I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Mr. Coombs) on his success in getting his Bill through the Commons stages this morning. I was most impressed not only by the way in which he presented it but by the argument which he advanced, and my congratulations to him are all the greater since it is rare nowadays that we can get Private Members' Bills through on a Friday.
I was also impressed by the rather devastating attempts of the hon. Member for Lewisham, West (Mr. J. Selwyn Gummer) to split the Tory Party in half. I cannot help feeling that he came in at the last minute like some "rich man's Leslie Huckfield" in a rather vain effort to tear the opposite benches apart. I am only sorry that he did not succeed—although perhaps it is as well that he did not—on a subject like this.
It is not the first time that my Control of Personal Information Bill has been introduced but it is the first time that it has reached the Second Reading stage. I only hope that it gets to the Committee stage and then completes its progress in this present Session of Parliament.
Basically, what the Bill does is to set up a data bank tribunal, and to establish a comprehensive legal framework to govern and regulate the supply of private and confidential personal information. Before I go into the details of the Clauses, perhaps I may be allowed to give something of the background to this very important issue.
I believe that we are now approaching the stage—indeed, we may already have reached it—where there are so many people in Government Departments and private companies and agencies gathering so much personal information on us all that our personal liberty, our personal privacy and our personal freedoms are already very much endangered. I say that with the knowledge that not only is this happening because the information is going on computer but because it is being stored even in manual systems in filing cabinets.
The trouble is that once we introduce the computer into the storing and filing of information, the computer's particularly unique contribution is that it enables us for the first time to store vast quantities of information of a magnitude which we have never before been able to encompass or comprehend. Not only can we store very much more information on computer but we can have access to that information almost instantaneously. That is the unique contribution of the computer revolution; we can store much more information and access it accurately and faithfully almost instantaneously.
An even more threatening contribution, although I concede that it can be potentially beneficial as well, that the computer can make is that it enables us to integrate various categories of information, and it is in the potential of the machine to integrate various personal files that I see the main danger building up. Once a machine or an organisation can integrate various personal files, it is possible to obtain a computerised profile which becomes almost as real, or just as real, as the individual himself.
We are talking of a machine which in 10 years' time will be as commonplace as the telephone or television. It will be as commonplace to have are mote computer terminal in our living room as it is to have the telephone and the television. This is the potential of a multi-access system. This is the potential of the cheapening computer technology. This is the future spread of the machine.
I want to make it quite clear that I am not totally anti-computer. I am not a computer Luddite. I accept that the machine can bring vast benefits to mankind. It can, for instance, tell people when they should be in receipt of social security benefits rather than informing them to come along and claim those benefits. It can help to speed up law enforcement. It can greatly help the police.
I could give many examples of the way in which the machine can make its own contribution to improving our quality of life, improving our environment, and reducing the vast amount of human drudgery we still have. But I believe that the machine can do this only if we have a comprehensive legal framework in which to use it. At the moment, we do not have any such comprehensive legal framework.
I should like also to try to define some of the ingredients of what I mean by privacy, because I know that various hon. Members on both sides may want to go rather wider than the provisions of the Bill in such definition. I am also acutely aware that the Bill deals only with one small area of the much wider privacy issue, and also that once one starts getting into the bigger debate of what privacy is about we encounter very profound philosophical argument. That is why, in the hope of making progress, I have chosen in the Bill to concentrate on this rather small aspect.
We all ought to have the right to be let alone. We all ought to have the right to personal anonymity if we want to drop out of things for a time, just fade out for a time—go unrecognised for a time, which is certainly blissful sometimes in our present occupation. That is a fundamental right which despite the fact that we live in a fairly crowded island we should enjoy.
Perhaps most important of all is that though we have chosen to live in a fairly organised society, though we have chosen to live in a social organisation, and though we have taken the decision to opt into the community, we all have some right to control the quality and quantity of information about ourselves.
I recognise that under the compulsion of some rather threatening fines we have to give information to such people as census enumerators, as well as to Government Departments, but though we have taken the decision to live in that organised society and may consequently have forfeited our right to some privacy, we should never forfeit completely the fundamental right to control the degree, the quantity and quality, and particularly the flow of information about ourselves.
Before enunciating the principles of the Bill, I should like to express my sincere thanks to Joe Jacob, a lecturer at the London School of Economics, who has given me a good deal of assistance in drafting the Bill. As hon. Members on both sides will know, it is rather difficult to draft Bills because of the legal complications involved, and I am most grateful to Joe Jacob for his assistance and encouragement. I am also most grateful to Tony Smythe and the National Council for Civil Liberties for all their support, because I am very much aware that they are the forerunners and pioneers in promoting such legislation in this House.
Having said that, I must say that my particular interest is that of an ordinary back bencher trying to protect the interest of his constituents. I do not think that I have any more need for privacy than has anyone else, nor do I think that I have any more need to hide anything than has anyone else. I am just as concerned as the next man about his individual liberties and the protection of his privacy, and it is because I believe that the freedoms of my constituents need protecting that I have introduced the Bill.
I will now enumerate the main provisions of the Bill. First of all, it aims to establish a data bank tribunal to licence all stores of information, although I shall add various qualifications later. Clause 1 establishes the tribunal. Clause 2 makes provision for experienced legal representation on the tribunal, and also makes sure that it is possible for lay members also to be nominated. The lay members can include members of the computer profession. So to all the computer people who have been jumping up and down outside the House saying that I threaten their profession I say that I am fully aware of the anxieties that they have expressed, and that provision has been made for computer people to be members of the tribunal.
I have also made provision for representation at any sitting of the tribunal of both the legal and lay sides. I believe that both the legal argument and the industry's argument have to be represented at any sitting.
I have also made provision for the setting up of a data bank inspectorate. I believe that we must have someone in the field to make sure that the conditions of these licences are being adhered to, and that we need a fairly mobile inspectorate going round making sure that there are no unlicenced stores of information. The members of such an inspectorate have been rather colourfully called data guards or data police but, call them what we will, they will have a somewhat difficult job and, because of the nature of the industry, must be well clued-up on its present and future state.
On Clause 2, can the hon. Gentleman help about the nature of the legal appointments he is thinking of? I appreciate the questions of remuneration will have to be dealt with by Money Resolution separately. But one matter that slightly concerns me here is whether the idea is that it will be another full-time legal job or the kind of thing which could be dealt with by the appointment of a solicitor or barrister of suitable standing on a part-time basis, therefore probably obtaining rather better talent for this important job than might be available on yet another full-time quasi-judicial appointment basis.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. Without being personal towards him, I am also aware of the concern of the legal profession about money. I appreciate that we must have someone who carries a fair amount of weight heading the data bank tribunal. I am fully cognisant of the hon. Gentleman's point. Bearing in mind the need for privacy in negotiations on salaries in these matters, this is a matter which ought to be left until later. But I appreciate the point.
The job of the data bank inspectorate will be to make sure that nobody is operating a store of information without a licence, to make sure that nobody is violating the terms and conditions of that licence and, above all, to report where inaccurate information is being maintained in a data bank. The inspectorate will also have to have the power to enter into the premises where information is being stored and to examine the equipment.
Clause 5 sets out the relationship between the tribunal and the inspectorate. I envisage that the inspectors will be reporting to the tribunal. The tribunal will have powers, if it thinks fit, to initiate inquiries. In other words, I envisage a sort of three-tier organisation with the inspectorate being in the field, the tribunal conducting the inquiries on matters of major principle, backed up by recourse to the ordinary courts of the land, including the High Court. But the main point I want to make is that we have to have an inspectorate in the field generally supervising the industry on the job, because without that and with the vast developing industry of this nature we can very soon get out of touch.
Clause 6 says no store of information on more than 100,000 people shall be operated without a licence, although I have made provision that the House, by an Order in Council, may, if it wishes, for certain industries and professions, lower that number. I am thinking, for example, of certain kinds of activities of private investigators and other small data bank operators. In the Bill it is quite possible for that number to be lowered by an Order in Council with the approval of the House.
As regards the definition of "data bank", one has to be rather careful about this. But I am using in the terms of the Bill the fact that
No person who is responsible for the operation, maintenance or use of any store of information containing details of individuals numbering over one hundred thousand persons or any store of information which is regularly or habitually or customarily or frequently used in conjunction with other stores of information under substantially the same management or ownership …
In other words, I have made the definition as wide as possible. I hope that it will be the kind of definition which hon. Members will feel able to accept.
