Clause 35

Statistics and Registration Service Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 6:30 pm on 23rd January 2007.

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Use of information by the Board

Photo of Alun Michael Alun Michael Labour, Cardiff South and Penarth

I beg to move amendment No. 198, in clause 35, page 14, line 25, at end insert—

‘(1A) Notwithstanding the provisions of section 36, below, in determining or promoting the use of statistics the Board shall have a duty to consider the benefits to public policy of sharing information.’.

Photo of John Butterfill John Butterfill Conservative, Bournemouth West

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following: Amendment No. 131, in clause 36, page 14, line 37, leave out paragraphs (a)and (b).

Amendment No. 118, in clause 36, page 14, line 40, at end insert—

‘(1A) Personal information under subsection (1) shall not be used except in relation to the exercise of any of the Board’s and National Statistician’s functions.’.

Amendment No. 119, in clause 36, page 14, line 40, at end insert—

‘(1B) Personal data may be disclosed by the National Statistician under subsection (1)—

(a) to approved researchers;

(b) to other authorities for uses consistent with the functions of the Board;

(c) to the National Statistician under sections 48, 49 and 50;

(d) with the consent of the person to whom it relates;

(e) under a European Community obligation for statistical purposes; and

(f) to service providers under section 38.’.

Amendment No. 185, in clause 36, page 15, line 11, leave out subsection (4).

Amendment No. 153, in clause 36, page 15, line 12, leave out paragraph (a).

Amendment No. 154, in clause 36, page 15, line 14, leave out paragraph (c).

Amendment No. 155, in clause 36, page 15, line 21, leave out paragraph (h).

Amendment No. 156, in clause 36, page 15, line 22, leave out subsection (5).

Amendment No. 199, in clause 36, page 15, line 24, at end insert

‘, whether that researcher is employed by an academic institution or by an appropriate public or non-government organisation’.

Amendment No. 157, in clause 36, page 15, line 25, leave out subsection (6).

Amendment No. 158, in clause 36, page 15, line 27, leave out subsection (7).

Amendment No. 159, in clause 36, page 15, line 30, leave out subsection (8).

Amendment No. 160, in clause 36, page 16, line 1, leave out paragraph (c).

Amendment No. 162, in clause 38, page 16, line 26, at end insert—

‘(2) In exercising its power under subsection (1) the Board must consider whether the service provider is a fit and proper person and must require that he signs a declaration, in such form as the Board may determine, that he understands the requirements of section 36 before any information is disclosed.’.

New clause 1—Disclosure of personal data—

‘Personal data, disclosed to the Board or the National Statistician and disclosed to other authorities for statistical purposes, is subject to section 36.’.

Photo of Alun Michael Alun Michael Labour, Cardiff South and Penarth

On amendments Nos. 198 and 199, there is a point of principle about sharing data to provide a public benefit. On occasions, there have been problems with sharing data. Lazy bureaucrats, aided and abetted by lazy data protection advisers and lazy legal advisers, far too often respond to the possibility  of sharing information with others by acting as if it were safer not to share data. They often claim that they are doing so on so-called data protection grounds, but that is wrong. They ought to follow best practice in data management, which involves balancing the benefits to sharing data with the disbenefits. I am pleased that the amendment is supported by the Association of Regional Observatories and others.

Amendment No. 199 is intended to tease out what I believe to be the intention of the drafting—that is, to ensure that access to statistics is as easy and quick as possible for those who will use them for practical purposes, such as to inform service delivery, develop local policies or analyse the needs of groups in society or local communities. That is what makes it essential for researchers in local government and in non-governmental organisations or charities to have quick and easy access, provided that they meet the criteria set out in the Bill.

Access must not be restricted to statisticians and researchers in universities when such access is vital for those who work for the betterment of the lives of those who are represented in the figures, through local authorities, charities, NGOs and other agencies. I hope that my hon. Friend the Financial Secretary will not only agree with me about that, but confirm that what I am saying is the correct legal interpretation of the clause. It is important for those people to have access to the statistics with the minimum of bureaucracy.

