Schedule 7

Serious Crime Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:00 pm on 5 July 2007.

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Data matching

Amendment made: No. 148, in schedule 7, page 73, line 32, leave out from beginning to end of line 34 and insert—

‘(iv) a body to which Article 90 of the Health and Personal Social Services (Northern Ireland) Order 1972 (S.I. 1972/1265 (N.I. 14)) applies;’.—[Mr. Coaker.]

Photo of Jeremy Browne Jeremy Browne Opposition Whip (Commons), Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

I beg to move amendment No. 14, in schedule 7, page 75, line 11, leave out ‘keep under’.

Photo of Joe Benton Joe Benton Labour, Bootle

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 15, in schedule 7, page 75, line 11, after ‘review’, insert ‘on an annual basis’.

No. 13, in schedule 7, page 75, line 24, at end insert—

‘(5) No information may be disclosed under Section 63 of the Serious Crime Act 2007 before the publication by the Commission of the code.’.

No. 241, in schedule 7, page 75, line 24, at end insert—

‘(5) The code shall not have effect until a draft has been laid before, and approved by a resolution of, both Houses of Parliament.’.

Photo of Jeremy Browne Jeremy Browne Opposition Whip (Commons), Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

I am grateful to you, Mr. Benton, for giving me an opportunity to speak briefly about these amendments Nos. 14, 15 and 13, which stand in my name. During our proceedings this morning, we had a detailed conversation about clause 63; there is a lot of overlap and cross-over into the schedule, so I do not intend to repeat the points that I and others raised previously. However, I shall explain, for the benefit of members of the Committee the purpose of the amendments and the thinking behind them.

Amendments Nos. 14 and 15 would provide for an annual review of the code for data matching. My concern is that the time scales are too flexible and are insufficiently specific. The amendments, which amend the same sentence but reorder the wording, are designed to provide for an annual review. Amendment No. 13 relates to the point that I was discussing, along with others, with the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham, this morning. The amendment would require the code on data matching to be published before any information could be disclosed. I take the point that the right hon. and learned Gentleman made that, although that requirement would be more onerous than what is currently in the Bill, it would be better still to accept amendment No. 241 because that would provide for approval by Parliament.

My intention, subject to other contributions during the discussion on the schedule, is to press amendments Nos. 14 and 15 to a vote, because they address a specific different point about time scales, but not to press amendment No. 13 to a vote. I would be minded to support amendment No. 241 if that were pressed to a vote by other hon. Members.

Photo of Geoffrey Cox Geoffrey Cox Conservative, Torridge and West Devon

I wonder if the hon. Gentleman might think about the expression “on an annual basis.” As I understand it, that means that the Commission might to do it only every 12 months, whereas it might want to look at the matter sooner if some event crops up. Should not the wording be “at least annually”?

Photo of Jeremy Browne Jeremy Browne Opposition Whip (Commons), Shadow Minister (Home Affairs) 2:15, 5 July 2007

That is a good point. My thinking may have been insufficiently demanding when I tabled the amendments and we may table further amendments at a later stage. I share the hon. and learned Gentleman’s view that requirements should be in place to ensure that the mechanisms are reviewed periodically in a way that is likely to provide greater safeguards. I accept that he may not regard “annually in all circumstances” as sufficient, but the clause as drafted does not specify a time scale, so it could stretch indefinitely into the future, which would be unsatisfactory.

Photo of James Brokenshire James Brokenshire Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

The schedule deals with data matching. I welcome the additional changes in schedule 7, especially the insertion of new section 32A(5) of the Audit Commission Act 1998, which states:

“A data matching exercise may not be used to identify patterns and trends in an individual’s characteristics”.

The Minister referred to that this morning. That is a welcome improvement as it defines the contrast between  data matching and data mining, which was referred to at the start of our previous debate, which is very helpful.

However, concern remains about whether we are being taken down another track. It is important to keep the code of practice on data matching under review. I say to the hon. Member for Taunton that the ambit of language in proposed new section 32G(1) is already fairly broad; my interpretation is that the code will be under constant review that may be wider than the hon. Gentleman’s amendments propose.

I note that the hon. Gentleman will not press amendment No. 13 to a Division. My clear impression is that the clause refers to the data matching code rather than to the data sharing code: the two need to be kept separate as they are assessing different things. However, our argument that the code needs parliamentary approval is still relevant for the purposes of data sharing, which we debated this morning. We therefore tabled amendment No. 241, which provides that the code on data matching

“shall not have effect until a draft has been laid before, and approved by a resolution of, both Houses of Parliament.”

We may have rehearsed some of the arguments earlier, but I look forward to the Minister’s response to the amendments. It is important that there is some assurance that not only has there been consultation with the relevant persons, such as the Information Commissioner, but that there will be external and parliamentary scrutiny of the code.