The issue of the licence will have to have regard to the general utility of that store of information, and to the cost of compliance with the terms of that licence. In other words, I want the tribunal to be a flexible instrument, although I want it to be a regularising body as well. But we have to take into account the utility of the data bank and the cost of compliance with the terms of the licence. That licence will require the supply of information and the sources of information. The licence will also stipulate the right of print-out; in other words, the most important right of any individual to see his own files. There is provision in Clause 6 for an individual to see his files at least every two years, or every time he asks for them.
In Clause 6 we have set out a provision whereby the tribunal can adjudicate about licence conditions and fees. In other words, it will be very much in the hands of the tribunal to decide on each application's individual merit and on how this would best suit the operation of a data bank and, above all, how it would best suit the public.
The tribunal will have powers to order the erasure of information, under Clause 7 and for those people who have been given the initial information to be told about the erasure. It will also have power to take into account the damage which has been caused to an individual by violation of the terms of the licence, and the damage caused by fraudulent practices and the obtaining of information by wrongful practices.
I want the tribunal's powers to give compensation to take into account not only damage to an individual's family but also the financial gain for those who got information under wrongful conditions. In other words, provision has been made in Clause 7 to regulate completely the flow of information. Not only must the individual have the right of access to his own files, but the tribunal must have the power to update those files and make sure that they are absolutely accurate.
Clause 8 gives the tribunal power to revoke a licence. Clause 9 makes sure that failure to challenge information by an individual is an inadequate defence. Clause 10 is the fines section—£5,000 and/or five years on indictment to individuals; £10,000 or 10 years' imprisonment on indictment for members of the inspectorate or staff. In other words, they are fairly stiff fines. But after all, we are dealing with quantities of information which can be very damaging and very valuable.
The hon. Gentleman is explaining a complicated Bill, and he sped over the definition of the computer bank in Clause 6. The definition does not seem very clear. Is a bank statement a computer bank? Would that be considered to be an information bank? What kind of information is it? Is it mixed information, which is to be called a bank? Unless the hon. Gentleman explains what a computer bank is, hon. Members will find it difficult to follow.
I do not know where the hon. Gentleman has been since the turn of the century, but we have stored information on much large numbers of individuals than that nowadays, and if the hon. Member reads Clause 6 he will find that it is specified there. I am talking about stores of information of over 100.000 people, in the main.
I have put this in the Bill as a basic outline of the kind of things with which the tribunal will have the right to be concerned. I want the tribunal to be concerned with smaller stores of information, too. I want the House to have the right to lower the numbers in those stores of information.
In September, 1971, in central Government usage there were 192 computers installed, and 58 more that year. In other words, we are talking about fairly wide usage. If we look at that now famous report of the Civil Service Management Studies Department, entitled, "Computers in Central Government Ten Years Ahead", at paragraphs 139–141 we find quite fascinating proposals that the Department of Health and Social Security is to computerise lower level case work. In other words, central Government is already thinking about handling social security cases not by human beings but on a computer. I start to wonder about the other kinds of proposals which may already be in existence in the Department of Health and Social Security,
We also find other proposals to computerise job vacancies and unemployment. I should not have thought that the Secretary of State for Employment needed a computer to tell him that there are a large number of unemployed. There is also the vast computer complex which will be operated by the Home Office, the National Police Computer, and the Ministry of Transport central vehicle licensing computer at Swansea. I am afraid that, despite the assurance that Ministers have tried to give me about this, I am far from satisfied about the number of people who will have access to that vast computer complex storing information on individuals, their cars, homes, names and addresses.
Everyone who owns a car will soon be accessible on file by the police and a large number of other people. The Inland Revenue has its PAYE centres and there are large computer installations at the Department of Defence, the Department of Trade and Industry and that magnificent system called Prism operated by the Civil Service Department. We are talking about very large computerised systems, very large personal information systems. In the report to which I have already referred, paragraph 182 on page 44 talks about the possibilities putting it all together and says:
For example, the development of links between DHSS, the London Clearing Banks, and Post Office Giro will be made easier because, fortuitously, all three will be operating with ICL System 4 computers.
Is the Civil Service Department really telling us that the clearing banks, the Post Office Giro and the Department of Health and Social Security is to be put together? I should hate to think that the people in Social Security will then have access to all bank information and to all Giro information. This is the kind of thing that this report is talking about.
Then we have that far more ominous reference on page 52, paragraph 207, to the creation of a Government transaction system, in other words putting it all together, all Government Departments on one big computer. We have already had references to this in the United States through the proposal to create a national data scheme. This is worrying, and people in this country ought to know about it. We ought to be concerned that even in this country there is already mention in a Government report of the fact that the Government think it would be nice, or a good idea, to put all transactions together at a central point. I shudder to think of the numbers of people in Government Departments who will then have access to all individual details about us.
Now we are getting bigger local authorities and they compete with each other in the kind of computers they employ. Cities throughout the country brag that they have a bigger computer than the next. Then there is the Seebohm Report which initiated progress towards integration. In addition there are schemes like the one proposed to be operated by the London boroughs. It is already reminiscent of the kind of thing in Alameda County in California where the whole lot, including police files are put together.
I am sorry that the kind of risks, developments, proposals, integration mechanisms I have mentioned are already being put into practice or being seriously discussed here. Then we have proposals, even in this country, by certain local authorities who want to operate "risk registers". In other words, if a local authority thinks a person is a bit educationally subnormal or that a person is a public health hazard it puts him on its "risk register". I should hate to be on someone's "risk register" for the rest of my life. This is the kind of thing that will happen. It is this kind of proposal for integration which the computer makes possible and which will enable operators of computers and programmers to be able to build up complete computer profiles of us. In other words they will know us better by computer than they will know us as individuals. The computer profile will be even more real than the individual. I know that this has overtones of Big Brother and 1984 but unfortunately it is a real risk in the near future.
There is the charming little bit in the appendix of this report, paragraph 135, saying that, after all, we ought to watch the security of files. That is a report of 190 pages and there are five lines dealing with the security of files. That apparently is the kind of importance attached to the security of files in that Report. Time and again I have raised this question with the whole range of Ministers on the Front Bench. I know that the Minister of State is sympathetic towards some of my points.
Time and again I have been given the personal assurances of Ministers that I am jumping the gun, I have nothing to worry about, and that it is really a problem for my children's children. I am a bachelor, and defiantly so, but I am already worried. It will take a lot more than reassurances from members of the Government Front Bench, whichever party is in power, to reassure me and make me feel confident because already just like the citizens of Media Pennsylvania when they discovered how much the FBI had on them, I keep thinking that we should be muttering to ourselves, "You had better not laugh, you had better not smile; because somebody in the Home Office has got it on a file". That is the kind of state towards which we are rapidly moving unless we watch some of these developments in the public sector.
In the private sector we have also had some interesting developments. I recognise that I am talking about private agencies which are only thinking about "going computer' and may not have done so yet. Although they may not have done so I still say that the danger exists now. I am talking about such organisations as the United Association for the Protection of Trade, with 15 million credit files, British Debt Services, with 8 million to 10 million files, which has by the way acquired a complete set of electoral registers and has a complete set of county court judgments over £10 since 1962. I am thinking about Tracing Services Limited, the people who employ others to pose as policemen and social security officers, who have already been told by High Court judges that they "employ an army of liars."
These are the people in the private sector who are going around busying themselves gathering private information about our credit-worthiness. Here I praise the Daily Mirror which in July 1971 ran quite a big exposé of the activities of some of these granters of credit and showed how they adjudicated that Members of Parliament were good credit risks while anyone who got his hands dirty was not supposed to be such a good risk. I respect and compliment the Daily Mirror for the way in which it has been bringing the activities of credit investigators to the attention of people.
Then we have all the nasty devices which these credit and private investigators can use. There is the polygraph. Fortunately we do not use the polygraph or lie detector extensively in this country, but in the United States there is already a Journal of Polygraph Studies. If we look at it we will find that the March-April, 1971, issue was entitled "Breathing Analysis Part II." In other words they can operate the polygraph and find out our heartbeat rate and how much we sweat, and this is supposed to determine how much we are telling lies. These techniques are already employed in the United States for gathering information.
