Only a few days to go: We’re raising £25,000 to keep TheyWorkForYou running and make sure people across the UK can hold their elected representatives to account.

Donate to our crowdfunder

Employees (Vetting)

– in the House of Commons at 12:59 pm on 22nd December 1988.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Mr Greville Janner Mr Greville Janner , Leicester West 12:59 pm, 22nd December 1988

I join in that salutation to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and add my mourning to that already expressed about the tragic air crash. It is something with which those of us who are about to take off for India, Hong Kong and Australia identify. We deeply mourn what has happened to others and pray that it will not be a precedent.

The debate, which I am glad to be able to instigate, concerns the vetting of employees who are seeking work or who are at work. My hon. Friends and I who are concerned about this subject accept that vetting is proper for security matters, but believe that it should be done in an intelligent and recognised way by those who are responsible; it is a Government job to vet people on security grounds.

When vetting people who are seeking work, employers are entitled to exercise their powers of discrimination but not to discriminate on the grounds of sex, race or trade union membership. It is wrong for them to turn to private, secret shadowy organisations such as the Economic League, which hoards information that it does not allow any independent organisation to see. I hope that, as a result of today's debate, the Government will institute an independent inquiry into the operation of such organisations, especially the Economic League.

The Economic League is known to be the key organisation in this sector. I am pleased to say that, at its meeting yesterday, the Select Committee on Employment laid on the table a letter received by hand from the Economic League dated 20 December. I have spoken to Mr. Michael Noar, the Economic League's director general, who has no objection to it being placed before the House. The letter refers to subscribers but says that the Economic League does not publish a list of them; it is secret. It is known that many of the subscribers are major companies and that none of them subscribes to any political party other than the Conservative party. Many of the 2,000 companies that Mr. Noar says belong to the organisation do not declare their gifts to this evil organisation but launder them, and I ask the Government to conduct an independent inquiry to investigate its funding.

The debate is not about Reds creeping out from under the bed or, as Mr. Noar suggests, a "Communist-backed campaign" against the Economic League. I have been accused of much wickedness, but never of being Communist or Communist-backed.

It is extraordinary to consider the people who have been pinpointed by this organisation. Among hon. Members are my right hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Ashley), a well-known militant; my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Warley, West (Mr. Archer), who told me that it has a file on him because in 1972 he addressed a meeting of War Resisters International, but he can think of more wicked ways to behave than that; my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Corbett), who is not exactly on the far Left of any party; and that well-known extremist, my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton). Ninety per cent. of those who are known to be on the list because of leakages are Left-wing activists. I shudder to think what the list says about you, Madam Deputy Speaker.

I do not wish to give anything away, but in the same letter Mr. Noar said: any individual who believes that he or she may appear in the League's records is free to check with us and be told precisely what information, if any, is held. I applied and was told that the Economic League was fairly sure that there was nothing on the computer, but if I sent £10 an official search would be conducted. The league's letter said, in words to this effect, "We keep a list of Labour Members of Parliament and that is all that appears to be there about you."

I asked Mr. Noar whether it was possible to obtain copies of the Economic League's information and was told that that was much too expensive but might be done if individuals requested it. I appeal to any member of the public, trade unionist or hon. Member who feels strongly that people should not be subjected to the scrutiny of advisers and company spies who hide behind a well-financed organisation of this sort to ask what is held on him or her. It is difficult to find out what goes on, but there have been some inquiries.

Among those who have been defamed and whose lives have been made thoroughly wretched because of the disclosures is Mr. Kenneth Williamson, chairman of a campaign to stop an Oxford hospital for the elderly from being closed, who was on the list as a troublemaker. Mr. Sydney Scroggie, a blind pensioner from Dundee who wrote a letter to his local newspaper supporting Edinburgh city council's decision to buy—this is very wicked—a portrait of Nelson Mandela, was also on the list. Richard Stokes, a former personnel manager who was approached by an Economic League official while working for Glaxo, was told: The important thing really is to make sure that they didn't omit any subversives. There does not seem to be any concern about the lives, work and jobs of innocent people on the list and the damage done to them.

Mr. Stokes noted that Dame Olga Ovarov CBE, a distinguished veterinary scientist who worked for Glaxo, was on the list. When he asked why, he received this reply: "anybody with a Russian name would come under scrutiny." I wonder whether that would hold true today. I look back at my ancestors and am glad that my name does not sound Russian.

A former regional director of the league, Mr. Richard Brett, said that he thought that the league's central register was "chaotic" and "more fiction than fact". Presumably, reputable companies go to the league for information. I wonder whether they realise that the register which is consulted is "chaotic" and "more fiction than fact".

