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Privacy

– in the House of Commons at 12:57 pm on 19th December 1980.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Mr Alfred Dubs Mr Alfred Dubs , Wandsworth Battersea South 12:57 pm, 19th December 1980

I welcome the opportunity for a short debate on the privacy of the individual and the safeguards that do or do not exist to protect that privacy.

I understand that it is not in order to make proposals as a basis for new legislation. I am aware that that is not appropriate, and I shall make no such suggestions.

Privacy has many aspects, but my particular concern has to do with the keeping of secret personal records about individuals and the consequences of this practice. By that I mean the relationship of an individual or certain aspects of that relationship to the State and its institutions or privately owned institutions. I am not concerned only about computers. The use of computers to control records has recently attracted much public attention. Computers are just one way in which records are stored and do not affect the principle of what I shall say.

There are relatively few controls over the way in which such private information can be used. Information may be supplied for one purpose and used by the institution collecting it for a different purpose.

But I turn to the good side as examples of what has been done well. The Consumer Credit Act 1974 gives an individual rights of access to information about him that may have been collected by credit reference agencies. If the individual concerned does not like what he finds, he is allowed to add a note of dissent about the way in which the records are kept. If he is in dispute, he may go to the Director General of Fair Trading for arbitration. That is an interesting model of what can be done and how safeguards have been built into past legislation covering one aspect of privacy.

I can best illustrate my concern by giving five examples, without mentioning names, of how the privacy of individuals has been encroached upon.

The first example concerns the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, which received an allegation that a woman had battered her baby. The result was that various people called on this unfortunate woman. The allegation was based upon a rumour that the NSPCC had received, possibly through malicious intent. The lady concerned, who in no way had been guilty of battering her baby, was subjected to unfortunate and unpleasant interrogation and had no right to see the report upon which the allegation had been based. She still has no right to have her name removed from that record.

The second instance concerns an individual who was put on a drunken driving charge. By some mistake between the court and the police computer, the computer's record showed that the individual was sentenced for taking and driving away a vehicle. The mistaken record was read out in court on a subsequent occasion, to the great disadvantage of the person who was up on another and less serious charge. We are left with the position that the individual still has no right to see the police record—what is on the computer—and has no means of ensuring, in spite of his protestations, that the mistake has been rectified. It could clearly be disadvantageous to him in the future.

The third instance concerns an employee of a local authority who, on transferring to another local authority where she had been offered a job, was surprised to discover that the reference given by her former authority employer about her family life was somewhat damaging and suggested that she might not be suitable for the job for which she was applying. In spite of many efforts on her part, she has not been able to sort out precisely what is on the records. The reference has therefore been circulating and has not been helpful to her. Because she does not know precisely what the information is, the poor lady is unable to take legal action, not that she would want publicity about the issue anyway. It is invidious for many of the individuals concerned that if they publicise their cases and give their identities away it could have unfortunate consequences. So many individuals affected in that way are at a serious disadvantage in seeking to redress a wrong caused to them.

The fourth instance concerns an employer who, as a condition of taking on an employee, demanded a fidelity bond to protect him against any misappropriation of money or similar action by the employee. The application to the insurance company for such a bond was refused because it had information about the job applicant. There was no way in which that information could be revealed, and the applicant did not get the job. In future he may have great difficulty in getting a job because of something on a file somewhere. He does not know where the information originated or what it is, and he therefore cannot argue against it or prove that it is mistaken.

The fifth instance concerns medical records. There are a number of cases in which information about an individual is on a medical record, about which there is difficulty of access and thus of coming to terms with what is recorded, which may have unfortunate implications. One example concerns a woman who went to a doctor who told her that there was nothing physically wrong with her and referred her to a psychiatrist. She went to a different doctor who diagnosed a physical condition and operated to correct it. She is now concerned that there is on her NHS record a suggestion that she has psychiatric problems and that that might be unfortunate for her in the future.

