Freedom of Information Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:00 am on 14th November 2000.

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Photo of Lord Falconer of Thoroton Lord Falconer of Thoroton Minister of State, Cabinet Office 12:00 am, 14th November 2000

My Lords, I have listened carefully to the reasons given by the noble Lords, Lord Clement-Jones and Lord Turnberg, for tabling this amendment. I do not believe that the amendment achieves the intention, but I hope that what I say will provide a degree of comfort. Put simply, the concern of the noble Lord is to ensure that the Data Protection Act 1998 does not prevent the medical data of individuals being used for certain medical research purposes, notably, but not solely, in relation to cancer registries, as the noble Lord said. I assure your Lordships that the Act does not have that effect. At present, the 1998 Act allows medical data to be used for any medical research purpose without the need for the consent of indviduals. It is not necessary to define the term "medical research", nor to make specific provision for it to include the monitoring of public health, which for these purposes is regarded as medical research.

It is desirable to seek consent wherever possible, but sometimes where the research is in the wider public interest it is necessary to go ahead without consent. The 1998 Act already allows that to take place. The noble Lord's amendment would make it more difficult, if not impossible, to conduct certain types of medical research without consent.

If there is difficulty at present--like the noble Lord, I am aware (because he drew it to my attention) that a few weeks ago there were press reports to that effect--it reflects the effect of the common law of confidence rather than the data protection legislation. Those reports suggested that cancer registries might be at risk. The Government are determined to secure the future of cancer registration and will take the necessary action to do so. We shall see what can be done without the need for fresh measures, but if there is no practicable alternative we shall introduce supporting legislation at the earliest opportunity.

Since the noble Lord's amendment does not achieve his intended purpose and it would make it more difficult to carry out certain types of medical research, which I know is not his wish, I invite him to withdraw it, particularly bearing in mind the assurances that I gave earlier in my remarks.