I am grateful for the opportunity to have a short debate on what has become an important matter. After I applied for this Adjournment debate, The Mail on Sunday exposed the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency for selling the names and addresses of many tens of thousands of motorists, and since then the issue has moved up the political agenda considerably.
From my point of view, the issue arose in a small way when Tesco opened a new store on the edge of Hexham, the main town in my constituency, which was recently voted the best market town in the UK. Leaving that aside, Tesco has a large car park in the centre of the town, adjacent to the council car park where charges are made, and in order to protect its car park it introduced a parking control system. Much to our surprise, little yellow signs went up around the car park with an illustration of a camera on them, saying that if people overstayed their welcome in the car park, which was three hours, their registration numbers would be photographed and the company would apply to the DVLA for their names and addresses and they would then be asked to pay a charge of £70, which would be given to charity.
That caused a certain amount of outrage in the community as most of us felt that this was an abuse of the powers of the DVLA. We were amazed that a company such as Tesco—or probably its parking contractor—was able to obtain names and addresses in this way. As a consequence of that and a certain amount of local publicity, I wrote to the Minister, who replied courteously and quickly, in rather unconcerned terms. He wrote to me on
"'Reasonable cause' is not defined in law but release is normally associated with road safety, the direct involvement of a vehicle in road traffic incidents, the enforcement of road traffic legislation and the collection of taxes."
He added—this is important—
"Requests from private car park enforcement companies meet the 'reasonable cause' criteria. Landlords would have great difficulty in enforcing their rights to their property if this was not the case."
That would seem to most people to be a reasonable definition of circumstances in which the DVLA should give out names and addresses, but from that it never crossed our minds that this provision would be used in wholesale fashion by large supermarket companies and others.
Finally, in his letter, the Minister directed us to the website of the Information Commissioner, www. informationcommissioner.gov.uk, saying that the Information Commissioner was aware of the arrangements for private car park enforcement and had issued advice on the website.
That was fine until
Among those other organisations that were revealed as having rights of access to the information were not just car park owners, but car park clampers as well. Many of us will know the circumstances under which many of these car park clampers operate, and it is fair to say that they work very close to the edge of the law. Indeed, some of those identified as having the right of access to the DVLA records have criminal convictions for illegal clamping and what is effectively blackmail. Others with the right of access are bailiffs, credit control companies, debt collection agencies, property management firms, leisure centres, solicitors and even MBNA—which is, as The Mail of Sunday put it, one of the world's largest loan and financial services companies. When MBNA was asked, it said that it wanted it to protect the private car park at its Chester offices.
We must ask ourselves what use these companies can make of that information. I am making no allegations against MBNA, or Tesco, or anyone, but it is a fact that people's details are extremely valuable in marketing terms. Lists of people and their interests change hands for money, because companies want to build up a database. We would all be quite surprised at the amount of information that the large supermarkets have about us. They know what we buy; they can probably tell us how many bedrooms there are in our houses and how many people live there by the number of toilet rolls that we consume. They know all about us, and it might be of interest to them and others to know who actually owns a car—whether it is ours or a company's—or what the value of that car is. That such information is getting out is a serious matter.
There are other people who would be interested in knowing who owns which particular vehicle—car thieves for one, and motorbike thieves for another. There are some expensive Italian motorbikes on the roads that are worth large sums of money and so are a target for thieves. If somebody is seen riding a Ducati, for example, their registration number could be taken and all that would then be needed would be a contact with direct access to the DVLA database, such as a mate at one of these car clamping companies, who could tell them who owned it and where they lived and it could then be easily stolen.
Other people are also intrigued by car registration numbers. There are those on the fringes of the newspaper world who keep an eye on what celebrities and others are up to. There are strange creatures who occasionally rummage through the dustbins of celebrities to find out what is there and who has written to them. Others wish to know who is visiting, and it is rather useful, when a particular celebrity is visited regularly by someone in a particular car, to be able to find out to whom that car belongs. Quite a lot of money could be made from a newspaper by revealing such a relationship. So there are people with ill intent who would wish to get hold of such information.
In another life, before I came to this place, I seem to recall that, over the years, a number of police officers were prosecuted for making improper use of DVLA records. To be precise, police officers would be asked by their various contacts—who may have been journalists, bailiffs, debt collectors or others—whether they could find out who owned a particular car and where it might be found. They may have wanted to repossess it. For a certain small sum, the officers would be prepared to do that. A number were discovered doing that, dismissed from the force and punished in court.