There are too the eavesdropping and bugging devices, and the laser-beam which can pick up a conservation 300 yards away. I am grateful to Mr. Peter Heims, of the Association of British Private Investigators, who almost religiously keeps me up to date unfailingly with the latest developments. I know that he is concerned about the use of these things just as much as I do, and I respect his sincere views which he would like the majority of his profession to follow. It is only because he has kept me up to date on some of the latest and nastiest American developments that I am able to give some of the more worth while and horrible examples today.
There is also the fact that these techniques could, if they are not being used on a large scale, be imported into the public sector in this country. In the Police Review of 21st January someone who is a detective chief inspector who had had the good fortune to go to the United States on a Winston Churchill Memorial Trust Fellowship came back reporting:
I see the polygraph as being in inestimable help in the detection of crime and hope that the ethical objections to its use in this country will soon be overcome".
That is a senior British police officer talking about the use of lie detectors to give information to the police in this country. I hope that that opinion will not be endorsed by the Government.
In passing, the hon. Gentleman mentioned the possibility of the creation of a national computer centre. Am I correct in thinking that his Bill would not affect that form of information and that it would operate only in the private and independent sector? He rightly suggested that such a centre might be used as a Big Brother and that we should be indexed on a national computer. I am not sure whether the Bill applies to that.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention because it enables me to make the point more clearly. As a result of the licensing provisions in the Bill, the tribunal would license every data bank, whether in the private sector or the public sector.
With all these people busying themselves in finding out information about us, I wonder how much personal privacy we have today? Can we claim that the amount of personal privacy we had 10 years ago still exists? With all these people using these techniques or thinking about using them in the public and private sectors, can we claim that the Englishman's home is his castle? I cannot think that the Englishman's data bank will have much of a moat and portcullis.
We find ourselves, in our daily lives, followed round by people keeping files, dossiers and stores of information on us. It is recorded on the top of my bank file that I am "chubby, matey and about 30". That is all that I managed to see of it. It is explained in the Money Which? publication produced by the Consumers Association in December, 1971, how large numbers of bank managers obtain bank references from each other. If a person has a bank account, he is on file, and that information is passed around pretty freely.
Turning to the question of insurance, what happened recently in the case of the Vehicle and General Insurance Company? The liquidator of that company said that the London and Edinburgh General Insurance Company could have exclusive use of the V. & G. personal tapes for a month. As a result, 340,000 previous policy holders of the Vehicle and General Assurance company received detailed quotations from the London and Edinburgh General Assurance Company. Just think how much personal information was handed over from the liquidator to that insurance company. Now anybody who is in insurance can pay for the use of those tapes and personal details.
I keep getting letters about people who have been refused hire-purchase credit. They cannot get hire-purchase credit, but they cannot find out why. They are not entitled to rent a television set, but they cannot find out why. Somebody somewhere has something on a file or dossier about them. In certain parts of the country, people who live on certain housing estates or have certain jobs or who have been involved in some bad business or whose marriage has gone wrong can be marked down as people who should not be given credit. There are market research organisations which are ferreting around and asking daft questions about us.
These are some of the examples concerning files which are being built up on us. They are not outrageous examples. We come across them in our every-day lives. During the recent strike, the Department of Health and Social Security and the Inland Revenue seemed to be exchanging quite freely information about miners' income tax rebates. Many coal miners in my constituency came to me and asked how the Department of Health and Social Security knew more about their income tax rebates than they did themselves. Information was being exchanged on some kind of basis—whether it included the National Coal Board I do not know.
Another every-day example concerns mortgages—if people can get them nowadays. Think how much information building societies obtain about us.
Take the example of a husband who is employed on a Government contract. He may be working in an establishment which does work for the Ministry of Defence. Security files containing personal information will be kept in that case.
Information is kept about rent and rate payments. I regard the Housing Finance Bill as potentially one of the most monstrous intrusions into personal privacy which has ever been perpetrated by any Government in this country. I do not know whether many hon. Members opposite have seen some of the means-test forms which council house tenants will have to sign in order to get a rent rebate. By signing those forms they will be signing away their birthright. I have seen a fair number of these local authority forms. They are consent forms to enable somebody in the local housing department to look at people's bank balances, post office savings books or trustee savings bank books.
This is the Government who believe, or who believed in the past, in personal privacy and freedom. I hope that when the Minister of State replies—because the Secretary of State for the Environment has not said much about this matter—he will say something about the advice which the Department of the Environment has given local authorities about drawing up these means-test forms. If there were ever anything which was an encouragement to the building up of personal files and dossiers on people, it is the Housing Finance Bill.
Another every-day example concerns applications for jobs. I have had several applications this week for the job of official hostess to the Prime Minister and several curriculum vitae have been supplied to me. This personal information has been locked in my filing cabinet. Whenever we apply for a job we fill in a form.
There is also the information which people have to give in connection with the census. I am not satisfied by the safeguards which the Government think that they have provided in this respect.
There is the example of computerised reservation systems operated by airlines. American airlines for a period gave discounts if businessmen took their wives with them on a journey. They were told, "Bring along your wife and get a cheap fare". When the airline computer started writing to all the wives of businessmen who had travelled cheaply, it was discovered that when Mrs. So-and-so received her letter it had not been her who had gone on the journey. The airlines had to drop the practice, but this shows how computers can be used. As an adjunct to that, there are computer data bureaux springing up which are gathering in personal information handover-fist, and I do not know what they do with it.
Would the hon. Gentleman explain his reference to the airlines? Why did the computer have any effect? If the airlines provide a cheaper form of travel for people who claim to be the wives of others, that information is in existence. I cannot see the relevance of the reference to the computer in the example which the hon. Gentleman gave.
I am grateful for that intervention. The hon. and learned Gentleman is right in saying that this facility could be administered with or without the use of a computer. In this case, such a large number of people were travelling that for many airlines it was made possible administratively only because they used a computer. I accept that the job could have been done by using manual labour. But that is one example of the way in which companies can use computers.
We come across the examples which I have given in our daily lives. They are not examples which we encounter only if we go to other countries or which we shall encounter in 10 years time. They are all a threat, if wrongly used, to our individual privacy. Once people start to integrate all these files—and that is what the computer does—once they integrate the social security information with the airline information, with the insurance company information and with the personal file information, how much individual privacy will be left?
We have reached the stage at which all behaviour becomes behaviour for the record. Every individual item of behaviour, of spending, every habit, every preference, every taste, can be recorded for posterity, and can be recorded pretty accurately at that. We can then start to make value judgments. We can then start to devise norms, we can start to devise averages, and we can start to measure deviations from averages and norms. I am pretty proud of being a deviation from the norm. I hope that every hon. Member of the House may be proud of being a deviation from the norm. However, that would be the kind of society we could easily construct once we started to put on file all these personal details.
I accept that there are on the other side of the coin, to to speak, benefits which could accrue to society from some of this if only the information were used properly and under proper safeguards. The problem is that many people in the computer industry do not start to think about safeguards. It is, unfortunately, an industry in which 90 per cent, of the time of its members is spent in sending Press releases to one another about the latest information. If only the computer industry would show far more social responsibility I should be a lot happier about the nature of these developments.
I admit that my Bill sets up a fairly comprehensive machinery. I accept that many hon. Members on the other side of the House will say that all this machinery is not necessary. But I say that the problem is already so complex, already so diverse, that we have to think about this level of comprehensive machinery, and I say that the kind of provisions which I have proposed to enable the tribunal to operate would provide flexibility in operating its licensing procedure. This is a comprehensive machinery which, I hope, is flexible and can move with the times.
I am also aware that the Government may not be able to accept my Bill in full, but I hope that even if they cannot accept the Bill they will at least have the courage to introduce some of its essential ingredients in a separate form. There is an urgent priority. We must in this country have legislation right now to enable individuals who are refused credit to be told why. There are examples in Australia and there are examples in the United States of enabling legislation by which people who are refused credit can demand to see the sources of the information upon which credit is refused. I think that that is an urgent priority.
We have to establish it in public institutions, in the public sector, and in the private sector, that in all computer systems we have to have also a system of "access control", we have to have a system of "audit trials". Those are the two basic requirements—control of access and a record of who has been getting at the information. We have to have a code of conduct for computer personnel. They are highly mobile. The professional computer processing manager tends to flit about the industry. But these are people who carry secrets with them. I applaud the endeavours of the British Computer Society which gives general support to the principles contained in my Bill, and the many efforts which there are to devise a code of conduct in the industry.