This question of medical records arises in other circumstances. An example concerns a woman who was employed by a health authority and was injured in the course of her work. She took action against the authority in order to get compensation. The authority, without the lady's permission, gave her medical records to its legal advisers to use as part of its defence in the action she was bringing. That is an improper use of medical records and it indicates the dangers that exist when they can be used in this way.

Such records are not simply a matter of the relationship between the doctor and patient. The question arises of when the record is supplied by the doctor to someone else. For example, it might go not just to legal advisers of the authority but to an insurance company or a potential employer. Even in such circumstances, the person who is the subject of the medical record does not have any right to see what is said in it.

In a simpler way, there is still the difficulty that an individual may not see a medical record where there is no intention to supply it to somebody else. I understand the difficulties, for example, where an individual has a terminal illness and the doctor might feel that revealing the medical record could cause distress. That could also apply in the case of mental illness. Some information on medical records is speculative, and no doctor wants such information to be made available to a patient when it is not confirmed. On the other hand, an experiment was carried out at the Royal Melbourne hospital, Australia, and patients were allowed to see their medical records. It did not appear to have any unfortunate consequences either for the patients or for the doctors.

One safeguard would be if medical records were made available only in the presence of a doctor. Anything unfortunate contained in the records, or anything that the patient might misunderstand, could then be explained by the doctor. He could give the necessary assurances to the individual, who might otherwise be alarmed. Of course, a doctor needs to be present to decipher the handwriting on the medical records, otherwise they might as well be in a secret code, because no patient could know what they meant anyway.

There is a problem with privacy. The instances that I have given are only some, among many, of where institutions keep records that affect an individual. Those records may then be used and put into circulation in such a way that the individual is damaged by them. It may be that the records are perfectly truthful, in which case the individual may not be able to complain that they are damaging. But in other instances they may contain information that is not accurate and may be damaging. What is an individual to do in such a case? There is an increasing tendency in a modern State with modern developments for more and more records to be kept. There are people who seem to make it their life's work to keep records about their fellow citizens. That increasing encroachment on the individual is a matter of concern and something to which we should be alerted.

I have purposely left out of my speech the records kept by the police—with the exception of one instance that I quoted—fingerprints and so on. Although I am concerned about those also, they are properly the subject of another debate on a different occasion. Indeed, they have already been the subject of much discussion in the House. I have deliberately confined myself to a narrow aspect of privacy and the individual. I look forward with interest to the Minister's response. I shall then know whether he agrees that there is a problem and what action he suggests should be taken to put it right.

Photo of Mr Timothy Raison Mr Timothy Raison , Aylesbury 1:08 pm, 19th December 1980

I congratulate the hon. Member for Battersea, South (Mr. Dubs) on his good fortune in drawing a place to discuss a subject that is obviously of great importance. During the course of his speech he said that we have a problem about privacy. I do not dissent from that. We also have a problem about discussing privacy under the rules of the House. As the House knows, and as the hon. Gentleman indicated at the beginning of his speech, we are not able to discuss possible future legislation in Adjournment debates. That somewhat hampers any discussion of how to deal with the problems that the hon. Gentleman has put forward in his usual courteous and moderate way. I am afraid that we must observe the rules of the House. I shall try to give some sort of response to the hon. Gentleman within those terms.

As I have said already, I am glad that the debate gives me an opportunity to say a little about our views on the safeguards that exist to protect the privacy of the individual. Of course, it is a wide subject. The hon. Gentleman said that his prime concern was personal records. As well as saying something about the particular topics that the hon. Gentleman raised, I shall, if the opportunity arises, give a progress report on some of the other developments since the Younger committee reported.

The hon. Gentleman said that personal records did not concern only computers. There has been a lot of argument about personal records and data protection. One ingredient of that argument is the question whether the problem should be seen as concerning new developments in computers or records, whether on computers, in buff manilla files or wherever.

