Exchange of Information with Overseas Authorities

Clause 5 – in the House of Commons at 6:15 pm on 1st May 2001.

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Photo of Jacqui Lait Jacqui Lait Conservative, Beckenham 6:15 pm, 1st May 2001

I beg to move amendment No. 17, in page 9, line 9, at end insert— '(1A) It shall be the duty of the Secretary of State to maintain and publish a list of countries with whom there are arrangements in force for the exchange of relevant information under this section.'. We decided to table this amendment, under which a list of countries with whom the Government are prepared to exchange information would be published, largely because the Under-Secretary gave us a complicated and unclear answer in Committee, which is most uncharacteristic. She started by saying that the countries with which the Government would wish to exchange information would comply with the European convention on human rights and a European Union data protection directive, which govern what can be done with information held by a Government". She also said that the Secretary of State would be satisfied that the other country is subject to the ECHR and the directive or to similar enactments … We would also consider other factors such as whether the other country has a stable, democratic system of government. We would not transfer information to a police state or a country with a bad human rights record". That all sounds reasonable and sensible, but it represents a blanket acceptance of countries.

The Under-Secretary went on to mention: The only country with which we have a bilateral agreement is Ireland, as our social security systems are similar". We do not argue about that; it is absolutely correct. However, she then went to say: Arrangements would not be considered with countries that have bad human rights records and inadequate protections for the privacy of the individual, or which lack agreements in law that largely conform to the European convention on human rights and the data protection legislation". Finally, towards the end of her contribution, she said: We intend matters to develop bilaterally from country to country as we pick up particular problems in our anti-fraud work."—[Official Report, Standing Committee A, 9 April 2001; c. 66–69.] I am afraid that I became confused at that stage because we had gone from a blanket acceptance provided that everyone had signed up to the ECHR and the EU data protection directive, through the bilateral agreement with Ireland, to each country having a bilateral agreement. I thought that it would be more sensible if the Government were to publish a list of countries with which they were prepared to share information.

I dug out the list of countries that have ratified the ECHR and its consequential protocols. I noticed that, interestingly, countries such as Belgium, Germany, Ireland, the Netherlands, Portugal and, indeed, the United Kingdom have not signed protocol 7, so will we share information with them? However, Albania has signed all the protocols. Turkey, which is applying to join the EU, has ratified only the original convention and protocol 1. Russia has signed the convention, but not protocol 6. Macedonia, Romania and Ukraine have signed the entire convention and protocols. Poland has not signed protocol 7.

Czechoslovakia has signed them all, as has Hungary. Czechoslovakia is applying to join the EU and Turkey is on the list of applicants. [Interruption.] I apologise; I mean the Czech Republic. I deliberately did not refer to the Slovak Republic and Slovenia for obvious reasons. However, the Czech Republic has signed the convention and all its protocols and is applying to the EU for membership, as are Poland and Hungary. I hope that if the Under-Secretary is suggesting that we shall automatically exchange information with Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, and, indeed, Turkey, the Secretary of State will carefully investigate the robustness of the information that they supply.

To reduce my confusion, it would be useful if the Minister could agree to our suggestion—she does not have to accept the amendment—that a list of countries with which the Government are prepared to share information is produced. That would reassure us that it is unlikely that private information will get into the hands of people who should not receive it.

Photo of David Wilshire David Wilshire Conservative, Spelthorne

I made a very modest contribution in Committee and I have followed these proceedings with care and interest. I notice that we still have three and a half hours in which to debate the Bill and that gives me an opportunity to develop some thoughts on this amendment. As those on the Government Benches showed great enthusiasm about learning which countries signed the European convention on human rights, I would be very happy to go through all 40-plus signatories and give them the full details if that is what they would like. I suspect, however, that you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, would not let me go that far.

Photo of Angela Eagle Angela Eagle Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department of Social Security)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way so early in his contribution. I hope that he will be very reassured by what I shall say in response to the speech of the hon. Member for Beckenham (Mrs. Lait) and to the amendment. A mistake has been made. Signing the European convention on human rights is not the only condition that must be met if we are to share information. Before the hon. Gentleman lists all 40 countries, I hope to reassure him on that point. Clearly, I will go into much more detail when it is my time to reply.

