kind". I think that a false figure has been put out.

Time is short and I do not want to delay the House, so I shall run through a few items to signal where I think that there may be problems and a lessening in rights. I have already referred to the relevant filing system. On enforced subject access, the Bill provides less protection than the Police Act 1997 in respect of employers obtaining criminal conviction certificates, and they will be able to see spent and unspent convictions, bindings over and cautions against would-be employees under enforced subject access, until it is got rid of.

On sensitive personal data, the Bill has worrying aspects. Genetic data should have been regarded as sensitive, and the confidentiality of medical records is a concern. Aspects of the Bill effectively allow for the increasing of data processing without the patient's consent, and some of those contradict what the General Medical Council recommends. I am concerned that protection for patients, especially that associated with their consent, is not going according to what the GMC advises. Ministers should give some thought to an explanation of why they have moved away from the GMC, at least in that respect.

The second data protection principle is weakened by being linked to a notification procedure. That was not required under the directive, and I do not know why the Government weakened that area, but I am concerned most about the exemptions. The scope of a number of exemptions has been widened, or new exemptions have been introduced. No explanation has been given, and there should have been an explanation if the current law had created any problems. It did not seem to be creating problems, so I do not know why those new exemptions have been introduced.

There are powers in the Bill for data controllers to delay the giving of information. That proposal will not be in the freedom of information Bill, but it will be in this Bill, and it will cost a lot of money.

The Data Protection Registrar has expressed concern about clause 59, which has been described as a "gagging clause", preventing staff from discussing cases of interest with the press. I have outlined some of the aspects of the Bill which I fear will result in a reduction in the rights of data subjects. I suspect that, in future, the European Commission may require the United Kingdom to modify the legislation to deal with some of the problems that I have mentioned.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill read the Third time, and passed, with amendments.