The whole question was examined by the departmental committee under the chairmanship of the late Sir Kenneth Younger. It reported in 1972 and made many recommendations, not all addressed to the Government. There was a debate on the committee's report in another place on 6 June 1973 and in this House on 13 July that year. It is worth remembering that the committee's recommendations were addressed to a wide variety of organisations, including the press, broadcasting authorities, banks, universities, the medical profession and computer users. Discussions have continued ever since.

The hon. Gentleman did not mention the names of those concerned in the cases to which he referred. I do not think that he expected me to give a detailed reply, but as he presented them carefully and reasonably it is proper that I should say a word or two about the matters that cropped up.

Except perhaps in the case about the police computer, none of the examples lies directly within the responsibility of the Home Secretary or relates to things that he can control by administrative action, but I will say what I think can be done about them on the facts as the hon. Member has described them. I will start with the one about police computer records, for which, of course, the Home Secretary does have an overall concern, though he is not responsible for the day-to-day operations of police forces.

If a demonstrably erroneous entry is included in the police records, whether computerised or not, it will be the wish of the police to correct it, and that is normal practice. But if for any reason after full inquiry a disagreement on the facts cannot be resolved, the complainant may make a formal complaint under the complaints procedure set up by the Police Act 1976. In circumstances of the sort described by the hon. Member a formal legal right to see the police records is not needed and would add nothing to the information available to the complainant. The Lindop committee did not recommend a blanket right of access by the data subject to police computer records, and I am sure that it was right.

The other cases do not appear to involve computer records or to be about areas of life for which the Home Secretary has any responsibility. The Home Secretary has no power to make anybody disclose to a third party expressions of opinion somebody has given him in confidence about the third party. I think that it would be inappropriate for the Home Secretary to seek such a power. That would go much further than the Lindop committee's recommendations for subject access to factual information recorded on computers, which specifically recognised the problem of confidentiality in relation to information furnished by third parties. If the hon. Member wrote an opinion about somebody else in his diary or provided it in confidence to a potential employer on request, it would be unacceptable that the other person should have a blanket right to read it or to substitute what he thought was a more correct opinion.

The mother who complains that a malicious and untrue complaint that she had battered her baby ought to be removed from NSPCC records ought to press the NSPCC hard to remove it. The hon. Gentleman could also join, if necessary, in pressing the NSPCC in that direction.

I turn to the question of the social worker who complains that her employing authority will not show her the references that it gave to another authority. This, again, has nothing directly to do with the Home Office, but the Younger committee commented on this kind of case in chapter 11 of its report. It said in paragraph 323: We consider it unobjectionable that prospective employers should ask for the names of persons and firms who can testify to the character, skill or experience of an applicant for a job. It is reasonable to suppose that applicants will provide the names of people who, in their view, are likely to provide a favourable report. If the employer is to have a balanced view, however, he must be free to seek other opinions. From the employer's point of view the purpose of employment is useful work rather than the welfare of the employee (though the two are linked), so that the primary purpose of a report on an employee is its value to the employer. This value will be much reduced if the report is not frank, or alternatively has to be disclosed to the employee without regard to the ensuing damage to staff relations. The more likely result of compulsory disclosure would be to inhibit referees and reporting officers in what they wrote. So reports would tend to be superficial and unreliable, and the employer would be driven to supplementing them by word of mouth. The problem would merely be driven underground. I think that that was a carefully considered view on the part of the Younger committee and that it must command respect. What it really boils down to is that this is not a matter for the Government. In a free society, we have to look to employers to behave responsibly. But again, if pressure is needed to urge employers to behave responsibly, so be it.

The same applies to the man who could not get a job because he could not get a fidelity bond. On the hon. Member's account, I have considerable sympathy with the complainant's feelings. Again, if the hon. Member is seeking ways to remedy that, this takes us back into the sphere of legislation, from which we are barred, but essentially, as things stand, I think that we must look to employers and business generally to behave responsibly in this matter.