A solicitor, Derek Ogg, was branded an "anarchist" because he was the editor of a fringe magazine on sale in anarchist bookshops apparently aimed at Edinburgh's gay community. He had a very sinister political involvement —he was a member of the Conservative party. Indeed, he was a candidate in the regional and district council elections and was chairman of the Young Conservatives in his constituency for two magnificent years. He, too, was on the list.

I wonder whether the Minister is on the list. In charge as he is of tourism, he brings in people from east European countries. I know that, in his hidden way, he has been helping to get tourists to come here from Communist China. He should carefully look at what the Economic League has on him. I invite him, as part of his independent inquiry, to ask about himself. There are one or two very doubtful characters on the Conservative Benches behind him who are probably also on the list. If the league knew a little of what I know about them, their political reputation might be harmed. One is a member of the Institute of Personnel Management and the other is a member of a Select Committee—it would be a sub-committee anywhere else—who agrees with me on occasions

A 1986 official publication of the Economic League entitled "Companies under Attack" identifies a range of organisations that are unduly influenced by political aims and therefore virtually Communist fronts. These include the Anti-Apartheid Movement, and such extreme left-wing bodies as Oxfam, War on Want, Christian Aid and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.

This organisation is effectively and seriously inefficient, chaotic and rotten, and sensible companies should not waste shareholders' money upon it. Shareholders should demand that the companies in which they are involved do not pour money into it. It is a pernicious, insidious, modern McCarthyite body which haunts the shadows of the world of industrial relations, causing damage which it cannot prove to innocent people's reputations.

If the Data Protection Act 1974 extended—alas, it does not—to non-automatically processed personnel data, access might be obtained. We know—because it has told us—that the league keeps automatically processed data to a minimum. There is no way in which we can find out what it has on us.

As a Christmas gesture of good will to innocent, good people seeking jobs in the new year, will the Government undertake—I seek no more than that—to examine the possibility of an inquiry, sparked off by the Department of Employment? That would reassure the public and the shareholders whose money has been put into the organisation, often without their knowledge. Also, hopefully it would put an end to wicked political vetting that is done secretly by private organisations, as opposed to proper vetting done publicly by those whose job it is to do so and who are responsible to the public if they make a mistake that causes harm.

Photo of Mr David Young Mr David Young , Bolton South East 1:12 pm, 22nd December 1988

I wish to associate myself with the expressions of sympathy for the victims of the tragic air disaster.

This debate is about human rights. Individuals should be able to apply for a job and be judged on accurate information and not, as seems to be happening according to articles in newspapers such as The Observer and the Financial Times—hardly Left-wing journals—on inaccurate, secret and biased information. Such a procedure is even more insidious and more dangerous to society than salmonella in eggs. We need, from the Department of Employment, somebody with the courage of the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South (Mrs. Currie) to stand up for those who are so disadvantaged.

In the north-west, 6,000 people are on the Economic League black list and the figures of companies involved range from 300 to 200. It is all too easy in an area with high unemployment, where many people are applying for jobs, to reject an applicant without looking too deeply into whether information on which a decision is based is accurate. If people are being adjudged, they have a fundamental right to know that the information about them is accurate. If the information is wrong, there should be a state apparatus that allows one to defend one's rights and honour.

I hope that the Minister will at some time enshrine in legislation the employee protection—for prospective employees and those already in employment. A meaningful step forward would be to extend the Data Protection Act 1984 to files and card indexes. One of the insidious features of the Economic League is that, although it honours the letter of the law, it defiles its spirit. That is why we must seek redress. I am concerned that companies can avoid telling their shareholders and customers that they are contributing to an organisation such as the Economic League.

Perhaps the real subversives are those who, under the cloak of freedom and defence of democracy, charge people, find them guilty and condemn them, without the individual having the right to answer the charge. That is the real subversion of the British way of life and of everything for which this House stands.

Photo of Mr John Lee Mr John Lee , Pendle 1:16 pm, 22nd December 1988

First, Madam Deputy Speaker, I wish you a very happy Christmas, even though I do not give you mistletoe as the hon. and learned Member for Leicester, West (Mr. Janner) did. Nevertheless, my good wishes are sincere.

I am grateful to the hon. and learned Member for raising this matter. It is an important issue on which there has been a good deal of misunderstanding of late. I welcome the opportunity to clarify the issues that are involved and to state clearly the Government's position.

Essentially, there are two aspects that we must consider. The first aspect is the way in which employers decide which individuals to recruit to their businesses, and that is a matter for the Department of Employment. The second aspect is the collection and storage of personal data, where my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has the main interest.