Photo of David Wilshire David Wilshire Conservative, Spelthorne

I am grateful to the Minister, and I assure her that I will allow her a few moments before 10 o'clock in which to respond to some of the points that I will make.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Mrs. Lait) said, the amendment seeks to clarify an issue that was left vague in Committee. We also need to examine the subjective judgments that were outlined in Committee, because I worry greatly when subjective tests are applied to who should or who should not receive sensitive information.

The Government and the Opposition accept that sensitive information can be passed only to those foreign countries that have adequate safeguards. There is no dispute between us on the need to have such safeguards to prevent the misuse of information. Although the Minister will be helpful in her reply—she has been in the past—she will find it difficult to provide an exhaustive list of the safeguards and to list the countries that possess them. I accept her point that there is more than one safeguard and, in Committee, the Government offered two factual tests that could apply. However, they then added some subjective views on issues such as stable government.

The first test with which the Government appear to be happy—I do not object to it in principle—relates to the European Court of Human Rights. In the Committee's third sitting, the Minister said: For it to appear to a Secretary of State that the other country has adequate safeguards against abuse, he must therefore be satisfied that the other country is subject to the ECHR".—[Official Report, Standing Committee A, 9 April 2001; c. 66.] Although the Minister said that that is not the only safeguard, she made it clear that it would be a fundamental test of what is an adequate safeguard.

We need to consider closely the ECHR and I think that I am able to do so because I serve on the parliamentary delegation to the Council of Europe. We meet representatives of the countries that have signed the convention and, at the last count, I believe that 41 had signed it and that two were in the process of doing so. However, the target is moveable and the numbers may have changed.

It is not just the convention itself that matters. Although 40-plus countries have signed the convention, as my hon. Friend said, it has been found necessary over time to create additional protocols. It seems to me that protocols 1, 4, 6 and 7 are relevant to providing the adequate safeguards that we need. Therefore, we must know not only whether a country has signed the convention itself, but which protocols it has signed.

If we use the protocols and the convention as criteria, we must be careful. If we say that a country must sign the convention and the relevant protocols, I am sorry to tell the House that that would rule out the United Kingdom. We have not signed all the protocols, so such an arrangement would put us in an awkward position. I am sure that the Government agree that the convention is not sufficient and that the protocols are necessary to provide an adequate safeguard. Therefore, we have to consider the matter country by country, as my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham did.

Let me explain why the convention is not adequate in itself. Just before Christmas, I was an election observer in Azerbaijan and it will not be long before Azerbaijan passes one of the Government's tests. In the past few weeks, it has been formally admitted to full membership of the Council of Europe, having ratified the convention. As an election observer, I saw at close quarters Azerbaijan's administrative system. I call it a "system" to be polite, but it would be better to call it an administrative shambles. I saw how it used computers to doctor election results, so heaven help us if we were to use the convention as a safeguard in the case of Azerbaijan and its administrative system and computer safeguards. All that we shall have is a leaky sieve and information will go all over the place. Therefore, we cannot use just the convention.

As the Government rightly say, we must go at least one step further. In Committee, they made it quite clear that one of the tests would have to be compliance with the European data protection directive. That is sensible, provided that we know what the directive will do. When it was introduced in 1995—as is often the case with that thing over there in Brussels, which puts out paperwork saying how grand something will be—a press release said that the directive's purpose was: To prevent abuses of personal data and ensure that data subjects are informed of the existence of processing operations". It went on in that vein saying how marvellous the directive would be.

I have done what I can to check whether the directive is being enforced in every country. I am something of a cynic when it comes to the European Union, its directives and how well they are enforced and, more often than not, I get the impression that this is the only country that enforces them properly. I will not digress but, if one examines the agricultural sector or any other issue that captures the headlines, one will discover that some members of the European Union look at directives, smile sweetly and put them in the wastepaper basket.

If that is what is happening to other directives, how can we be sure that this directive—which has been trumpeted as something that will protect British citizens from the misuse of information—will provide a proper safeguard? If it is enforced like the other directives, it will not be much good at all. I am certainly happy to support the Government in using the directive as one of the tests, but it would be helpful to know who checks that it has been enforced in this country and elsewhere. We need to know how rigorous the checks are, but how are we to do that? Is information on checking published anywhere? When my hon. Friend's list appears, information on whether the other countries of the European Union comply with the directive should perhaps be attached to it.

