Clause 22 - Disclosure of information and holding of inquiries

Police (Northern Ireland) Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 4:15 pm on 27th February 2003.

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Photo of David Wilshire David Wilshire Conservative, Spelthorne

On a point of order, Mr. Benton. Can you help me? Sometimes I do not wholly understand the details that I am given. Amendment No. 101 to clause 22 would leave out lines 10 to 13 exclusively on page 15. My eye goes to the Bill. Amendment No. 103 would leave out lines 20 to 30, which would make sense if read inclusively. If it meant lines 20 to 29, the amendment would not make sense. To make sense of our debate, if lines 10 to 13 inclusive is the correct proposal and lines 20 to 30 inclusive are correct, the first amendment does not make sense. If it refers to lines 10 to 12 and line 13 stays in, amendment No. 103 would not make sense—or have I misunderstood the amendments?

Photo of Joe Benton Joe Benton Labour, Bootle

I accept the point. The best guidance that I can give to the hon. Gentleman is to allow the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh to speak to the

amendment. If the matter is not clear to him after that, we will revisit it.

Photo of Mr Seamus Mallon Mr Seamus Mallon Social Democratic and Labour Party, Newry and Armagh

I told you, Mr. Benton, that I was not happy with the drafting of the amendments. It is my fault and I take full responsibility for it. I informed you and the Minister that I would withdraw them in the interests of accuracy and speed.

Photo of Joe Benton Joe Benton Labour, Bootle

The amendment is not moved.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of David Wilshire David Wilshire Conservative, Spelthorne

When I read the clause, I was worried that the information that

''ought not to be disclosed''

was defined as ''sensitive personnel information''. I was rather surprised that the definition of personnel information was relatively restricted. That worries me, because I had assumed that included in that definition would use the word ''personal'' as distinct from ''personnel'', given that such information could be of a sensitive nature, too. It is not unreasonable to ask the Minister why ''personal'' information is not on the list.

Currently, the information relates to an individual holding a job, an application for it and the appointment. As I read it, it also relates to the qualifications that someone may or may not have for that job. I am not sure that that is something that needs to be excluded. There could be circumstances in which, if an inquiry is being held into the appropriateness of the delegation of something, then it becomes quite appropriate to know that person's qualifications or what was said and done when the person was appointed to that job. I can see what is meant by sensitive personal information, but I do not like the definition. Will the Minister comment on that?

We have said before that there is a very real risk that certain information about people—not necessarily about their jobs or their technical qualifications, but about the person they are—ought not to be disclosed, especially where that could put that person at some individual risk. Why is only personnel information contained in the clause rather than personnel and personal information? Why should personal information be included only because part of the job arrangements will sometimes be relevant?

On clause stand part, I am concerned that clause 22(2)(b) states that,

''any matter into which inquiry is to be made is a sensitive personnel matter''.

I suspect that the Minister can see where I am going. What does ''sensitive'' mean? That is a fairly subjective statement. Some people might think that something is sensitive and other people might think that it is not. Where is the arbiter to whom that would be referred? Is there a legal definition of sensitive? I keep saying that I am not a lawyer but on this occasion I hazard a guess that there is not a legal definition of sensitive and that it has yet to be settled.

The Minister might like to think about providing a definition of sensitive, or providing some mechanism whereby any doubt about whether the information is so sensitive that such it ought to be excluded can be

tested against an independent arbiter. Alternatively, the Minister could provide of a definition of her own understanding of sensitive. I am interested in her views on those matters.

Photo of Jane Kennedy Jane Kennedy Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

The original change from ''personal'' to ''personnel'' was introduced because it brings the wording of the law explicitly in line with the wording used by the Patten report. The hon. Gentleman's question is valid: what sensitive personnel information did we have in mind when drafting that subsection? I offer this example. The information disclosed in vetting applications includes detailed information on an individual's financial circumstances. It can even include information on an individual's sexual behaviour and other intimate details. That is the information that we had in mind when we discussed sensitive personnel information.

Such information is clearly very sensitive, and although it might not put an individual in danger, it does deserve to be protected. I do not mean that the board should not know whether an individual has been vetted or what the outcome of that was, but the board does not need to know all the information discussed in the vetting interview. The individual who would determine whether such information would be disclosed would be the Chief Constable. That relates to our earlier discussions, which I do not intend to revisit now.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 22 ordered to stand part of the Bill.