There have been suggestions that the employment service might have made use of information held by the Economic League before submitting job applicants to an employer. I wish to make it clear at the outset that it is not the policy of the employment service—nor has it ever been —to use the services of the Economic League or of any similar organisation. Employers place vacancies with the employment service and the function of the service is to assess the suitability of a potential applicant to carry out the activities of the job in question.

I shall clarify the obligations of employers when they decide to recruit someone to their business. Provided that they do not offend the laws against race or sex discrimination, they are free to choose how to go about selecting and recruiting new employees. There is nothing odd about that. After all, it is employers who know their own businesses best. It is reasonable that they should be able to choose who they wish to employ. They may, for example, decide to seek information on an individual from an independent source. I see nothing wrong with that. It is a generally accepted practice that prospective employees should supply a reference from, among others, their former employer as to their suitability for a certain job.

There is another important reason why employers should have the freedom to recruit who and how they wish. Too many restrictions would add to the burdens on business and tend to make employers reluctant to take on new recruits. We know that that would have a disastrous effect on new employment opportunities and the unemployed.

There are organisations such as the Economic League that have set themselves up as providers of information, and there is nothing unlawful about that. Equally, there is nothing unlawful about employers choosing to use such information to reach recruitment decisions if that is what they wish to do.

Photo of Mr Richard Holt Mr Richard Holt , Langbaurgh

Will my hon. Friend say whether it is lawful to give false and malicious information?

Photo of Mr John Lee Mr John Lee , Pendle

I shall come to that. I ask my hon. Friend to bear with me.

My previous remarks do not mean that there are no restrictions on the activities of organisations such as the Economic League. Those who provide this sort of information bear a heavy responsibility to ensure that it is accurate. Equally, employers who use such information should satisfy themselves of its quality and accuracy, perhaps by asking for a second opinion from a reliable source.

As I have said, it is my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary who has the main responsibility for data protection considerations. However, I shall attempt to explain the current legislation and I shall ensure that any points with which I am unable to deal are brought to the attention of my colleagues in the Home Office.

For individuals who believe that information that is held about them on computer is incorrect, extensive remedies are available under data protection legislation. As hon. Members will know, all data users who hold and process personal data are required automatically to register with the Data Protection Registrar. Data subjects have the right of access to data about them on payment of a fee of up to £10 a record. The registrar will assist any individual who has a complaint against a data user and will investigate any case in which he considers that the data protection principles have been infringed. He may issue an enforcement notice to the data user, who has a right of appeal to the data protection tribunal and thence the courts. Some data users who have not registered have been prosecuted.

It is true that data protection legislation does not cover manually held records, and I shall return to that point in a moment. At this stage, I want to clarify what remedies already exist. In addition to the statutory right that I have outlined, it would be open to someone who has evidence of misinformation being supplied about him to mount an action for damages in the civil courts.

The Opposition have made a number of suggestions about what the Government might do to deal with what they perceive to be a problem. It has been suggested that the Government should set up a review of employers' recruitment and vetting practices, but I am not clear how such a review would help us. The Government believe that employers must have the freedom to decide how to recruit to their work force, providing that they respect the laws on sexual and racial discrimination. Employers have always been free to take up confidential references on prospective employees, and there is nothing wrong with that. It is employers who can best decide how to achieve their recruitment objectives.

Photo of Mr Richard Holt Mr Richard Holt , Langbaurgh

If people can go to court on a civil action, as my hon. Friend said, can they receive legal aid and, if not, are the Government considering offering it?

Photo of Mr John Lee Mr John Lee , Pendle

With great respect, that is not a question that I have the immediate knowledge to answer. I shall see that an answer is obtained, and I shall write to my hon. Friend.

New legislation on these matters is neither necessary nor desirable.

Another suggestion is that the activities of supplies of information should be regulated. Legislation would be necessary to make it an offence for an individual or organisation to supply false information to an employer on a prospective employee or to supply information without the knowledge of that employee. The legislation, therefore, would require the organisation to inform the individual concerned to give him or her the opportunity to correct any inaccuracies. That is an impracticable suggestion because the proposal is patently unenforceable, and unenforceable law is bad law.

Another proposal is that the use by employers of information provided by organisations such as the Economic League should be regulated. It has been suggested that that could be done by requiring employers who propose to use such information to inform job applicants that such information is being sought. Again, that is a wholly impracticable and undesirable suggestion. I have already made it clear that the Government's view is that employers should be free to decide whom to recruit, provided they do not break the law on sexual or racial discrimination. Again, I doubt whether such provisions could be enforced, and there is no point in having an unenforceable law.

