HL Deb 07 March 2000 vol 610 cc909-10

3.12 p.m.

Lord Campbell of Croy asked Her Majesty's Government:

What restrictions apply to the provision by the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency of names and addresses of licence holders to unofficial inquirers.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Lord Whitty)

My Lords, regulations allow the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency to disclose vehicle keeper details to the police, to local authorities and to anyone who can demonstrate "reasonable cause" to require the information. "Reasonable cause" is not defined in law. Each application is considered on its merits, taking into account the delicate balance between the needs of those who require the information and the rights of those whose personal information is collected by the agency for specific purposes.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that reply. While I recognise the benefit to the police of being able instantly to obtain information on a registration number by telephone—that was how the Yorkshire Ripper was caught—has the noble Lord seen reports that confidence tricksters have been obtaining information from the DVLA and then sending fake police penalty notices to the owners of cars and demanding fines for alleged offences? Does he agree that only authorised persons should be given such information and that the Data Protection Commissioner should be involved here?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I believe that I recognise the reports to which the noble Lord has referred, although I am not sure that I entirely agree with his description of what has been happening. The vast majority of inquiries relate to insurance and finance companies. Noble Lords will recognise that there is a need for those bodies to have access to such information. As regards the particular cases referred to by the noble Lord, there is a problem in relation to companies that act on behalf of landlords and place removal notices on vehicles occupying private land. Obviously, landlords have an interest in getting such cars removed, and therefore "reasonable cause" would cover those circumstances. The DVLA is reviewing its procedures to see whether any improvements can be made to exclude inappropriate use of that facility.

Lord Mishcon

My Lords, is there a ruling or set of guidelines to cover what is a "reasonable cause" here? If not, should there not be such a ruling?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, of all people, my noble friend will recognise that "reasonable cause" is not precisely defined in law. The DVLA's current review of procedures, to which I have already referred, may well lead to tighter guidelines.

Lord Swinfen

My Lords, does the noble Lord agree that it would be a wise move for the DVLA to license bodies other than police forces which may legitimately require the names and addresses of vehicle owners so that the agency knows that it is giving details only to reputable licensed bodies?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I believe that most people would recognise that organisations such as insurance companies need access to such information. I believe that a bureaucratic structure of licensing insurance and finance companies would be too heavy-handed in this area. There is a relatively small grey area that needs to be addressed by new procedures. The DVLA is currently investigating that.

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, assuming that the DVLA uses some form of criterion for deciding who can or cannot receive such information, can the Minister tell the House whether the DVLA would consider publishing those criteria?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, these issues are decided on a case-by-case basis. Clearly, a balance must be struck between the needs of an agent for a landowner and the privacy of the person whose car is in question. These matters must be dealt with on their merits. For that reason, it is not easy to publish general guidelines.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, will the noble Lord take away and consider the suggestion made by the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, that guidelines really should be produced?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I believe that I have already indicated that the DVLA is looking again at its procedures. If clearer guidelines are needed, they will be adopted internally. However, I believe that the need to address these matters on a case-by-case basis must be paramount, because the balance of advantage between confidentiality and information, convenience and "reasonable cause" for the body seeking information about the owner of a vehicle, differs in each instance.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, will the noble Lord say whether the Data Protection Commissioner has yet been approached and whether her views are being taken into account on this matter?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, the Commissioner for Data Protection is involved in relation to this area and I can confirm that her views are being sought.