Civil Liberties: Electronic Surveillance — Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:00 pm on 23 April 2009.

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Photo of Lord West of Spithead Lord West of Spithead Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Security and Counter-terrorism), Home Office, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Home Office) (Security and Counter-terrorism) 4:00, 23 April 2009

My Lords, I am very grateful to all those who have spoken in this important debate and particularly to the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig of Radley, for this Motion for Papers. It is only right and proper that this debate is taking place. The debate seeks to consider the profound question of the role of the state in protecting individual freedom, including privacy and civil liberties, while ensuring protection from those who would seek to do us harm. A number of speakers raised that issue, which is the nub of the matter.

While there will always be people on either side of the debate claiming that things have gone too far in one direction or another, the role of government is to protect and balance both types of freedom. In an era of rapid technological change—this was touched on by my noble friend Lord Soley and the noble Earl, Lord Erroll—it is right that we constantly satisfy ourselves that we have that balance correct. That balance is maintained by a strong legislative framework; namely, the Data Protection Act and the Human Rights Act. As Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, as set out in the Human Rights Act, stipulates:

"Everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence. There shall be no interference by a public authority with the exercise of this right except such as is in accordance with the law and is necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security, public safety or the economic well-being of the country, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others".

It is the very fact that privacy is a qualified right—one that needs to be balanced against collective interests such as national security and prevention of crime—that creates the debate. The technology of the 21st century has completely reshaped the way we live our lives. Each day all of us give out a huge amount of personal information about our finances, travel arrangements, phone calls, internet use and purchases. We all recognise the benefits this brings us as individuals. The use of personal data is essential to protecting the public and, as my noble friend Lord Soley explained, to delivering efficient, effective and joined-up public services. It is required to tackle severe threats including serious crime and terrorism, to protect the public from crime more generally and anti-social behaviour, and to help people get access to the benefits and new opportunities to which they are entitled. We want to create services that improve people's lives and are simple and easy for them to use.

Technology has dramatically improved our capability to protect people from serious crime and terrorism. The use of communications data helped to avert at least 35 threat-to-life situations, including murders, in 2006-07. DNA techniques have helped bring thousands of serious offenders to justice, helping police to solve around 1,000 rapes and murders in 2006-07. Employment checks have prevented around 80,000 unsuitable people gaining work with children and vulnerable people between 2004 and 2007. Focused targeting of dangerous individuals has helped us to pre-empt many attacks and bring serious criminals and terrorists to justice. I mention those figures to show some of the things that can be achieved. But such changes are also challenging to our capabilities. We need to modernise our safeguards to ensure that personal data are protected, that they are kept secure, and that there is an effective and transparent means of redress when things go wrong. These are difficult things to do, and we are trying hard to achieve them.

We have strict controls on the way in which data are held in the public sector and who has access to them. For example, the DNA database, which a number of speakers have raised specifically, can be directly accessed only by a very small number of people and for limited information, to allow for potential crime scene matches.

Departments are also investing time and energy on implementing the mandatory minimum standards set out in the Data Handling Procedures in Government report published in June 2008, to make certain that personal information is managed properly and used securely for the public's benefit. That was the report that came after the study post the HMRC issue where there was a major error. I understand the concerns regarding the loss of data by government departments in the past. Such losses are unacceptable, as I have said on the Floor of the House a number of times.

We have done a lot to tighten this up, and we are continuing to do it. A major teaching effort is required there. In the Home Office, we have taken a number of steps to improve our management of personal information. One such step is the publication of an information charter setting out the standards that the public can expect when the Home Office requests or holds their personal information, how they can access their personal data and what to do if they do not think that standards are being met.

We are also committed to the independent oversight of information and making sure that the public are confident that the information we hold is accurate and secure. A number of speakers have touched on that and on the concerns that that raises. For example, the ID cards scheme will be overseen by a newly appointed independent commissioner, the Identity Cards Act strictly limits the provision of information, and we will make it easy for people to check what is held about them and who has checked their information.