The hon. Gentleman also raised the question of medical records. Chapter 13 of the Younger report is about medical records. I understand that the view of the medical profession is that it is not always right for patients to have access to these records. My hon. Friend the Minister for Health said in reply to a written question: Medical records are maintained by doctors for the purpose of the treatment and care of their patients. Safeguarding the confidentiality of such records is primarily an ethical matter for the doctors concerned. The use of identifiable information from medical records for a purpose other than that for which it was obtained—except when ordered by a court or pursuant to a statutory requirement—would require the agreement of doctors concerned, who would decide as an ethical matter whether the consent of the patient should also be sought. I would not wish the technicality of legal ownership of medical records by the Secretary of State, or custody of medical records by health authorities, to be used to circumscribe the ethical responsibility of doctors for confidentiality in relation to their patients."- Official Report, 6 May 1980; Vol. 984, c. 86–7.] I had better not say any more about medical records, as the subject is clearly the responsibility of my hon. Friend the Minister for Health, but I shall bring the hon. Gentleman's comments to my hon. Friend's attention so that he may take note of what the hon. Gentleman has said.

Having touched briefly on the points put to me in the debate, I wish to say a word or two about some of the other things that have happened in this area since the Younger report was published.

First, on the subject of the press, it is fair to report that the Press Council has increased its lay element in the light of the Younger committee's recommendations.

Another matter relating to privacy that was touched upon in the Younger report was the question of broadcasting complaints. As the hon. Gentleman knows, Parliament has only recently legislated to provide a means for the independent consideration of complaints by individuals about the unwarranted infringement of their privacy in, or the obtaining of material included in, broadcast programmes. The Broadcasting Complaints Commission, for which provision is made in the Broadcasting Act 1980, will be able to consider and adjudicate upon complaints of that nature related to programmes broadcast on radio or television after the relevant section of the Act is brought into effect in the spring or early summer of next year, and it will be able to require the broadcasting body concerned to publish its adjudication. It will be for the commission to reach a view on whether an individual's privacy was unwarrantably infringed in any particular case.

Another point that the hon. Gentleman touched on relates to the realm of consumer credit. As he said, what has happened there has been a good thing, and I am sure that the House would agree. A number of the recommendations of the Younger committee were given effect in the Consummer Credit Act 1974.

Another point that often crops up, and one that was considered by the Younger committee, is the question of control over private investigators. The committee recommended the introduction of controls to exclude those who on account of their known character were not fit and proper persons to be private investigators. The Younger committee did not think it practicable to prescribe standards of competence or conduct for private investigators. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary recently announced his conclusion that the case for statutory controls over the private security industry had not been made out and that it is preferable to support and encourage self-regulation within the industry. Discussions will now take place with the private security industry, including representatives of private investigators, on how that support and encouragement can best be given.

I again turn to the question of the police, which has already featured in the debate. Chief officers of police are well aware of the sensitivity of much of the information handled by them in fulfilling their role in the maintenance of law and order and the detection and prevention of crime. Such information should be collected only if it is relevant to those objectives. The use of computer and other technological aids, while facilitating the work of the service and enabling it to use scarce resources more effectively, does not reduce its awareness of the need for sensitivity. Safeguarding the individual against the risks of violation of privacy due to mishandling of police information has traditionally been of great concern to chief officers, and the means of minimising those risks are kept constantly under review, both locally and nationally.

Finally, I turn to the question of breach of confidence. The law relating to breach of confidence was discussed by the Younger committee, and it was referred to the English and Scottish Law Commissions. I understand that the report of the Law Commission for England and Wales is expected in the course of the first half of next year and that the Scottish report is expected later.

During my remarks, I have tried to pick up the hon. Gentleman's observations. I have given necessarily brief and quick answers to the points that he has made. I have also tried to say something about the way in which things have developed since the Younger committee report. A major question is that of data protection, but, as I have indicated, that is something which clearly lies within the realms of possible future legislation, and I shall not embark on it now.

I wish both you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and the hon. Member for Battersea, South a very happy Christmas.