HL Deb 17 December 1996 vol 576 cc1390-2

2.47 p.m.

Lord Cornwallis asked Her Majesty's Government:

To what use may the police service put personal information collected in the course of inquiries into offences committed by third parties.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Baroness Blatch)

My Lords, the use of any information gathered by the police in the course of an investigation is a matter for the chief officer of the police force concerned, subject to the provisions of the Data Protection Act and any order of the court.

Lord Cornwallis

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. Is she aware that I was recently visited by a police officer in the very laudable undertaking of checking on a firearms certificate and ascertaining that the firearms that it covered were in place and secured. Having ascertained that that was the case, he sat down at a table and asked me to fill in a form without which he said he could not get confirmation from the police computer that he had in fact made a visit to me. As somebody who served for 28 years in the special constabulary, I did not give the officer concerned a hard time. The form requested all my personal information: height, hair colour, eyes, any tattoos that I might have had, right down to the colour, make and registration numbers of my vehicles. Will the Minister tell the House who keeps that information and to what purpose it is put?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, first, I understand the concern lying behind the noble Lord's Question. He described what is called HOLMES—or the Home Office Large Major Enquiry System—a system used by the police but only employed in pursuit of very serious crime. As he knows, the crime being investigated at that time was murder and the weapon used in the murder was a .38 revolver. Anyone owning a revolver of that calibre in the area was visited, as was the noble Lord. The information involved, as I understand it, was checking on the licence and security of guns. I know from what the noble Lord said that that was all in order, but the officer then went on to personal details, which is part of HOLMES.

In response to the question of what it is used for, the police can do a number of things. Having gone back to the force with the information, they can either deem it so irrelevant as not to be even remotely material to the case, whereupon it can be destroyed. It can be inserted on the computer because at some point it may become relevant. Alternatively, it may go on the schedule of non-relevant information which goes to the prosecution and is made available to the defence in the pursuit of the trial.

The system is for the pursuit of serious crimes and the information may well by now have been deemed wholly irrelevant or it may be on the computer, where it will lie as non-relevant information for the purposes of that case.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, may I ask the Minister whether it is right that, the information having been found non-relevant on that schedule, it will be destroyed at the end of the trial? In such a situation with personal information which I gather was improperly obtained, has not the Home Secretary a discretion to order its destruction now?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, whether or not the information is relevant must be a matter for the police. They are the people with operational responsibility for pursuing serious crime. My noble friend asked whether it would be destroyed. Yes, it would be at some point. That may not be until the trial is at an end and the appeal system is exhausted, but at some point it will be destroyed, consistent with the policy of the force.

In passing, my noble friend Lord Campbell said that the information had been "improperly obtained". I think that the noble Lord, Lord Cornwallis, would say that it was a proper investigation in the first place to check the licence and the security of the guns. What he objected to was that the detailed personal description of himself was systematically recorded and might then go on the computer. The noble Lord is concerned as to what will happen to the information and for what purpose it will be used. There is strict control of access to the computer and the purpose for which the information will be used is only in pursuit of particularly serious crime.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, is it not the case that in addition to the Data Protection Act, to which the Minister referred in her original Answer, there are also extensive controls on the retention of such information in Part IX of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act? Does not the fact that there are such controls point up the need for comparable controls over the retention of material obtained through intrusive surveillance under the Police Bill currently before the House?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, that was a nice try! I shall not be drawn on intrusive surveillance because the noble Lord knows that we shall discuss the question in some detail at the next stage of the Police Bill. He is absolutely right to say that data protection is a good safeguard in the system. Not only does the noble Lord, Lord Cornwallis, have subject access to the material kept on the computer about him but there are strict limitations on the use to which the police can put that information. I believe that that is an important safeguard.

Lord Marsh

My Lords, is the Minister aware that many of us find it puzzling that anyone should take exception to such inquiries by the police in the course of a murder investigation?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I cannot account for the attitude that people take. The noble Lord, Lord Cornwallis, knows the police and their methods very well. He is merely concerned about this particular investigation.

Perhaps I may say to the noble Lord, Lord Marsh, that in crimes such as serial killings, inconsequential and seemingly inoffensive or extremely trivial information gathered on to the computer with a facility for searching and matching information can result in interception more quickly. That may help to save lives. That is the rationale for the activity.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, is it not true that successive governments have destroyed the bobby on the beat and the local information available? Therefore, the more information about respectable citizens the police have, the more chance they have of catching the bad citizens.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, information and intelligence are a key part of what the police are about. I take exception to what the noble Lord said about destroying the bobby on the beat, there are many more bobbies on the beat. The marvellous service given to the Specials by the noble Lord, Lord Cornwallis, is responsible for putting many pairs of feet on the beat in the local communities, towns and villages in this country. They are important links in the chain for providing information to uncover crime.

Lord Hylton

My Lords, is there not a wider point about information reaching police stations? Is the noble Baroness aware that the possibility of that information getting to the local press is sometimes a deterrent to the full reporting of crimes, particularly theft?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, the noble Lord raises an important point. It can be worrying. Information gratuitously given to the press is wrong and the police are as subject to the force of law as any other citizen. If information is gathered and improperly used, it is subject to the Data Protection Act, as I have said it is, so passing it gratuitously to the press would be in breach of the law.

Lord Cornwallis

My Lords, will the Minister confirm that the form concerned has no statutory authority and that the officer concerned should have advised me that I had no need to complete it?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I agree with that. It is part of the normal investigation of the police and HOLMES is one of the methods that they use. However, I believe that the noble Lord should have been told by the policeman not only why he required the information but also that he did not have to complete the form and that he was not compelled to give the information.