As parliamentarians, we want to be able to say that we are satisfied that the code of practice provides the intended protections, so that the concern we have highlighted about the ambit of data matching in respect of the code of practice is adequately addressed. I will listen with interest to the Minister’s response to the amendment before deciding whether to press it to a Division.

Photo of Jeremy Wright Jeremy Wright Opposition Whip (Commons)

I rise briefly to support what my hon. Friend said about the amendment. I share his reservations about the amendments tabled by the hon. Member for Taunton as it is vital to have a code that can be amended as flexibly as possibly to deal with what may be a fast-changing situation. I attended a presentation by the National Fraud Initiative, which the Minister kindly arranged.—

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

On resuming—

Photo of Vernon Coaker Vernon Coaker Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Home Office) (Crime Reduction)

I thank the hon. Member for Hornchurch for the point that he made about proposed new section 32A(5) of the Audit Commission Act 1998. We want to ensure that our approach is conciliatory. I also thank the hon. and learned Member for Torridge and West Devon, who rightly pointed out to the hon. Member for Taunton that it is the flexibility to review the code that is important. That might be done more than once a year.

The hon. Member for Taunton has tabled two amendments that would have the cumulative effect of requiring the Audit Commission to review its code of  data matching practice every year. To date, the national fraud initiative has been carried out only every other year. The new provisions already place a duty on the Audit Commission and other audit bodies using the powers to keep the code of data matching under review. In practice, that means that the code will be reviewed and updated before each round of data matching occurs, in order to take account of developments that have taken place over the previous two years.

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

On resuming—

Photo of Vernon Coaker Vernon Coaker Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Home Office) (Crime Reduction)

It is a bit like Wimbledon here—it is difficult to maintain one’s train of thought. We should have some sympathy for the competitors there.

On the amendments tabled by the hon. Member for Taunton, it does not follow that the code should automatically be reviewed every two years; it might be appropriate for it to be done more or less frequently. I think that that point has also been made by other members of the Committee.

The amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert), which was moved by the hon. Member for Hornchurch, would prevent the code of data matching from having effect until it was approved by both Houses of Parliament. We debated some of those issues this morning, and my contention is still the same in respect of the code of practice and the data sharing principles. My objection to this amendment is the same as my objection to the earlier one requiring the data sharing code to be approved by both Houses of Parliament before it is published. The Information Commissioner was specifically appointed to be the independent regulator responsible for monitoring compliance with the Data Protection Act. The Audit Commission will be required to consult him when preparing or revising the code, and to send a copy of the code to the Secretary of State, who will be under a duty to lay it before Parliament.

Given the arrangements that Parliament is in the process of putting in place, I wonder whether it is necessary, or right, for it to involve itself in approving the code. As I indicated earlier, such a step would duplicate the functions entrusted to the Information Commissioner by Parliament and encroach on his supervisory and regulatory remits. The Information Commissioner answers to Parliament and can, if he wishes to do so, report to the House if he is unhappy with the way in which powers are being used.

As I said earlier, if we ask Parliament to approve the code of practice, where will that leave all the existing codes, which have not been approved? The question follows, should Parliament be asked to approve all codes of practice as they come up for renewal? I am not sure that that would be an economic use of Parliament’s valuable time. I hope that my explanation has reassured the hon. Gentleman and that he will be willing to withdraw the amendment.

Photo of James Brokenshire James Brokenshire Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

We will reflect on the Minister’s comments on the ability of the Information Commissioner to report back to Parliament on the code of practice, and on whether that gives this place sufficient oversight to ensure that the protections that we would like to have in the code are properly maintained.

On the basis of what the Minister has said, I do not wish to press amendment No. 241 to the vote. The work of the Audit Commission on the national fraud initiative has been very effective, and I recognise that the powers are intended to bring that within a statutory framework. We shall reflect on the Minister’s reassurances, including those about the Information Commissioner, and consider whether the issue needs to be revisited on Report.

Photo of Jeremy Browne Jeremy Browne Opposition Whip (Commons), Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

In light of the comments from both sides of the Committee room, I am not minded to press a vote on the amendment—not least because of the Minister’s reassurances. Although I am not averse to heroic one-man charges, I have, like the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham, no taste for—

Photo of Jeremy Browne Jeremy Browne Opposition Whip (Commons), Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

Indeed. So I shall bow out. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Amendments made: No. 149, in schedule 7, page 78, line 38, leave out from beginning to end of line 40 and insert—

‘(iv) a body to which Article 90 of the Health and Personal Social Services (Northern Ireland) Order 1972 (S.I. 1972/1265 (N.I. 14)) applies;’.

No. 150, in schedule 7, page 84, line 25, leave out from beginning to end of line 27 and insert—

‘(i) a body to which Article 90 of the Health and Personal Social Services (Northern Ireland) Order 1972 (NI 14) applies;’.—[Mr. Coaker.]

Schedule 7, as amended, agreed to.