Even if my Bill does not get out of Standing Committee this Session, even if it does not get on to the Statute Book this Session, I hope that it serves to promote a far more comprehensive, a far more fullsome public discussion of this issue. We still take things very much for granted when we fill out a Government form, when we sign a hire-purchase contract, when we sign a rental agreement, but we ought to appreciate that we need to look for effective safeguards on the confidentiality of the information. If this Bill does nothing else than to make people examine the right of confidentiality, if it does nothing else than to make people think, or to ask questions, about confidentiality and its effective control, it will serve a very useful purpose.
In the long run, but in the not-too-distant future, society in this country will be what I can only call a goldfish society. We shall end up like goldfish swimming around in a bowl, every individual activity being observed and recorded. Our most precious commodity is time, and we must act now.
I am very pleased to have the opportunity of speaking on this subject because I believe this to be a very important Bill and I am sorry that its provisions have not so far found as much favour with successive Governments as they ought. The hon. Member for Nuneaton (Mr. Leslie Huckfield) pointed to the fact that many felt this to be a comprehensive Bill, felt the situation to be not serious enough yet for it, and felt that we do not need to do anything about it in this generation but can leave it to another.
I believe that the opposite is true, and that, in many ways, a Bill of this kind has been necessary for some time. We as a House are charged, perhaps above all things, with the protection of the individual from the effects of the actions of other individuals, and one of the problems which has been increasingly apparent has been the extra power which has been given to people and institutions through the mechanism of the computer.
The hon. Member has shown that there are situations in which the computer does not change the nature of the information but merely makes that information usable in a way in which it was not usable before. In the case, for instance, of the airline which was able to send letters to the wives or so-called wives of the various business men who had gone on journeys, it is not good enough to suggest that that information could have been there anyway, even if one did not have a computer. The seeking of that information, the names and addresses, and the use of that information for mailing to the so-called wives, would just not have been possible manually, and bigger companies could now transfer information, so that while it was given for one purpose, it could be used in another way.
What is perhaps more important is that one never knows for what that information is to be used. There is a degree of bewilderment among the public in this country about it. It could be dangerous to fill in a form for a mortgage if that information were to be used to check whether one has a television set, for instance.
I was coming to that point, and obviously it is true. If one can store information one can store wrong information; and not only that, but that wrong information can be moved from one place to another. The difficulty of catching wrong information and putting it right is great, and becomes increasingly greater.
However, we should not move to specifics of the computerised information situation before we have looked at this to see it as part of an ever-growing problem, and the hon. Member for Nuneaton did so. Information can be built up about individuals and used again and again. I cite a recent instance. We had on a television programme a re-run of an answer given by the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition to a question on a referendum of the public; we were able to see precisely what it was he had said, and to hear the tone and the inflection which he used. We know how embar- rassing this has been not only to himself but to other Members of the Opposition. That was a pictorial record of an answer given to a specific question.
The right hon. Gentleman said that even though it might be electorally disadvantageous to him he would not in any situation or in any way agree to the holding of a referendum on the Common Market. That is a great embarrassment to him and his party. It shows the difference between the situation of the right hon. Gentleman in 1972 and the situation of his predecessors a hundred years ago. There would then have been a written report of what was said—much less powerful and less difficult to explain away. This sort of information control, holding and retrieval could be extremely embarrassing.
The hon. Gentleman will I am sure raise other examples of what I am presenting. I am also suggesting that it is possible to alter the film and so cut and change it that a presentation different from the true one may be given. We have the example of another television programme which was attacked from both sides of the House—"Yesterday's Men"—in which film was used to give a presentation different from what actually happened. If doctoring can be done with film, so it can be done with material on a computer.
The first problem is what information is kept and how it is kept. The computerisation of a company's payroll or accounts has always been regarded as normal, but I recently received a letter from a solicitor saying that I owed a particular company a certain sum of money. I was lucky enough to be able to find the receipt for that money and I wrote to the company enclosing a copy of that receipt. I received a letter from the company apologising and saying that the trouble had arisen because I had paid 2p more than the sum which had been requested, which had resulted in the computer throwing it up as a debt. I had paid £80·52 instead of £80·50 and for this reason the two sides did not equalise. I had a credit of £80·52 in one box and a debit of £80·50 in another. This was probably a badly programmed computer, but with centralised computer arrangements I should have been regarded as someone who had owed money for several months when that money had already been paid.
I am not sure what "dun" means, but I think that is what my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Hertfordshire, East (Sir D. Walker-Smith) would refer to as a pejorative comment.
In the old days when accounts were kept manually there was plenty of opportunity for people to notice odd occurrences and to wonder whether there was any connection between two events. There was often a person in an accounts department with the job of editing the orders and statements and checking them.
When one considers how computer information is processed, one sees the great dangers which arise from misinformation being fed into computers. Information is filled in on a sheet of paper, and a girl sits in front of a machine and punches out the information on a carrier. That information is fed into the computer and is sometimes checked and sometimes not. There is an old and much-used phrase about computers—garbage in, garbage out—which means that if inaccurate information is put into the computer, inaccurate information comes from it. It is very easy to put inaccurate information into a computer, because the method of computerisation is to bring information down to its simplest form so that it can be stored electronically. The simpler the information and the more common the method of imprinting the easier it is for the wrong key to be pressed or for the information to be wrong in the first place. The mere transference to the computer of the information from the sheet which has been filled in can easily result in accuracy.
This is all part of the traditional problem of power. We have always sought to restrict the use by the executive, whether the Government executive or large companies and associations, of the power they have over other people's lives. It is the use of this power of information which the Bill seeks to restrict, and it is as important to restrict it in private industry and private hands as it is to restrict it in public hands. There is no distinction between these two groups of people. There must be protection for the individual from anyone who has sufficient money to build a data bank. There are some people who should not run data banks. A person who would never be given a licence as a bookie or as a publican can set up a data bank. There is no restriction on the kind of person who can run a data bank save that of financial ability. There is also no restriction on the people who can use data banks. A person of no fixed abode with an unattractive background can get information from data banks, and we have seen examples of this in recent years.
The only distinction between the Government service and the private sphere is that the Government service has claimed over the years that it is careful to whom it gives information. I am as unhappy about that at the hon. Member for Nuneaton. There are many and glaring examples of the Government service providing information to people who had no business to get it, some arising from sheer carelessness or bad procedure and others from the fact that nobody in the Government service had got down to deciding who should have what. One of the most important requirements is for a clear and definite list of people who are allowed access to certain kinds of information.
I will move to the specific difficulties which arise. First, we have the problem of information which has been coded for one purpose and which somebody is then able to use for some other purpose. It is important to see that information provided by an individual for one purpose is kept for that purpose and that the individual has a right to say whether that information should be moved to some other system.
The second matter which is worrying is the question of misinformation, which was mentioned in an intervention by my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Mr. Money). Here we have a specific duty to protect the individual from the dangers of misinformation. The examples are numerous, and I shall mention one.
In these days of the consumer revolution, when more and more people are rightly concerned about the servicing and quality of goods they buy, it is important that we should have the right to say to a bad manufacturer, "Since these goods are not up to standard, I shall not pay the bill." If somebody goes into a restaurant and the food offered him is filthy, he may well say when the bill is presented, "I am sorry, but I do not intend to pay for the food". The restaurateur could then say, "You are a man of no credit and, because you refused to pay for the food I have provided, I will see that on some computer somewhere you are not afforded credit facilities"—even though the person concerned is a credit-worthy person. If these things are allowed to happen, we shall gravely endanger human rights.
I take a case which will interest the hon. Member for Accrington (Mr. Arthur Davidson) and which involves the soliciting of goods and services. There is one gentleman who still sends me bills for a cookery book that I never wanted, do not like, but refuse to send back because it will cost me postage. I did not ask for it, but I still have it in my possession and am billed for it. I am sure that my legal position is correct. However, it is possible for that company to see that my name is put on a list somewhere for not paying a bill which I did not incur. I have no legal right to insist that my name be removed from that list. I can write to them but they do not answer letters. This is a grave infringement of people's rights which we should strongly oppose.
I declare an interest here in the sense that I once worked for a company that sold goods by mail. One system of selling goods by mail is to gather a list called a clean list, which may later be sold to somebody else who wants to sell books, postcards, clothes or whatever it may be. It will be known that if one uses a credit card system, one tends to receive from the credit card companies all kinds of material. I am not saying that this is wicked or appalling, but I believe that this must be made public so that people know about it and can complain about it. They should at least be able to say that they do not want their name to be involved.