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It would also be helpful to have on the record an assurance that the provisions comply with the directive. I am not aware that that has been confirmed publicly, but I am sure that the Minister will put me right if I missed something. I look forward to her spelling out, beyond all doubt, that they have been checked against the European directive and that she is satisfied that they comply fully with it.

The Government also want us to accept that it is sensible to make subjective judgments to determine whether other countries are suitable. In Committee, the Minister said: We would also consider other factors such as whether the other country has a stable, democratic system of government. We would not transfer information to a police state or a country with a bad human rights record, where such information might be abused."—[Official Report, Standing Committee A, 9 April 2001; c.66.] Again, I suspect that hon. Members would say "Amen" to all of that. It is a laudable comment. However, subjective terms need clarification. What is a stable Government? What would happen if a general election in this country produced a hung Parliament with a majority of one or two and we faced another election? [Interruption.] My hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson) mutters "Austria", and I am grateful for that example. Is the Government of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia considered to be stable in its current state? We must have tests and definitions of a stable Government; a bland assertion is not enough.

What is a democratic Government? That is another subjective test. [Interruption.] I am getting an enormous amount of help as my hon. Friends explain that this Government is not democratic. I shall let that pass because the debate has been friendly and I do not want to agitate hordes of Labour Members when they read about that in the morning.

There are questions about democracy, even among members of the Council of Europe. Would we want to exchange information with Romania and Albania, both of which would pass the other tests? Would we define their Governments as democratic? That is debatable. I do not want to pass slurs on those countries without knowing a great deal about them, but I am sure that we could question whether Romania has a democratic Government as we understand it in this part of Europe. Subjective judgments are not necessarily a good idea.

The Minister also said that we would not want to swap information with a police state. I have a huge admiration for the Metropolitan police, but tomorrow morning we will be able to get pictures from the television and photographs from the newspapers on what has taken place in London this afternoon that portray, even us, as operating a police state. Before I get a lot of letters about that, let me make it clear that I am not criticising the actions of the police or suggesting that that assertion is true, but if people want to make mischief, they can use a subjective test, such as a police state. We must make that definition clear so that someone does not drag in the actions of a police force, such as those seen today. It is not enough to say "a police state"; we want to know what that means.

The other test is a country with a bad human rights record. We would need to go beyond 10 o'clock to get to the bottom of what on earth that might be. However, the first test is that a country should be a signatory to the European convention on human rights. Turkey's position—

Photo of Alan Haselhurst Alan Haselhurst Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means

Order. I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman, but I need to remind him that this is not a stand part debate on clause 5. We are discussing an amendment that deals purely with whether the Secretary of State should maintain a list. The hon. Gentleman's remarks fall well outside the scope of that narrow amendment.

Photo of David Wilshire David Wilshire Conservative, Spelthorne

I am grateful for your forbearance, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and I understand your ruling.

I have a final concern, which is highly relevant to the amendment. The implication in Committee was that the Government should publish a list of independent sovereign foreign countries. If the Minister accepts the suggestion of my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham, she might want to reflect on whether the list should contain at least one organisation—Europol—in addition to the countries. Will the Government consider transferring information to Europol, which was established as the European Union's law enforcement organisation with a mission to help to combat organised crime? We need to transfer information because fraud is often serious organised crime.

Europol facilitates the exchange of information between member states. That is one of its jobs. We have a ready-made tool to help the Minister to achieve her aims. Have the Government considered using Europol and, if so, how? If the Minister accepts the amendment and agrees to publish a list, will she be prepared to put Europol on it? It should include not only those countries that are deemed to be suitable for the exchange of information, but the tests that were applied to them. That would allow us to know what decisions were made and to which countries the tests were applied. We would also know why it is considered safe and sensible to transfer information to them.

Photo of Angela Eagle Angela Eagle Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department of Social Security)

I am glad to be able to respond to the debate. It appears that by giving examples to assist the Committee, I gave the wrong impression and sent the Opposition off on a tangent that does not have much to do with how we intend to operate the powers in clause 5. I hope that I can make amends by explaining how they will work and the process by which we will reach individual bilateral agreements with countries.

