Clause 24 - Disclosure of information to facilitate collection of fines and other sums

Crime and Courts Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 12:45 pm on 31st January 2013.

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

Photo of Jenny Chapman Jenny Chapman Shadow Minister (Justice)

The clause is about the disclosure of information to facilitate the collection of fines and other sums, and it is consistent with the Opposition’s remarks on the previous clause that we make some challenge on this clause too. It states:

Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, or a person providing services to the Commissioners for Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, may disclose finances information to a relevant person.”

We have concerns about what that means for the disclosure and handling of sensitive personal information. Will the Minister provide a little more clarity about the appointment of “a relevant person”, as referred to in the clause, and the safeguards in place to ensure that only appropriate people have access to that information?

Photo of Damian Green Damian Green The Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice, The Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice 1:00 pm, 31st January 2013

I am happy to do that because I share the hon. Lady’s concerns about disclosure of information.

Clause 24 would create new powers for HMCTS to obtain and access financial information held by HMRC for the purpose of assisting the court and fines officers in enforcing outstanding financial penalties. The new powers will complement those under the Courts Act 2003, and those on data sharing prior to sentencing that will be put in place by part 8 of schedule 15 to the Bill.

The measures will help courts and fines officers in enforcing unpaid fines and compensation orders, by allowing them access to additional information on defaulters for more effective and targeted use of attachment of earnings orders. Under the Courts Act, courts are already able to access an offender’s social security information from the Department for Work and Pensions, if the offender has defaulted on the payment of their fine or compensation order and the court is trying to enforce payment. The clause will extend those data-sharing arrangements to enable HMCTS to obtain and access financial information held by HMRC—for example, earnings from employment—for the purpose of assisting the court and fines officers in enforcing outstanding financial penalties.

I hope I can reassure the hon. Lady and the Committee that such access to a fine-defaulter’s personal information will be subject to a number of specific safeguards.

Photo of Jenny Chapman Jenny Chapman Shadow Minister (Justice)

If clause 23 is enacted and the contracted-out services are being delivered by, let us say G4S—a name that has been used—would the data-sharing agreement be between a state organisation and G4S, where this kind of information would be held by G4S? Is that the nub of it?

Photo of Damian Green Damian Green The Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice, The Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice

The information is held within the various parts of, in this case, HMRC. I am not entirely sure what the hon. Lady is talking about. The clause is specific about the purposes the data in question can be processed for. The courts, fines officers and authorised individuals in HMCTS will be able to process data only for enforcement purposes where the offender defaults on payment of a fine or compensation order.

Photo of Jenny Chapman Jenny Chapman Shadow Minister (Justice)

I do not want the Minister to make so much progress that we lose the thread. He is talking about authorised individuals being HMCTS, but if HMCTS fines officers are contracted out, would the contracted-out organisation or individuals be authorised individuals?

Photo of Damian Green Damian Green The Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice, The Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice

HMCTS will still exist. We are not going to contract out the whole of the Courts Service. We may, as I said, though it seemed to be a source of some worry to the Opposition, go into partnership with private sector providers to provide certain specific information and services that will enable all these things to be done more efficiently than at present. The sensible thing that I hope will reassure the hon. Lady is that, of course, contracted-out staff will be able to use the information gateways, but they will be subject to all the same safeguards as HMCTS staff are now. The actual safeguards do not change. Authorised individuals will be doing the work, and it will be those authorised individuals who are subject to the safeguards.

The provisions will make it a criminal offence to process the data in a manner inconsistent with the provisions. That is as strong a purpose as we can make to prohibit any misuse of the data. A robust IT system will be put in place to enable data to be obtained  securely. A key provision that I hope will further reassure the hon. Lady is that once an offender has been dealt with by the court or fines officer, his or her personal data will be destroyed within set guidelines. It goes without saying that the information has to be handled in accordance with the Data Protection Act 1998.

There is a big range of provisions. The procedure can be done only by authorised individuals, whether working directly for the state or for a contracted-out provider. Misusing the provisions will be a criminal offence. There are very strong protection measures and I hope the hon. Lady is reassured by them.

Photo of Jenny Chapman Jenny Chapman Shadow Minister (Justice)

I am reassured up to a point, in that there are quite severe penalties. However, it will be a concern to a great number of our constituents that their deeply personal information currently held by HMRC could end up in the hands of other providers. That is something that will concern many people. We will not vote against the clause now, but we might want to come back to it on Report.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 24 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Ordered, That further consideration be now adjourned. —(Mr Syms.)

Adjourned till this day at Two o’clock.