Clause 8 — Use and retention of information

Orders of the Day – in the House of Commons at 4:00 pm on 29th October 2007.

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Lords amendment: No. 8.

Photo of Liam Byrne Liam Byrne Minister of State (Regional Affairs) (West Midlands), Minister of State (Home Office) (Borders and Immigration)

There are two packages of amendments in this group: Nos. 8 and 14 and Nos. 9 to 15, excluding No. 14. I will take each in turn.

Amendments Nos. 8 and 14 are designed to define exactly what the Home Secretary can do with the information, specifically biometric information, that is retained. Hon. Members will remember that we had a wide-ranging and important debate on this in Committee, where I was very sympathetic to many of the arguments that were made. There was assent in all quarters that the rather blanket powers that we were proposing to put in the hands of the Home Secretary could, under some circumstances, be a little problematic. Opposition Members tabled helpful amendments seeking to bind that power a little more tightly. I had concerns about how some of them were phrased, particularly in relation to prerogative powers, so I undertook to go away and come back with a better package, as I have sought to do. I think that the purposes that we have set out comprise a good list that touches on some of the points that were acknowledged as important on both sides of the Committee, including the possibility of retaining such information for the purposes of crime protection, immigration control, national security and nationality. Those issues were all raised, and I hope that the House will see them adequately reflected in the amendments, which also preserve the common law powers whereby the Home Secretary already has to share data.

Photo of Stewart Hosie Stewart Hosie Shadow Chief Whip (Commons), Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury)

I broadly agree with the Minister. The previous drafting basically allowed the Home Secretary to do anything he or she liked with the information. The new provisions are slightly tighter in relation to immigration, borders and nationality, until we get to paragraph (f), which contains the phrase:

"for such other purposes...as the regulations may specify."

Can the Minister give us a little comfort by confirming that the initial drafting of the regulations will be tight and that it is not the intention to return to what we had in the original Bill?

Photo of Liam Byrne Liam Byrne Minister of State (Regional Affairs) (West Midlands), Minister of State (Home Office) (Borders and Immigration)

That is an important point. I am happy to give the hon. Gentleman that comfort. We were merely conscious of the fact that because identity fraud is a fast-moving area, it is necessary to have a degree of flexibility, subject to the order-making provisions in the Bill, to ensure that we do not have to keep coming back to the House to ask for primary legislation.

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Leader of the House of Commons

Although I accept that this is a fast-moving area, the provisions must be related to an offence. If not related to an offence, they must be concerned with national security or one of the other issues laid down in previous provisions. It is a little difficult to understand why the Minister feels the need for such a wide provision in the final subsection.

Photo of Liam Byrne Liam Byrne Minister of State (Regional Affairs) (West Midlands), Minister of State (Home Office) (Borders and Immigration)

I suppose that the fault to which I am confessing is that I am not perfectly clear sighted about what the future will bring. Organised crime is at work and the nature and design of crime is changing in this area, which is why we could require further provisions. Rather than having to come back to the House to keep asking for different bits of primary legislation, we may need to preserve the possibility that different functions need to be added subject to the scrutiny arrangements in the Bill.

Photo of Jim Cunningham Jim Cunningham PPS (Mr Mike O'Brien, Minister of State), Department for Work and Pensions

I was not on the Committee that dealt with the Bill, but where are we in relation to the Schengen proposals of about 10 years ago?

Photo of Liam Byrne Liam Byrne Minister of State (Regional Affairs) (West Midlands), Minister of State (Home Office) (Borders and Immigration)

We are still outside the Schengen agreement, and while it remains difficult to see how effective policing of Europe's external border could keep this country safe, that is a position we propose to preserve.

The second package of amendments is important because it provides an extra layer of protection for biometric information. That was the intention of the original clause, but it was not clear enough. There are already protections in place for biographical information, principally the Human Rights Act, especially article 8, and the Data Protection Act 1998. There are parliamentary precedents for additional protection for biometric information—specifically the need to set out when destruction of biometric information should be undertaken. Our plan is to set out regulations on the retention and destruction of information in this area. There is a carve-out for cases where biometric information is shared with agencies such as the police. In such cases, the Data Protection Act and the Human Rights Act provide the requisite protection. It would be difficult for the Secretary of State to be responsible for the destruction by the police of biometric information shared with them.

These largely tidying-up amendments are designed to give a clearer expression to our original intentions, and I commend them to the House.

Photo of Damian Green Damian Green Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

While we are all telling anecdotes about border services, I would like to add that the last time I flew through New York, about 12 months ago, the service was not just exemplarily polite but rather quicker than what I experienced going through Heathrow as a UK citizen. On one of the last occasions that I flew through Heathrow, a group of American tourists were wandering through, about to enter Britain when they did not want to because they were trying to transfer flights. I looked at the signage and I could see why they were in the queue to get into the country; it was worded in such a way that they would never have assumed that they could go the way they were supposed to. As a final point, the person who looked at my passport was not wearing one of the Minister's new uniforms, so they are not universal yet.

Photo of David Davies David Davies Conservative, Monmouth

While we are still on anecdotes, has my hon. Friend noticed the sort of thing that I have experienced, where the queue for non-European Union residents is almost zero while UK and EU residents have to queue for long periods of time? Perhaps there is an argument for ensuring that citizens of Great Britain can get back into their own country without having to queue a lot longer than those who come from outside even the EU.

Photo of Damian Green Damian Green Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

I will leave the Minister to deal with my hon. Friend, who makes his point with characteristic clarity.