In former times when we were living in small tribes, one of the great tribal feelings was that a man's name was important. It was part of his personality and was the thing that stood for him as a person. Some element of this feeling remains with us today. Our name is our property and it is important that it is used as we wish it to be used. Therefore, we should know what is done with any information and we should be in a position to be able to alter correct or stop any such information. Two elements are involved. The first is to know what is happening, and the second is to have the opportunity to be able to control it.
I should like to mention a specific area where this is particularly necessary. There is growing public bewilderment about the complication of the life we live. We all know that it is every day becoming more difficult for people to sort out all the things that impinge on them. For example, there are all sorts of requests for information, tax demands, parking tickets—all those things which are part of our complicated overcrowded life in this island. The problem of public bewilderment in this matter must be considered by the Government. The public do not understand what is happening and they have a good idea that some things are going on which they do not want to go on. It is this bewilderment behind which many people and Governments have sheltered, but it is a great danger to our national life. Once it is felt that everything is being taken out of people's hands so that they have no control over their own lives, it is difficult to call upon them to be responsible and reasonable human beings.
I wish to discuss one subject on which it is felt that something is being put over on the public; in other words, that information taken from members of the public may be used in ways other than those for which the information is originally demanded. I take an extremely contentious example, the provisions of the Housing Finance Bill. I am completely in favour of that Bill and have believed in it for many years. I am sorry that no Government has undertaken such a Measure before and I am sure that the poorest sections of our community will benefit from its provisions. I feel that those who try to terrify the public by attacking the Bill will reap a whirlwind when it is seen how successful it is. If we go in for more sophisticated ways of obtaining information, for example the sort of information we need to eradicate poverty in our society, we must also see to it that that information is not bandied about.
I was appalled recently to find that if somebody appears before a rent tribunal and attacks the rent which has been fixed in order to demand a lower rent, that information is publicly known in a way I find unacceptable—though it is publicly known only to the few who attend the rent tribunal hearing. I do not believe it is right that this should happen, and I feel that we should look at these matters more critically than we have in the past. Such information is restricted in its damage or curiosity value since only a small number of people are likely to be present when it is divulged. But if that information is stored on a computer and is available to anybody in the local housing department who wants to see it, and is fed in by the curious marital device of coupling one computer with another—computers are polygamous rather than monogamous—that information can be passed through computer after computer and no one knows where it may come out or who may use it in the end.
What worries me is not only the danger of the use of the information in terms of the individual concerned, but that the information may be wrong and that the individual may not want it to be used for the purpose for which it is eventually used. I am concerned that people may eventually become so frightened by this trend that they will cease to feel any desire to co-operate in any reasonable demand made upon them. I am thinking of the Census and the kind of means test that is necessary if the community is to provide help for those in need.
This matter gets even more serious when we look to the possibility as foreshadowed in the Finance Bill of negative income tax. There are remarkable advantages. NIT, as I believe it is known in some quarters, and the tax scheme to which reference was made earlier will be of great benefit to the people of Britain. It is also true, however, that it may do great damage if that information is fed into all the other arrangements which can be made.
I believe, therefore, that this is a very necessary Bill. I am sorry that so far proposals of this kind have found such little favour with either Government. It is not that it is too early. In many senses it is too late, because it will be more difficult to control information and to see whether the information is right when it has been collected under conditions which are far from ideal and which have not been subject to the rigorous controls proposed in the Bill than it would have been if we had started with this kind of arrangement when computers first began to alter the whole nature of the collection of information.
For this reason, it is essential for this House not only to give the Bill a Second Reading but to see to it that hon. Members are not put off by excuses of committees sitting and looking at it and the problems involved in the internal arrangements of Government Departments. This may be as important to human rights and personal freedom as any of the other great steps that we have taken. To refer to the Magna Carta may be putting it too high, but not much too high. It is the control of one's personality that we are discussing. We are talking about the individual's rights to be himself and not to be taken away from by people who feel that it is their right not only to get information from him but then to sell, swap, buy and exchange information which is personal and individual.
If the Government find it impossible to give time to this Bill so that it may complete all its stages in this House, I hope that they will realise that it is a matter which should figure largely in their legislative programme in the coming year and that before the end of this Parliament we ought to see legislation which will enable us to feel that we have laid the foundation for the protection of human liberty in an area which looks as threatening as the kind of power once held by over-mighty barons.
We have listened to two brilliant and eloquent speeches. My hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, West (Mr. Selwyn Gummer) has pulled out all the stops, and I think that the hon. Member for Nuneaton (Mr. Leslie Huckfield) must feel that his Bill might be described as a mini-Magna Carta. He must be congratulated on continuing with an idea which he first adopted.
Since I have been in this House I have had an enormous number of brilliant ideas. I have thrown them around a couple of times before dropping them, only to find them adopted a couple of years later by my own Front Bench and to find some frightfully bright chap who probably is now a Minister of State getting the credit for the delving and initiating which was originally mine. The hon. Member for Nuneaton might almost be described as the George Orwell of Nuneaton. I approve of his continuous opposition to room watch by private investigators.
I do not wish to be considered a non-libertarian. However, I consider that the hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, West couched their speeches in a little too high a key. I hardly feel that this is a suitable subject for a Private Member's Bill. Though the airing of it is very beneficial and will perhaps be a prod to the Government, nevertheless, with the Younger Committee expected to report shortly and with the Computer Society also investigating the matter, I feel that it is appropriate for the Government to wait before taking action of the kind proposed.
At the end of his speech, the hon. Member for Nuneaton said that we are concerned with access control and the code of conduct. I feel that the Bill goes too far in dealing with both these matters. Having said that, it is necessary to realise that their importance is highlighted by the Government's determination to enter the EEC. Traditionally, the countries of the Six especially France and Italy, are used to the idea of central files and dossiers being kept. Such files carrying a large amount of information about individuals are often kept at local police stations. In that way a great deal of individual information is available.
However, I question the ethos of my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, West when he says that we are defending individual personality. Just because details are written down, I do not think that they present a picture of an individual's personality. The recording of speeches and the tele-recording of television programmes produces a much clearer picture than the written word. A mere list of data does not attack individual personalities—unless, of course, the data are wrong.
I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's kind remarks, though I shudder at his description of me as the George Orwell of Nuneaton. Has the hon. Gentleman ever seen on a cathode-ray tube display a computerised profile? I do not know whether he has had the experience of touching the button of a terminal and instantaneously flashing on the screen a complete list of characteristics. Not only is the speed with which the information can be put on the screen frightening, but its completeness gives a very revealing picture of an individual.
I am not yet convinced that the collation of information which is separately available and not of a confidential nature is a disadvantage. I hope to prove that there are more advantages than disadvantages in the collation of this information.
Secondly, in connection with our application to join the EEC and continental attitudes to information, we already have a more computerised society than the Six. This is another point which underlines the urgency which my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, West so eloquently set out.
I take issue with the two hon. Members who have spoken on this subject. Much of the information which they say should be kept confidential has been given voluntarily by the individuals concerned to different organisations.
We are living in a credit society. When my hon. Friend got his dinner bill for £80 and had that extra 2p charged for butter, which possibly he did not have—or there may have been a muddle over that 2p—I am sure that is the only thing in that bill that could have been about that figure—the fact that he paid that bill on credit automatically shows that he is prepared for his creditworthiness to have a degree of publicity.
I wish not to refer to the particular bill. That was an ordinary statement of something bought in a shop. That is a different thing, as one is buying something on credit. Whereas one may be perfectly willing for one's creditworthiness and information thereunto to be given to an individual firm for certain specific purposes, surely that is altered very much if that information is used by other firms for other purposes. It is like saying that one is prepared to have a full physical examination by a properly accredited doctor, but, for example, many young ladies would not agree to do that for my hon. Friend.
I must get up before my hon. Friend makes too many other points from my speech. I will cite the question of the credit card. I have never owned a credit card. I decided that the personal dangers of a natural spendthrift, who even now finds it easier to pay for something he cannot afford by cheque which he would probably refuse to buy if he had to use notes. The risk of carrying a credit card is too great. My wife has two of three credit cards. I find it much more convenient when buying something that is too expensive for us to buy for it to arrive in her mail a few months afterwards.
Once one accepts the obligation, privilege, or whatever it is, of using a credit card and joining the credit card society, that card will give one credit in possibly tens of thousands of different establishments. It is surprising that people should get jumpy, if that credit card is acceptable in tens of thousands of establishments, if they get a lot of boring literature sent to them through the mail because they are on a list which has been provided by that credit card organisation.