The hon. Member for Beckenham (Mrs. Lait) was mistaken—it was probably my fault—when she assumed that being a signatory to the European convention on human rights would allow us to exchange bulk information with a particular country. Had that assumption been right, she and the hon. Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire) would have pertinent points to make. However, the powers will not be used in that way. I hope that I can reassure Opposition Members about that.

We will facilitate bulk exchange of information on a bilateral basis. We will not do that in secret; there will be a list of the countries with which we have reached bilateral arrangements. As I take hon. Members through the process, I hope that I will cast more light on the powers and put their minds at rest. The list will be public knowledge, but I do not intend to accept the amendment because that does not need to be stated on the face of the Bill. However, I hope that hon. Members understand that we do not want to keep secret the countries involved in bilateral exchanges. That would not be appropriate.

Clause 5 is not an "open sesame" that will allow us immediately to start sharing a wide range of information with any overseas social security administration that takes our fancy. I said that in Committee. It is a three-stage process, and this is an enabling provision that begins that process. The clause says clearly that information sharing can take place only where it appears to the Secretary of State … that there are arrangements in force for the exchange of relevant information between him and any authorities in a country outside the United Kingdom ('the overseas country'); and … that the arrangements and the law in force in the overseas country are such as to ensure that there are adequate safeguards in place against any improper use of information disclosed by the Secretary of State under this section. Those arrangements are the second stage of the process. They mean that we would have a bilateral arrangement with any country with whom we were considering information sharing before any data changed hands, other than data that can already be exchanged under existing law. For example, we can exchange data for the administration of contributory benefits such as pensions. Indeed, this country exports nearly 1 million pensions overseas every year. However, that is wholly different from a bulk exchange.

That arrangement would take the form of a memorandum of understanding, and it would be detailed and specific about what information could be exchanged, when, for what purposes and with what safeguards. One bilateral arrangement may differ slightly from another. As I said in Committee, we have only one in place at the moment, and it is a specific memorandum of understanding with the Republic of Ireland signed by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and his opposite number. To exchange any information under clause 5, therefore, a bilateral memorandum of understanding with the other country would be required. It should be obvious that the overseas Government and the UK would not go to the lengths of negotiating any such bilateral agreement unless there was value in it for both parties.

The aim of exchanging information in that manner is to combat transnational benefit fraud, so there would have to be cogent evidence, based on intelligence and research, that a problem existed between the two countries before we would set out on that road. Hon. Members may well conclude that any list of countries affected by the powers in clause 5 would be reasonably short.

In Committee, we were asked what we planned to do with countries that do not have satisfactory arrangements to protect human rights and to safeguard exchanged data. Clearly, we would not enter into a bilateral arrangement for a free and full exchange of information with such a country. However, there would be no impediment to our co-operation with the authorities in that country to obtain information on a case-specific basis. No new legislation is needed for that; it already happens. We would certainly not entertain the prospect of bulk exchange of information with such a country, and nor would clause 5 allow it.

Transnational benefit fraud is a problem that we need to take seriously. On 22 April 1999, the representatives of the Governments of the European Union member states, meeting in the European Council, passed a resolution on a code of conduct for improving co-operation between authorities of the member states in combating transnational social security benefit and contribution fraud, undeclared work and the transnational hiring out of workers. The problem is not peculiar to the United Kingdom. The German and Dutch authorities recently detected 30,000 offences of transnational working and claiming as a result of one data-matching exercise. There are gains to be made if we can come to the appropriate arrangements.

We issued a press release on the memorandum of understanding with the Government of Ireland last October when it was signed. When the list extends beyond one, we will maintain it and publish the details. I hope that I have reassured the hon. Member for Beckenham that this is a deliberate, staged process with proper safeguards.

The hon. Member for Spelthorne asked whether the provisions comply with the EU directive on data protection, and I take great delight in telling him that they do.

Photo of Jacqui Lait Jacqui Lait Conservative, Beckenham

We got almost as close as it is possible to get to having an amendment accepted. I am sorry that we will not have a published list, short though it might be. Obviously, by trawling through the House of Commons Library in due course we will all be able to work out with whom the Government have bilateral agreements. In fact, we may add to the cost to the public purse and table questions, which would probably be a more expensive way to get the answer. On the basis of the Minister's reassurance and clarification, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.