Privacy: Government Databases — Question

– in the House of Lords at 3:24 pm on 25 March 2009.

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Photo of Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer Spokesperson for the Home Office 3:24, 25 March 2009

To ask Her Majesty's Government what action they intend to take following the conclusion in Database State by the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust that several proposed government databases will not comply with privacy laws.

Photo of Lord Bach Lord Bach Government Whip, Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Ministry of Justice, Government Whip, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

My Lords, databases are necessary to protect the public and to deliver public services. The Government very carefully assess the potential privacy impact of any new database system or policy. It is not clear from the report what evidence the authors have used to reach their conclusions or the methodology that they have employed in reaching them. Frankly, there seems to be little real analysis. However, we are never complacent about such issues and, if we find that changes need to be made, we will make them.

Photo of Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer Spokesperson for the Home Office

My Lords, in thanking the Minister for his reply, I must ask whether the evidence points to the fact that the Government are alone in believing that they are right to propose and enact the databases. Does he not realise that doctors, teachers, youth workers and the public in general have been very worried about these databases? If the Government will not review the legality of their databases, will they at least follow the recommendation in the Rowntree report that those databases should be subjected to an independent review of both their privacy impact and their overall benefits to society?

Photo of Lord Bach Lord Bach Government Whip, Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Ministry of Justice, Government Whip, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

My Lords, of course we will read the report carefully and respond to it as soon as we can. However, information is fundamental to the delivery of modern public services and public protection because it helps citizens to receive the services to which they are entitled, front-line staff to have the information that they need to do their jobs effectively and public services to be accurate and efficient. In saying that, I also recognise that the increasing use of data needs to be matched by increasing safeguards to protect the information and privacy of the individual.

Photo of Lord Corbett of Castle Vale Lord Corbett of Castle Vale Labour

My Lords, while we are all properly concerned with the personal data held by government and commercial organisations that snoop around our shopping habits, what view does the Minister take of the objectivity and academic rigour of the Rowntree report?

Photo of Lord Bach Lord Bach Government Whip, Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Ministry of Justice, Government Whip, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

My Lords, as a polemic and a campaign document it is quite useful, but as a piece of objective academic work it is rather less convincing. I commend David Aaronovitch's article in the Times yesterday, in which he made the point that, although the body that was asked to prepare the report started with an anti-database bias,

"their report was treated as though it had emerged from a body of dispassionate academics engaged in open inquiry".

Mr Aaronovitch ends by saying:

"Perhaps in future they should try discussing these things with people who don't agree with them".

Photo of Lady Saltoun of Abernethy Lady Saltoun of Abernethy Crossbench

My Lords, it was reported in the Telegraph on 14 March that the Government are planning yet another database on which will be logged the details of all trips abroad made by anyone from this country. Is it true that before travelling one will have to apply for permission, giving a complete and detailed itinerary, an e-mail address and credit card details?

Photo of Lord Bach Lord Bach Government Whip, Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Ministry of Justice, Government Whip, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

My Lords, I am sorry but I do not know the answer to the noble Lady's question, but I shall write to her and place a copy in the Library.

Photo of Lord Kingsland Lord Kingsland Shadow Lord Chancellor, Parliament

My Lords, the Rowntree trust report estimates that £16 billion a year is spent on IT projects of this sort. In view of the conclusions of the authors of the report, does not the Minister consider that it is time for a severe public expenditure cut in this area?

Photo of Lord Bach Lord Bach Government Whip, Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Ministry of Justice, Government Whip, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

My Lords, I can hardly stand at the Dispatch Box and say that this Government, or perhaps even the one before, have not had problems with IT; I do not have the cheek to do that. However, IT can play an important role in making sure that the databases are proper, secure and used for the purposes intended. Governments of all colours will continue to spend money on IT.

Photo of Baroness Falkner of Margravine Baroness Falkner of Margravine Liberal Democrat

My Lords, in the Government's view, at what age is a child able to give consent to data sharing? What view have they taken on parents' involvement in that decision? How extensively have they consulted parents on the age at which they have determined that children are capable of giving free consent?

Photo of Lord Bach Lord Bach Government Whip, Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Ministry of Justice, Government Whip, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

My Lords, I apologise for taking time to answer the noble Baroness. She may be referring to a particular database that has been the subject of some discussion in the last few days. If I am right and she is referring to the ContactPoint database, I should say that that database is supported by childcare experts, by major children's organisations, including Barnardo's and Action for Children, and by those working on the front line as the right tool to help professionals to keep children safe. We think that that database has been unfairly attacked.

Photo of Lord Mackenzie of Framwellgate Lord Mackenzie of Framwellgate Labour

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the value of databases was proved a couple of weeks ago when a man was released after 27 years from prison following a serious miscarriage of justice?

Photo of Lord Bach Lord Bach Government Whip, Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Ministry of Justice, Government Whip, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

My Lords, of course I agree with my noble friend. It is absolute common sense that the DNA database has ensured not only that people who are not guilty of offences are declared not guilty but also that a large number of people who would not otherwise have been brought to court are found guilty of extremely serious offences.

W

As my mate Martyn points out: Why is the DNA database given credit for freeing the man wrongly held for 27 years for murder? I understood that the crime scene samples were analysed and compared directly...

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