I learned of an excellent example of the value of that only today, in discussing housing complaints with representatives of the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux, although I did not know that it would illuminate this debate as effectively as I hope it will. Nowadays, 70 per cent. of citizens advice bureaux record their cases electronically, on a system called Case. They can quickly analyse cases by age, ethnicity, household size or income level, as well as the nature of the complaints that lead people to seek advice. Citizens advice bureaux have some 5.2 million client interfaces each year, whether on the telephone or in interviews, so the system is of significance. To meet their second aim of informing public policy, it is vital to overlie those client statistics on official statistics, to provide an accurate framework for comparison and analysis. The example of housing is an excellent one, but similar examples can also be found that inform the work of people at the local authority level in improving the quality of life for our people.

Some academics work with policy makers to improve the quality of local life. I have referred to some of them. They include Professor John Shepherd of Birkbeck college and his work on rural statistics; Professor Jonathan Shepherd at the University Hospital in Wales, whose work on reducing violence was seminal; and Professor Howard Williams, who analysed local data in the Ely area of the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, West (Kevin Brennan).

I also acknowledge the fact that people working in the Office for National Statistics, Ministers and Treasury officials have shown real commitment to enabling us to drill down to the most local level of analysis. I hope that the Minister will assure me on both points: that that is the Government’s intention and that the capacity to use information properly to  improve people’s quality of life, which will be the focus of the board’s activities, is what the Bill is intended to bring about.

Photo of Vincent Cable Vincent Cable Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer, Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Treasury)

There is an obvious link between clause 35 on the use of statistical information and the confidentiality provisions of clause 36. The amendments that my colleague and I have tabled relate to the confidentiality provisions. We want doubly to ensure that there is no misuse, as provided in clause 35. The key point is to be aware of the overriding purpose of statistics. The right hon. Gentleman was absolutely right: both professionally and in our current jobs, we all encounter examples of pettiness and restrictiveness in the use of figures. There is often a box-ticking approach to regulation, which is not very helpful.

We need to focus on the central objective, which is to build public confidence—both corporate and individual—in statistics. Businesses will not collaborate in giving accurate and honest information if they have any suspicion that their data will be made available to their competitors, unwittingly or otherwise. Similarly, individuals are not likely to contribute to statistical surveys, particularly in highly sensitive areas like the census, if there is any suspicion that data might be misused. We therefore take the view shared by the Royal Statistical Society and others that the confidentiality provisions of the Bill need to be sharpened, although the Bill clearly provides for some protection. We have suggested various routes in the group of amendments.

A new clause, which is brief and to the point, says that personal data disclosed to the board or National Statistician is subject to the provisions of clause 36. In other words, the use of data as described in clause 35 is subject to all the penalties and protections of clause 36. Clause 36 should be sharpened and clarified. We have suggested two amendments, amendments Nos. 118and 119, which are designed to achieve that aim, particularly via a chapeau, a phrase, that covers various groups of people by saying:

“Personal information...shall not be used except in relation to the exercise of any of the Board’s and National Statistician’s functions.”

The next amendment then defines the groups of individuals to which it would be legitimate and appropriate to release statistical information.

Like the Government, our broad objective is to show that confidentiality is protected, for public confidence reasons. There is a view, certainly in the statistical community, that the Bill could be stronger and clearer. That is why we have tabled our amendments.

Photo of Mark Hoban Mark Hoban Shadow Minister (Treasury) 6:45 pm, 23rd January 2007

I should like to speak first to amendment No. 153, which is in my name and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet. We picked up on the point made by the hon. Member for Twickenham at the outset of his remarks. The amendments are seeking to probe the nature of the clause, with a view to establishing a greater confidence in the security and confidentiality of data collected by the board for the preparation of statistics. If we are to achieve some of the benefits of the Bill—greater access to administrative data, for example, to reduce the cost  of preparation—then we need to make sure that people are comfortable that when data are supplied to the board their use is protected and safeguarded.

First, amendment No. 153 deletes subsection (4)(a), which states that disclosure can take place where there has been a legislative enactment to override the duty of confidentiality. My concern is that data are collected for one purpose by the ONS—statistical output—but the Government then seek access for a different purpose, which is almost using the ONS as a conduit for acquiring information. We should be very clear that the information gateway should not be through the ONS but between the two end users, which is why I am concerned about subsection (4)(a).