We need to make sure that policies are proportionate and balance the respect for privacy with the potential harm. Sophisticated surveillance techniques must be used to deal with severe threats to the public from serious criminals and terrorists. But it is equally important that ordinary, law-abiding people are free to go about their daily lives without fear of intrusion. That is why, last week, the Government launched their public consultation on the use of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers ActRIPA—explaining and seeking views on which public authorities should be authorised by Parliament to use which covert investigative techniques, and how they can do so in compliance with the law to combat crime and terrorism and to protect public safety, but not to investigate trivial offences, which is not appropriate.

Closed circuit television has been a vital weapon in fighting crime for a number of years, and I shall come to some further related points later. The reassurance that CCTV provides to the law-abiding public is quite evident to me. I live in Hackney, and people there have told me that they like having CCTV covering certain areas, and I think that it is the same across the nation. However, there are accusations of invasion of privacy and, if CCTV is to work effectively, it must be operated in a way that commands the confidence of the community that it is there to serve. The Home Affairs Select Committee made a number of recommendations in respect of CCTV, including the establishment of a national body, the undertaking of further research into the effectiveness of CCTV as a deterrent to crime, the creation of standards to enhance the value of CCTV images and a review of retention periods for CCTV footage. All these important issues will be addressed as part of the work being undertaken by the National CCTV Strategy Programme Board.

The issue of personal privacy and public protection will, rightly, always be a live debate. This Government are committed to making sure that Britain is a safe place to live, while maintaining its long-standing traditions of liberty and privacy. A number of speakers have talked about that, and I assure noble Lords that it is absolutely the view of the Government as well that they should be maintained. We will be as open and transparent as possible with the public about what we do and why.

That is why we are launching a public consultation on the way that we maintain our ability to access communications data in the face of a changing world of communications technologies. We will shortly publish a public consultation paper with proposals on a new retention framework to effect the implications of the judgment on DNA in the light of the finding from the judgment and the requirement of the European Court. We will draft regulations for consideration and for submission to Parliament later this year for approval. That point was remarked on by the noble Baronesses, Lady Miller and Lady Hanham. I hope that covers some of those points.

We are establishing a public panel to help us to understand public concerns around ID cards. We will listen to and engage with the public to make sure that we strike the right balance for the continued protection of the country and its citizens.

Let me touch on some of the specific points that were raised. The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig, is quite right that there has not been a detailed look at exactly what benefit CCTV has in reducing crime. That has not been done in a proper, empirical way, although we have a lot of evidence that is not empirical. The national CCTV strategy programme board will be doing a lot more work on this. We know, for example, that ANPR is a very useful tool. We know that CCTV played a key role in the investigation into the London terrorist outrages in the attack on Tiger Tiger and then on the airport in Glasgow. We were almost able to catch the men just before they set off to attack the airport—that is how good we were at using that CCTV and how important it was. Sadly, we just missed them, and so they got there.

The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig, also asked about the period for which CSPs are required to retain communication data. The answer is 12 months. I was also asked about the Constitution Committee report on surveillance. We are currently preparing the response, which will be issued very shortly.

The noble and gallant Lord said that crime was not going down. I am always wary of quoting statistics. We all know about statistics—one has to assume that they are correct and, if one is basing things on them, there is no doubt whatever that there has been a major fall in crime since 1997. Overall crime has fallen by 39 per cent, violence by 40 per cent and burglary by 55 per cent. We are facing some challenges in that there seems to be a slight rise again in burglary, but overall those are the sorts of figures that we are talking about.

I touched on the protection of personal data. A specific point was raised about Google Street View. The Information Commissioner has stated that he is satisfied that Google is putting in place adequate safeguards to avoid any risk to the privacy or safety of individuals, including blurring registration plates and faces. Google is also providing access to a mechanism by which anybody can report an image that causes them concern and request for it to be removed, which will then be done.

I have touched on ensuring how data are kept up to date and secure, stemming from the review on data handling. That was mentioned by the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig, my noble friend Lord Soley and a couple of other speakers.