When people fill in football pools, there is a box at the bottom which says, "If I win I do not wish my name to be disclosed". It would probably be attractive to credit card users if, when they applied for their cards, they were able to stipulate, "I do not wish my name as a credit card holder to be supplied to any other organisation without my permission". That would seem to be covered by the simple code of conduct, not this great Bill, which the hon. Gentleman has mentioned.
I have checked my credit cards, and on none of them is my address quoted. I am not trying to sell any particular type of credit card, but I make the point that in my experience all the firms who supply the services of a credit card are careful to ensure that the details of their membership are not released to a third party.
I have been a member of one organisation in particular for 14 years, and I have not received even one circular through the post as a result of that membership. Furthermore, that organisation removes all evidence of address, and so on, to prevent people from circumnavigating the good intentions of not recording any identity.
I thank my hon. Friend for reminding me of something that I had thought about while listening to someone else's speech but had forgotten to mention. From a commercial point of view, the list of credit card holders and credit customers is a secret document which, if made available to other creditors, could be extremely damaging. It should be kept in the inner safe. One could say that it could be supplied to people who are not direct competitors, that if someone is selling boots he might let his list to go to people who sell books, but, in general, the point made by my hon. Friend carries a lot of weight.
It is true that the holder of such a list would not sell it to another credit card organisation, but he could take a turn on other products. He could go to the manufacturer of boots and shoes, or clothes and say, "Sell your products through me, for which I will take 2½ per cent." or 5 per cent., or 10 per cent. or whatever it may be. The serious thing is that there is no end to the people who and companies which can be used in that way.
If it is worth someone doing that, let him. I do not mind, provided that what is sent through the post is not offensive. To me that is a matter of far greater importance and I should like the Minister to deal with that in due course.
I have talked about the credit card society, but we must remember that ours is a credit society. Many people hire television sets and hire-purchase furniture, motor cars and so on. Unless there are important safeguards to suppliers in the creditworthiness of individuals the opportunities for those who are creditworthy to buy goods on credit will be reduced. I should be delighted if the shops at which my wife has accounts to check to see that she is a good buyer and check on those who are not, because if there are too many bad debts the cost of the goods will rise. I am all for strict credit checking, because in that way bad debts are avoided and the cost of goods comes down.
Surely my hon. Friend appreciates that even with the strictest credit checking the most enormous whales slip through the net? Many hon. Members are engaged in defending an alleged long-term fraud case across the road. The prosecution case is that although some of the principals were checked at a late date during the alleged fraud, despite the fact that the bills had gone on for months they were passed out by the credit checkers.
Credit control in any undertaking is difficult and serious. If someone is allowed 60 days and he gets goods on 30th March, and then during April, May and June he gets more goods, things become even more difficult. Here again, as my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, West said, the computer has not got that sixth sense which so many accounts clerks used to have. But the mere fact that the system of credit control which is operated is inefficient does not require that we avoid it altogether.
I come to the question of the interdependent society. My hon. Friend thought it unwise that information given in connection with the Housing Finance Bill should be used for other purposes. This information is volunteered by individuals who wish to receive a rent rebate. People who wish to receive unemploy- ment benefit or social security benefits go voluntarily to seek them.
It is necessary for the community properly to safeguard the funds of the community, and it is necessary, therefore, to ascertain whether those who call themselves unemployed are, in fact, doing a job. The House will recall the report by the inspectors of the Department of Employment in South end who carried out an investigation in depth into applications for unemployment benefit in that area. The results were fairly startling. A considerable number of applicants withdrew their application or said that they had found employment.
Social security benefits costs the country a good deal now. It is important to see that the privileges of those benefits is not abused. I should like to see a system instituted, with proper access control, to make a more serious effort to ensure that such benefits are not abused.
No. Mr. Speaker has a data bank of his own, and those who speak for too long are likely to be remembered. Quite rightly, Mr. Speaker takes a certain view of their opportunity to speak on other occasions, and I very much want to avoid a black mark in that data bank.
We have discussed some of the disadvantages of the availibility of information, but what about the advantages of making collated information available? The hon. Member for Nuneaton said that medical information should not be too freely available. I should be very ready for my medical history to be freely available, on a push button basis, in every hospital in the country so that at any time reference could be made to it in an emergency. A person taken to hospital after a motor accident, perhaps for an emergency operation, may have an allergy to certain types of medication. If it were possible for his medical particulars to be thrown at once on to a screen for the information of the medical staff, it might make all the difference between life and death for him.
In the same way I am quite prepared for my boring statistics about bronchitis and knock knees to be available to the hospitals. I should like any of my useful organs, too, to be used for transplant operations for the benefit of other people. In that instance, it would also be helpful for them to know that I am blind in the right eye, because otherwise they might try to transplant the wrong cornea.
I believe that my hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Nuneaton are getting a little petty. Let us have genuine control of all access and let us have a code of conduct, but let us not pretend that every vital statistic about ourselves is as vital as all that and needs a Bill of this length and size.
The hon. Member for Harrow, West (Mr. John Page) has given us a fascinating insight into his organs, whether trans planted or otherwise, and, indeed, has given me and other hon. Members some very interesting information about him self which we did not previously know——
—but the hon. Gentleman has chosen to do that. What the Bill is about is the protection of the interests of those who, for whatever reason, innocent or otherwise, do not choose to give information about themselves.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton (Mr. Leslie Huckfield), as previous speakers have done, on the persistent way in which he has pursued this topic throughout successive Parliaments. I only hope that someone, somewhere—possibly the hon. and learned Gentleman the Minister of State, Home Department—will do something about it sometime.
Widespread fears have been expressed, and far from the somewhat complacent attitude adopted by the hon. Member for Harrow, West, in his usual charming way, my objection is that not enough people express those fears. If it were brought to the attention of people just how much information about them was stored, and the possible uses to which it could be put, I am sure that there would be far more cries of protest.
I am equally astonished, and the hon. Member for Harrow, West has just proved my point, at how freely people give information about themselves—frequently quite unnecessary information. But just let one ask a Government Department to give the information on which it is taking such and such a decision, and what is happening to the information itself, and not only will the officials not say but they will immediately shelter behind the Official Secrets Act. So what Government Departments do is to ask for the maximum information from people and, at the same time, feel absolutely safe and secure in the knowledge that they need not divulge any information whatever because they are protected by Statute. What my hon. Friend is trying to do is to give ordinary people the same protection that Government Departments enjoy.
I am sure that the hon. Member for Accrington (Mr. ArthurDavidson) will agree that, equally, that similar protection protects the misuse by Government officials of that information, and is therefore in this way a protection for the individual from whom that information has been obtained. In other words, the restrictions which prevent the Government telling the hon. Gentleman the use to which they put the information equally prevents individual officials misusing it for some purpose other than that for which it was intended.
Obviously, the Official Secrets Act has some purpose, although I have yet to find out what it is. It may be just that purpose. But I do not suggest, of course, that all Government officials willy-nilly misuse information. The hon. and learned Gentleman knows me well enough to appreciate that I would not do that. But the secrecy with which Government Departments operate—under any Government; I am not suggesting it is just the present Government—is in marked contrast to the information they expect to receive from people about themselves.
The Bill is merely to provide a legal framework by which the information that people give will be kept secret, and to ensure that the Government store or private body store shall not willy-nilly dispose of information to other people. This is only part and parcel of a general debate about privacy. I have a feeling that the hon. and learned Gentleman will say—as perhaps any other Minister would say—"There is nothing we can do about it at present. The Younger Committee is sitting and examining the whole law of privacy, and we shall have to wait and see whatever recommendations that Committee makes". But I feel that the general law of privacy is a non-starter. I have always felt so. If we are to deal with protection of the public's right to be left alone, we shall inevitably have to do it in a piece-meal way, dealing with one particular area of privacy at a time. This particular Bill, in dealing with this particular problem, is a start—I put it no higher than that—although I well understand the reservations that the hon. and learned Gentleman on the Front Bench may well have.