It has been suggested that it should be made illegal to discriminate against people on the basis of their political or religious views, in the same way that it is illegal to discriminate against people on the grounds of sex or race. I must emphasise that the Government are opposed to any form of unfair discrimination. Such discrimination is not only morally wrong, but economically stupid. Employers should recruit the best person for the job.

The Government's policy on discrimination on the basis of race or sex is backed by legislation because the scale of the problem merited such action. It is not clear that there is widespread abuse, in terms of political or religious discrimination, that would merit specific legislation, although discrimination in general is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary.

I have dealt with suggestions that would affect employment law. I come now to the suggestion that the data protection legislation is defective, in that it does not cover manually held records and that that loophole should be remedied. I understand from correspondence in the past 24 hours that the Economic League is considering computerising some of its records.

Photo of Mr John Lee Mr John Lee , Pendle

I understood that a letter setting out that possibility had been conveyed to the hon. and learned Gentleman, and a copy was sent to me. I shall show it to the hon. and learned Gentleman after the debate.

I have already made it clear that this is a matter not for me but for my Home Office colleagues. Have Opposition Members really thought about the practicalities of the suggestion? It is relatively straightforward to give someone a printout of computerised information, as it usually consists of specific items of information in summary form. Moreover, the Data Protection Act provides safeguards in relation to information held on computer, requiring it to be relevant, accurate and not excessive in relation to the purpose for which it is held.

Imagine the difficulties in providing for a system of access to manual records analogous to that provided for data processed automatically. Manual files relating to individuals would have to be weeded to ensure that the subject saw only information relevant to him. It would he necessary to provide accommodation to enable him to read the file and supervision might be necessary to ensure that nothing was removed or altered. Thus, the resource costs involved would be considerable.

Computerised data can be sought and transmitted very easily and speedily. That was one of the main considerations that led first to the provisions in the European convention on the protection of individuals dealing with automatic processing of personal data and subsequently to our domestic data protection legislation. The same does not apply to manual records.

The hon. and learned Member for Leicester, West made a number of allegations, and similar allegations have been made in the media and elsewhere. It is certainly not for me to defend the activities of an independent organisation, but I should like to place on record that, following the "World in Action" programme in February 1987, the Home Secretary asked North Yorkshire police to investigate the allegations that the Economic League had access to police information. No evidence was produced to support those allegations, and Home Office Ministers do not consider that any further police investigation of the league is warranted following allegations made in subsequent programmes. The Data Protection Registrar also received a number of complaints and discussed with the league the general question of the use of personal information. No evidence was discovered of any offence under the Data Protection Act.

I shall conclude—

Photo of Mr Greville Janner Mr Greville Janner , Leicester West

Before the Minister moves on, will he be kind enough to consider my request—the only request that I have made—that he consult the Home Secretary and the Secretary of State for Employment as to whether an independent inquiry could be set up? Someone independent could then go in and look at the files of the organisation and satisfy the Government, if it was the case, that there was no impropriety. I would hope that the league would not object and that the Government would do that. If the Government will not do it, there must be some reason that I am sure the Minister would not wish to contemplate.

Photo of Mr John Lee Mr John Lee , Pendle

I shall consider the hon. and learned Gentleman's request and convey our conclusions to him in due course.

I want to conclude by saying something about the state of industrial relations, as the debate concerns the effects on industrial relations of employers' recruitment practice. Over the nine years that have elapsed since the Government came to power, the number of days lost through strikes has decreased dramatically. The figures for 1987 show that 3·5 million days were lost in that way compared with almost 27·5 million in 1979. It is clear that the Government's policies—particularly the step-by-step trade union reforms—have contributed significantly to the new realism that has become the dominant feature of our industrial relations.

I have already referred briefly to the effects of excessive regulation on employment opportunities. I emphasise that once more by drawing attention to the most recent unemployment figures, which show that unemployment is at its lowest since April 1981. Long-term unemployment is at its lowest level for more than five years and is falling faster than unemployment generally. As an hon. Member who represents one of the regions, I find it most encouraging that unemployment in the regions has fallen very fast—I am thinking particularly of the fall in unemployment in the midlands, Wales and the north-west.

The number of job vacancies registered at jobcentres has remained high throughout the year. Indeed, we calculate that, presently, about 700,000 job opportunities are available. I am convinced that our deregulation policy has significantly contributed to that improvement. Sweeping away unnecessary red tape has helped create conditions in which enterprise can flourish and employers are encouraged to recruit.

I can only conclude that the sort of proposals for further legislation which we have heard about would represent a return to the stifling red tape which we have so successfully removed, and that they would have only a detrimental effect on employment opportunities.