The noble and learned Lord, Lord Steyn, raised the issue of identity cards. The prime reason for this scheme is not anti-terrorist. It will provide a single, safe and secure way of protecting personal details and proving identity. At the moment, we constantly have to show council tax bills, driving licences, electricity bills and so on as a way of proving our identity. This is one absolutely secure way of doing that; it is a universal and simple proof of identity, which I think will bring convenience. The public, by and large, support it. Research done over a period of 18 months showed that 59 per cent of people absolutely support it. There is no doubt that locking a person to one identity does not necessarily mean that that is who they are but, with biometrics, it is the only identity that they will be able to have. It helps to protect us against the use of multiple identities. We know that criminals, illegal immigrants and terrorists all make use of multiple identities; indeed, its training brochure shows that that is one of the things al-Qaeda teaches its people to do. This will stop that happening. So while identity cards are not the complete answer to terrorism, they have an impact on it.

The noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, talked about carrying ID cards. There is no requirement for people to do so. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Steyn, mentioned data security. The Identity Cards Act 2006 establishes a statutory duty for the national identity register to be secure and reliable. Its management and processes are overseen by the independent National Identity Scheme Commissioner, who reports annually on the uses to which ID cards are put and the confidentiality, integrity and availability of information recorded in that register. The national identity register data will be held in a very secure repository. It will be security-accredited to meet government and industry standards, and any viewing or provision of data will be subject to access controls and audited. Indeed, the levels of security very much tally with some of those that I have seen in military systems that I have seen in my past life.

My noble friend Lord Soley asked who has access to communications and how they are regulated. We launched a consultation last Friday on RIPA, which I have talked about; it will go through who can have access to things and which public authorities are allowed access to what bits. That will put a stop, I hope, to the nonsense of using the legislation for something silly like dog-fouling, which was clearly never the intention. It is absolutely ludicrous and it is good that we are having that consultation now.

I very much welcome the helpful comments made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, on the effective use of the National DNA Database. This is a very difficult and complex issue; it was gratifying to have someone put such a good case pro it, because very often people are very anti it, out of hand, as being something appalling. The noble and learned Lord's comments were extremely useful, and I thank him for them. The issue was touched on by a number of speakers, including the noble Baronesses, Lady Miller and Lady Hanham. We are drawing up proposals that will remove the current blanket retention policy; we intend to introduce a retention framework, setting a proportionate and evidence-based approach to retention. We have taken a number of actions already and will shortly respond fully to the requirements as a result of the S and Marper judgment.

The noble Earl, Lord Erroll, raised some points on data mining. As an aside, if he is actually talking to UBL, I should be very grateful if he would get in contact with me; I would be interested to find if there was just one degree of separation. The noble Earl raised some very good points. Data mining is definitely an issue; personal data must be protected in compliance with data protection principles, which are in the Data Protection Act, as we know. Data mining can involve processing personal data; in such circumstances, that can be carried out only in line with the DPA. However, there is no doubt that, to date, the ICO has not published any guidance on data mining; possibly, that is something that it will have to look at, because it is an area of concern.

The noble Baroness, Lady Miller, mentioned Phorm, as she has a number of times in this House. I know that she has a particular concern about this issue, as do I. However, I cannot really talk about it at the moment, as the CPS is still looking at the Phorm case, which is still under investigation, so it would be inappropriate for me to comment further.


barbara richards
Posted on 24 Apr 2009 9:49 am (Report this annotation)

"Everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence."

Yes, well in this country right now, victims of institutional child abuse are exempt from that right. We are the most spied upon and put upon people in this country.

I lost all my human rights the day I was a victim of the evil Staffordshire Pindown child abuse system. I do not have any rights - I am an alien in this country. You can only have rights if they are enforcable, but victims of Institutional child abuse are treated as lepers by just about everybody. We have no rights. We are treated much worse than terrorists, rapists, paedophiles and murderers. We are lepers.