It seems elementary to me, as I am sure it seems to the House, that the information which private people and private firms store about persons should be kept private. The hon. Member for Lewis ham, West (Mr. J. Selwyn Gummer) made a point which I had intended to make in a slightly different way. In the last Parliament, in which the hon. Gentleman and I served on the same Committee, we had to deal with the problem of social consequences flowing from unrestricted gaming in this country. So we set up a Gaming Board to license the sort of people who would run casinos and other gaming establishments. If we can do that it seems astonishing that we should not attempt to license the sort of people who can control, be put in charge of or have access to hoards of private information about law-abiding citizens of Britain. The vast majority of people are law-abiding. I see absolutely no objection to a licensing system which would ensure the respectability, at least, and the bona fides, of those put in charge of data banks and people who have access to the information contained in them. I hope that the hon. and learned Gentleman will take that proposal very seriously.
Much comment has been made today about the information on bad debts. The hon. Member for Lewisham, West told us very graphically and dramatically about his terrible experience when he had paid 20p more than he should have done. But that often happens. There is a whole variety of reasons why people do not want to pay a particular bill. They may dispute the quality of the goods. They may say that it has already been paid, and insist that it has been paid. But once a person is put down as a non-payer, for whatever reason, he stays as a non-payer. His credit rating is affected. His ability to obtain goods on credit, on hire purchase or by any other means, is affected for the rest of his life. There should really be some means by which that sort of information about such a person can be checked by that person so that if it is inaccurate it can be erased once and for all or corrected.
What happens to this misinformation is equally important. Often it does go into the hands, for reward or otherwise, of sleazy, disreputable private detectives who use sneaky, underhand and often open-handed methods of thuggery to induce or blackmail people to pay bills which they are disinclined to pay frequently for some honest and open reason. I certainly hope that something will be done about the licensing of private detectives and the sort of people who openly indulge in that kind of tactic. If it is necessary to apply for a licence before opening a betting shop or gaming establishment then it should be necessary to apply for a licence to become a private detective, entitled to snoop and pry into the lives of other people.
There is a far greater danger in computer banks and the ability of computers to store minutiae of information about people. I agree that information stored in a computer is no different from information stored in a file. What the computer does is to enable far more information to be stored in a smaller space for a longer time. Because of that there is a great danger in the passing of information from one computer to another and the total build-up of a picture of a person.
I do not claim to be a technical expert, but what happens I gather is that computers are so sophisticated that they can build up from the information they have been given the information that it has been chosen not to give them. That is a danger not necessarily or not so obviously inherent in the storage of information by ordinary means. I do not think that the hon. Member for Lewisham, West exaggerated when he spoke about the danger to freedom. The unrestricted use of data banks, the unrestricted ability of these banks to integrate information constitutes a potential threat to the greatest freedom of all, the freedom of speech. I do not believe that I exaggerate. Many of us complain that not enough people use their vote. People are disinclined to vote, for whatever reason.
One of the reasons why people are disinclined to express a political view in this country is that they do not want to be involved. That is a reasonable sensible viewpoint of which no one would complain. Equally, a lot of people are concerned at the growing amount of information they feel they have to give to "somebody up there", "they", "those in authority", the people who have power. Integrate those two feelings, a disinclination to be involved and the feeling that people know far too much about one, and people will be frightened to express a vote at all because they fear that somehow, they do not know quite how, because there is so much information about them, the Government, people in power, will know how they voted. Not only will there be apathy which leads to a dictatorship in the end—I do not want to be over-emotive—but equally there will be a disinclination to become involved and, most important, to express dissent, to express criticism, to have a go at the people in authority. That will be the death of freedom as we know it in this country.
Having used terms which the hon. Member for Harrow, West would dispute, I wish to make one or two final observations. There is a danger of what I would call depersonalisation of the individual as a result of the vast amount of information which he is expected to give, sometimes under the threat of a dire penalty. The people who objected to filling in some of the information asked for on the census form had a point. Much of the information asked for seemed quite unnecessary to me, though no doubt the Minister would say that it was wanted so that we might know what future generations would need by way of roads, hospitals, and so on. I realise that there is a credit side to the use of computers. I am not a Luddite in that respect.
However, the excessive use of computers depersonalises people. They become unemployment statistics rather than unemployed persons. They are figures in an opinion poll rather than people who have expressed political views. They might even be among the distinguished group of people called "doubtfuls", for whom many people have great respect and they spend a great deal of time in trying to convert them. They may even become something worse, namely, typical examples of something. I may become "a typical example" rather than me, and I would rather be me than a typical example. Gradually, instead of the computer picture being like me, I tend to become like the computer picture. That is the ultimate process of depersonalisation and of 1984-ism which everybody in this country would wish to avoid.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton on the way in which he has presented and handled this very important Bill. I hope that this hardly well-attended debate—I have seen better attended debates, even on a Friday—will show people that there are Members who realise that there is a danger in the massive demanding, storing and passing on, willy-nilly and uncontrolled, of information. It may well be that this problem will have to be dealt with by a law of privacy. I have spoken in previous debates against that, because a law of privacy is impractical as long as it is essential, as I believe it is, to exempt the Press from it.
One of the most important duties which the Press carries out—and it is an intrusion of privacy—is in respect of what I would call its expose type stories when, in exposing perhaps a fraudulent business or practice, it has to use underhand methods or methods such as those used by The Times in exposing the fraud at Scotland Yard which, if we had a general privacy law, would have been impossible.
I hope that the Government will take the Bill seriously. The strength of feeling expressed today shows that there are people who consider it to be a serious and useful Measure. I hope that at some time, sooner rather than later—because later might well be too late—a Bill such as this will reach the Statute Book.
The hon. Member for Accrington (Mr. Arthur Davidson) has just said that even for a Friday this has not been a very well-attended debate. I do not know about its quantity of attendance, but I think that he would agree with me, and that all hon. Members who have sat here throughout the debate will agree, that certainly from the point of view of quality it has been an extremely interesting debate. I thought we had—if I may be allowed to say so—two absolute gems of sayings of the week, the definition of the hon. Member for Nuneaton (Mr. Leslie Huckfield) as the George Orwell of Nuneaton, a saying to my mind, equalled by only the description by my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, West (Mr. Selwyn Gummer) of computers as "polygamous rather than monogamous". I am not sure what it had to do with the debate but it seemed a most magnificent saying.
This is not the first time that I have had the pleasure of speaking in a debate initiated by the George Orwell of Nuneaton on the subject of the control of personal information. The last time, he may remember, we debated this very same subject we did so between 6.25 a.m. and 7.15 a.m. at the end of a debate on the Consolidated Fund Bill. Certainly both on that occasion and on this occasion I listened with great interest to the very well-informed speech he made.
I am much aware of the fact that he has made a very close study of this subject. He has been extremely persistent in his advocacy of the need for control of the collection of personal information, the need for control of the use to which information stored by computer is used. I join the hon. Member for Accrington in congratulating the hon. Member for Nuneaton upon the pertinacity with which he has pursued that campaign. He himself said at one stage that these matters required publicity. Certainly the hon. Gentleman has done his best to make sure that the public is aware of the problems in this area.
I should also like to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, West upon his speech, which also stressed and properly stressed, the concern which people have about the problems of the use to which personal information is put.
I only wish, in many ways, in view of the standard of the quality of this debate, that I could this afternoon be rather more forthcoming in my views upon this Bill than I shall be able to be for reasons which I shall explain in a moment.
Listening to the debate, it seems to me that the real concern of the hon. Member for Nuneaton is the very amount of that collection of personal information which today is part of our life in a modern-day society, concern as to the effect which can be caused if that information is not accurate, and, particularly, concern and fear that the use to which that information may be put may be for purposes other than that for which it was collected.
There was the example which my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, West gave. I think he spoke of a "good clean list" built up by a book firm. I think he would accept that that has nothing to do with computers as such. It is merely a growing practice, about which he was expressing concern, whereby information obtained by one commercial undertaking can be used by another undertaking for some other purpose.
It seems to me, therefore, that this problem exists in isolation from the computer. This Bill does not deal with computers as such. It deals with data banks handling personal information relating to more than 100,000 individuals. It seems that all that the computer has done in this field is to accelerate what was in any event happening in a twentieth century industrialised society.
As the hon. Member for Accrington said, what the computer has done is to make simpler the collection and holding of vast amounts of personal information; it has made simpler the method of transfer and made the information far more speedily available. I repeat that the Government's view is that the problem is the same and that what the computer has done is to bring to the fore the degree of the problem.
The problem is the safeguarding of information, the security of the files in which the information is contained, and the integrity of those who have the keys, whether they be manual keys or computer keys, to the places where the information is stored. Above all, the problem is the use of that information in a way which appears to people to interfere with what they believe are their rights to privacy. It is because the Government, and the preceding Government, recognised this concern that the whole question of privacy was referred to a Committee under the Chairmanship of Mr. Kenneth Younger.