Amendment No. 154 leaves out subsection (4)(c). In clarification, given that information is provided to the board to enable it in clause 36(1) to undertake any of its functions, why is there an override in clause 36(4)(c)? I should have thought that the provisions of subsection (1) would be adequate to cover that.

Amendments Nos. 155 to 159 are on approved research and access to data. Amendment No. 155 would delete clause 36(4)(h), and the other amendments are consequential on that. I am concerned about why approved researchers might need access to information that would enable them to identify somebody. Why cannot that information be provided to them in an anonymous form so that they cannot trace which individuals supplied it? I would welcome clarification of that point.

Clause 36(10) contains exemptions on the use of data in cases where a person did not reasonably believe that they could have identified a person from the data that they used. On paragraph (c), I shall return to the example of the 2001 census to illustrate the ease with which it is possible to identify a person from data collected from different sources. Information was collected at postcode level, so data were collected, for example, for SO31 6NL, where I live. There are22 houses covered by that postcode. I do not know the domestic circumstances of all the residents of The Vale, but an analysis of the data might be sufficient to identify which individuals supplied which data, based on the number of children in a household, people’s occupations and qualifications and so on. We should be careful in giving carve-outs exempting people from prosecution because the granularity of the data provided, in conjunction with other publicly available information, could mean that people inadvertently or even deliberately find personal information.

Amendment No. 162 would amend clause 38, which enables the disclosure of information to service providers. A third party might be involved in the census, for example, or data collection and analysis might be subcontracted to service providers as part of the commercial arrangements that the board might make. The clause states that the board must consider whether it is

“necessary or appropriate to do so”.

It is interesting to compare that with clause 36(8), which states that approved researchers must sign a declaration to demonstrate that they have understood the requirements of that clause. No similar obligation is placed on third-party service providers. There should be a degree of consistency between the provisions for approved researchers and service providers.

Photo of John Healey John Healey The Financial Secretary to the Treasury

The amendments bring us to the part of the Bill that is concerned with confidentiality and data access. I suspect that we shall return in more detail to some of the points that have been raised when we consider subsequent clauses.

The ONS and the government statistical service have a long history of maintaining data confidentiality. They already hold securely sensitive data including census returns, employee earnings and businesses’ profits. We are taking steps, not only in the Bill, to allow the continuation of data sharing and to extendit under certain tightly controlled circumstances, increasing the safeguards as we do so. The hon. Member for Twickenham said that they need to be sharper: I say that they will be stronger protections. The Bill introduces a criminal sanction against the unlawful disclosure of information concerning both individuals and businesses, whether held by board members and employees or anyone to whom the board has passed data that identify an individual or business or allow someone to deduce that identity.

We are conscious of the human rights implications of the proposals and we are sensitive to the need to strike an appropriate balance between the wider public interest in data sharing and the rights of individuals. The data sharing and confidentiality clauses are considered compatible with the convention on human rights.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth rightly recognises the benefits to statistics and public policy of data sharing, as do the Government and I. He is concerned about the definition of “approved researcher” in the Bill, which  was why he tabled amendment No. 199. I want to make it clear on the record that the definition is not limited to individuals in academic institutions, which was his principal concern.

Amendments Nos. 153 to 162 would all limit the board’s ability to carry out the functions that it is required by the Bill to discharge. With regard to amendment No. 162, the board needs to be able to disclose information to service providers. I think that the hon. Member for Fareham would accept, for example, that the board must be able to pass data to an external IT provider that has been contracted to undertake crucial data processing on behalf of the board, as the ONS did when carrying out the 2001 census. I hope that after those remarks, right hon. and hon. Members will be content not to press their amendments, although they may wish to return to some of the points and examine them, together with the principal case underlying our approach, in more detail as our deliberations continue.

Photo of Alun Michael Alun Michael Labour, Cardiff South and Penarth

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his response. It would perhaps be useful to follow up in correspondence some of the detailed legal advice that he has taken, but I am happy with the strength of the response. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 35 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Further consideration adjourned.—[Kevin Brennan.]

Adjourned accordingly at two minutes to Seven o’clock till Thursday 25 January at Nine o’clock.