I would like to extend the point made about the Schengen agreement. The Minister has helpfully confirmed that the Government will not sign up to it. Will he also confirm that the Government will maintain our position on the Commission's blue card proposal, and that they have no intention of giving up our reservation on that?

As the Minister correctly said, Conservative Members expressed a great deal of anxiety throughout earlier debates about the catch-all quality that the measure would grant the Home Secretary. In so far as the powers are now less all-embracing, we welcome the step forward. Again, several questions have arisen during the Bill's passage through both Houses, which Ministers have not yet answered. I hope that the Minister can do that now, in the last knockings of our proceedings.

My first question relates to the use of documents in the proposed national identity register. When the information is destroyed—for which the group of amendments would provide—will it be removed altogether from the national identity register? If the intention is to destroy sensitive personal information, it will be more reassuring for those to whom it refers to know that no traces of it exist anywhere on a register, which many of us believe will be a honeypot to hackers, and a principal target of global attack by hackers who may have nefarious purposes, such as fraud, in mind.

My second question is about the spread of information around Departments. The national identity register is a compendium of three different Government computer systems—if they all talk to each other. That is a large assumption, but I shall make it for the purposes of the debate. Is it the intention to add the new biometric information to all three systems that will form the national identity register? What tests have been conducted to ensure that that is technically possible? I appreciate that those are technical questions about the future, but the Minister will understand the thrust of the point: even though he has restricted the Home Secretary's powers, which is good, genuine, serious questions remain about the proposal's practicality. I hope that he can tackle them.

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Leader of the House of Commons

I do not want to add a great deal to the comments that I made in my interventions. It would be churlish, to use a fine parliamentary phrase, to complain about a move in the right direction by the Minister in Lords amendment No. 8. It is better to have some rather than no specificity about the purposes for which the information can be used. However, I still find proposed new paragraph (f) difficult because it appears to open the door to any further thought that a future Home Secretary—or the current Home Secretary in the regulations—might have about extending the purposes for which the information could be used. I strongly argue that the list in proposed new paragraphs (a) to (e) is comprehensive and covers the proper use of the information that is to be held.

The Minister says that he cannot foresee future developments in criminal behaviour. Of course he cannot—none of us can. One problem is that we are always running to catch up with new developments, especially in identity fraud offences. However, we can be sure that any nefarious activity will occur in relation to prevention, investigation or prosecution of an offence, nationality or national security. It is therefore unnecessary to include a further proviso which falls outwith all the previous provisions. My concern is not sufficient to argue that hon. Members should reject the amendment, but it poses the question why the Minister insists on retaining the remaining catch-all provision. The more definition he can give as to how he will not use proposed new paragraph (f), the more satisfied we will be that there is no potential or real threat of extending the use of information into quite different areas that we might find entirely inappropriate.

Photo of Liam Byrne Liam Byrne Minister of State (Regional Affairs) (West Midlands), Minister of State (Home Office) (Borders and Immigration) 4:15 pm, 29th October 2007

I should like to put the mind of Damian Green at rest. I am not sure whether they are ideas or proposals from Commissioner Frattini about the blue card scheme, but we certainly have no intention of joining those proposals, and I suspect that we shall not be alone among the European member states in striking that position.

Let me pick up on the three points of substance that were raised in the debate. The first was an important point about whether destruction would effectively mean destruction. The answer is yes. Of course, that will be set out in slightly longer sentences when the regulations are introduced. As the House will know, those regulations will be subject to the affirmative resolution procedure, so I hope that there will be an opportunity for a longer debate on the matter. For the purposes of this afternoon, however, I hope that that underlining will be sufficient.

On the question of sharing information, Damian Green tempts me. He knows that my background is in the technology business. I shall try not to detain the House for hours and hours—although I happily could—about the system architecture that we proposed in the strategic action plan published last December. In a nutshell, the system will effectively link together an existing Government database called CIS, which is a repository of biographical information, and a new database that will contain the biometric information. That will allow us to hard-wire a link between a single biographical record and a single biometric record. There are some pretty strong safeguards around duplication.

Photo of Stewart Hosie Stewart Hosie Shadow Chief Whip (Commons), Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury)

We have already debated the question of access from a remote site to check the central database, once the eyes or the face of a person have been scanned where a transaction is taking place. Is the Minister suggesting that the two separate repositories will be hard-wired together, or will they be merged into a single repository to allow that checking to happen?

Photo of Liam Byrne Liam Byrne Minister of State (Regional Affairs) (West Midlands), Minister of State (Home Office) (Borders and Immigration)

Mr. Speaker, I know that you will be careful not to let me go back over the strategic action plan, which provided the answer to that question in 30 pages last December. However, I will happily send another copy of it to the hon. Gentleman by way of explanation, if I may.

Mr. Heath made an important point, and I can give him some comfort, although I am not sure that I can wholly satisfy him. Proposed new paragraph (f) contains the phrase:

"for such other purposes (whether in connection with functions under an enactment or otherwise) as the regulations may specify."

The Secretary of State already has common law powers relating to the way in which information may be shared with other parts of the Government, and they are subject to the safeguards set out in the Human Rights Act 1998 and the Data Protection Act 1998. This area is therefore not protection-free; there are some quite important protections already in place. The provision is designed to ensure that those common law powers are not diminished. The only comfort I can give the hon. Gentleman is to underline the point that it refers to functions

"under an enactment or otherwise".

There is a functional specification in the list, which creates some boundaries, but the principal purpose of the measure is, in effect, to preserve the status quo—namely, the power that the Home Secretary already has to share information with others. I commend the Lords amendments to the House.

Lords amendment agreed to.

Lords amendments Nos. 9 to 1 6 agreed to.