The hon. and learned Gentleman is right in saying that the main contribution of the computer is to accelerate the development of the whole process, but does he not agree that the unique contribution of the computer is that it permits the integration of many files, which previously was not administratively possible, and that the integration of these files presents a new threat to privacy?
I agree with that, but presumably the integration of the files could be achieved eventually by manual means. I said that the computer had made simpler the collection and transfer of the information. I concede that it has made simpler the building up of a complete profile of a particular individual from pieces of information which before would have been kept separate.
Does not my hon. and learned Friend agree that what is important is not so much the independent outside organisations who use computers but how much right the Government have to use computerised information to interfere with the privacy and rights of individual citizens?
I am coming to my hon. Friend's point. As I said, it was because this is part of the wider problem of privacy that the previous Government referred this matter to the Younger Committee.
The hon. Member for Nuneaton and many other hon. Members raised both with the previous Government and with the present Government on many occasions the question why the Younger Committee had been limited to the private sector and did not include the public sector. Not only is the Younger Committee looking at privacy in the private sector, but the Prime Minister, shortly after taking office, set up an interdepartmental group under the leadership of the Home Office to make a comprehensive survey of the categories of personal information held or likely to be held in the computer system of Government Departments and the rules governing its storage and use. That information is contained in an Answer given by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to the hon. Member for Wood Green (Mrs. Joyce Butler).
This is not the first time we have seen the Bill—I compliment the hon. Member for Nuneaton again on his pertinacity—for the hon. Member has published it before. This time we have had the great advantage of having a debate in which he and other hon. Members have been able to express their concern. I do not think that the Bill was entirely lost last time. It was not then discussed in the House, but its provisions were examined within Government Departments. Much more important, I believe that they have been examined by the Younger Committee in its review of the whole law of privacy. The hon. Member has told us that he gave oral evidence to that Committee. I am sure that he then took the opportunity of explaining the types of safeguard that he wished to see.
It was the expression of concern about this matter that led to the setting up of the Younger Committee and the interdepartmental committee on the use of computers in Government hands. My reason for not wishing to say anything about the merits of the Bill is concerned with the question of timing. I am told that the Younger Committee, which has been carrying out this fundamental review of the whole question of privacy as it affects the private sector, is to report to the Home Secretary within the next few weeks. I understand that the review being carried out under Home Office chairmanship concerning the use of computers by the Government has also been completed and will shortly be in the hands of the Home Secretary.
Arrangements will be put in hand for the publication of the Younger Report, and the Government must have the opportunity of considering it fully, together with the report of the interdepartmental body of officials, in order to decide what, if any, legislative action ought then to be taken. I assure the House that the reports will be examined from the point of view of the bearing they have upon each other, and if, in the light of that examination, the Government conclude that further safeguards are required for the protection of personal information in data banks, they will not hesitate to take whatever measures may be necessary to achieve that end.
It would not be right for me, as a Minister, to comment upon the Bill's method of approach before I have had the opportunity to consider the report of the experienced committee set up by the previous Administration but reporting to this one.
It is always simple for any Minister, whether in Committee or on the Floor of the House, to use the time-honoured defence, "This is not a suitable Bill for this type of reform", or, "This is not the appropriate moment to introduce this Measure," but I urge the House to accept that we are now being asked to give a Second Reading to a Bill which will establish substantial controls over the whole range of data banks in both the public and the private sector. We are being asked to do this at a moment when we are expecting to receive an authoritative independent review of the need for such controls. I am sure the hon. Gentleman would accept the force of the argument that we cannot invite the House to pass a Bill of this kind immediately in advance of the receipt of that report.
I say this not because I do not share much of the concern expressed by the hon. Member for Nuneaton. Indeed the fact that we have had this debate this afternoon will be a further source of information which can be considered by the Home Office when it considers these matters, following the review which it is about to receive. We wish to ensure that the very effectiveness of the computer—and the hon. Gentleman has always been careful to make clear that he does not oppose the computer as such—does not make its use easily able to be abused for other purposes.
We must remember that there are many means by which the storage of information can be protected from unauthorised disclosure. I gather that there are a number of proven techniques available which can be used in computers to prevent the unauthorised use of material and that these can be applied at the stages of input, storage and output. It is true that these techniques cannot provide an unbreachable security, but they can make the task of penetration difficult and can bring back the situation more to what exists today when the security and safeguarding of the individual file rely in the end on the integrity of the man responsible for keeping the file.
I know that the hon. Member for Nuneaton will be a little disappointed that I have been unable to be a little more forthcoming about the Bill, but I ask him to consider the strength of the argument which I have advanced. No Government could give encouragement to a Bill such as this, however well intentioned and well drafted, at a time when they are just about to receive a report on this subject from an authoritative body set up for that very purpose. I hope the hon. Gentleman will feel that, having aired the Bill as he has today and having had the advantage of support from hon. Members in all parts of the House, and also having had my undertaking that we propose to look at the matter in the light of all the matters which are presented to us by the review body so that we may see what further safeguards are needed to ensure that information is not abused, this debate has achieved his purposes, even though this Bill may make no further progress this Session.
The whole House owes a debt of gratitude to the hon. Member for Nuneaton (Mr. Leslie Huckfield) for having acted as a personal watchdog over a long period of time against the encroachments of this potential monster. It is fair to say that the computer itself need not necessarily be a monster, as seemed to be suggested by some speeches in this debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, West (Mr. John Page) is right when he says that it has many useful functions in dealing with medical, population, planing and other statistics.
There are four matters to which I wish to draw specific attention. The first was referred to by the hon. Member for Accrington (Mr. Arthur Davidson), and it is the element of de-personalisation involved in the computer. I get more and more frightened by the de-personalisation of certain aspects of our life. I accept that the postal code may be a necessary aid to the Post Office, as my right hon. Friend the Minister for Posts and Telecommunications said in answer to a supplementary question on Monday. Nevertheless it is humiliating to have to use a conglomeration of letters and figures where once we used the address, "The House of Commons, Westminster". However, bringing an individual down to a series of dots which are available to a large number of others for them to use in their own way has an element of considerable danger.
In his philosophical speech, my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, West (Mr. Selwyn Gummer) referred to the significance of the name in primitive culture. Hon. Members may recall that T. S. Eliot said in "Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats" that a cat has three separate names. He has the name given him by his owner. He has the official name by which he is known to other cats. Finally he has the secret, special name which is only known to himself because it is so important that it can be known only to himself. There is an element of this in each of us, and there is something personal about that aspect of our own information. The fact that it is bandied around sometimes on commercial terms, sometimes on reckless terms by computers, has a sinister background to it.
I ask my hon. Friend the Minister of State, when the Government consider the Younger Committee Report, to put one important point before his right hon. and hon. Friends. To what extent is it right that this House should now take control of the kind of information which is being sought and put into computers? I am worried by the fact that so much information put out on behalf of theGovernment—I have in mind the Census, for example—never comes before this House for hon. Members to consider the form of questions to be asked.
There is also, the extent to which computer information should be used in the form of the estoppel doctrine in law, as a shield only and not as a spear. Too often commercial information which is needed to protect is taken out on the aggressive side. That was inherent in much that was said by the hon. Member for Nuneaton.
There is the sinister ability of the computer to fill in. My hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, West mentioned the capacity of the computer to change things without the public knowing. Perhaps the best example at the moment is the pictures that we are getting from the moon. In many cases they are being improved because the computer knows what ought to be going on in other parts of the picture. In other words, there is not a perfect picture in the form of visual reproduction. The computer is adding what it knows should be in the picture. This is probably inherent in what my hon. Friend said about the Leader of the Opposition being in a position where what he said could be changed or distorted or could have a different emphasis put on it. It would be possible to say in those circumstances that one could have made an improved Leader of the Opposition by filling in the bits that we find worrying about the right hon. Gentleman. But perhaps that is a doctrine of too much perfection in the circumstances.
The lesson which comes from the Bill is that even though, with the Younger Committee about to report, it may not be acceptable to the Government in its present form, there is an issue which troubles the individual. It is an issue about which the House has shown itself to be deeply concerned. Above all, it is an issue which private citizens in the form of people such as the hon. Member for Nuneaton and Government Departments as such will be watching constantly.
Without taking the matter too far——