The sanctity, we may say, of the DVLA list changed in 2002 when, under the negative resolution procedure, a statutory instrument was put through the House allowing all this to happen. It is fair to say that it is a failing of the House that so much legislation goes through in that way. How on earth can Members of Parliament spot something like this? I obtained a copy of the statutory instrument, which, on the face of it, seems perfectly reasonable. As I said, it refers to reasonable cause. There was no suggestion that this would be used wholesale, to give out millions and millions of drivers' details in that way.
The ease with which one can access the system is also alarming. To set up a direct computer link to the DVLA one has to pay about £3,000, and then it is simply a question of banging in the number and getting back the information, for which one is billed £2.50. The DVLA has made several million pounds from the system since it started in 2002. Curiously, it is the only department that allows such information to be sold. No other departments do; they hold it close to their chests. Interestingly, when the story broke, the Information Commissioner and others appear to have taken the view that this was quite wrong.
The Department for Constitutional Affairs, which is responsible for the Information Commissioner and the Data Protection Act 1998, said that the practice was unacceptable. That is one Department talking to another Department, saying that the practice of an agency related to the Department for Transport is unacceptable. When tackled about this, the assistant Information Commissioner, Mr. Bamford, was also critical. He was quoted as saying:
"We will be taking this up with the DVLA to find out why they think this is covered by the 'reasonable cause' provision."
He, too, believes that the reasonable cause provision is being grossly exaggerated and extended by the present system.
My constituents were scandalised when they saw what was going on at Tesco. They became even more incensed when they read in The Mail on Sunday and in other papers about the scale of what was happening. Most reasonable people would think that it was unacceptable. I am pleased that, following the publication of the article in The Mail on Sunday, the Minister began to take a more robust approach. I believe that he said that he was going to take a more robust view and examine the matter with a view to having a consultation about what could be done. No doubt he will have time to explain that.
This is not a question of consultation. It is a serious matter that requires urgent action. The original statutory instrument must clearly have been based on some piece of enacted legislation in the House, so I presume it is relatively simple to introduce another statutory instrument to put a stop to this. The Minister must put a stop to it. It is a gross intrusion into people's privacy. It is Big Brother coming to the DVLA. We are giving out private names and addresses, which could put people at risk, in order for the DVLA to make £2.50 a time and a few million pounds over the years. It is a scandal and it should stop.
I congratulate Mr. Atkinson on taking an interest in this matter and on obtaining this Adjournment debate. I will start with his final comment—the implication that the DVLA does this in order to make millions of pounds. In actual fact, it makes not one penny on these dealings. It is allowed to charge a small fee to cover its administrative costs only; it is not allowed to make a profit. If it is reasonable that information is given out in some circumstances—I will deal with that in a moment—surely it is right that the cost of meeting that reasonable demand does not fall on the taxpayer. Therefore, those people who will benefit from it should pay a sufficient sum to cover the costs. That is exactly what they do. No profit is involved for the DVLA: £2.50 is a small fee, which is chosen to be just sufficient to cover the administrative costs of providing the information.
After all, as the hon. Gentleman said, many of the people who are requesting the information are doing so for the purpose of running a business that makes a profit. Possibly, they are in the business of enforcing private parking arrangements. They make a profit out of doing that and it is right therefore that they should pay something for the information that they need in order to do so. It is right that the costs should not fall on the taxpayer, and therefore, a small fee is paid. Let us deal with that issue first and foremost. The DVLA makes no profit out of this. There is no money-making exercise on behalf of the DVLA or on behalf of Government. Sufficient money is raised to cover only the legitimate costs involved in this transaction.
Before I deal with the next issue, I will put it on the record, loudly and clearly, that I have undertaken to carry out a review of the policy. I believe that certain of the allegations that were made in The Mail on Sunday have raised legitimate concerns that need to be addressed. As yet, I am not taking a position on them one way or the other, but issues have been raised and the public are entitled to understand that they have been thoroughly examined and that we have arrived at a proper position. We will carry out a thorough review covering all aspects of the arrangement, and we will begin with the consultation. We need a consultation to deal with the core issue, which is about what is reasonable. When is it reasonable for the DVLA to provide such information?
The hon. Gentleman started by mentioning the case of his local Tesco, which has a piece of private land. I am surprised to hear the hon. Gentleman, who is a Conservative after all, seeming to imply that anybody should be allowed to park on that piece of land for as long as they want, irrespective of whether they are engaged in commerce with Tesco. He shakes his head, but either Tesco is allowed to enforce parking restrictions on its private land or it is not.
Let me make this point, then I shall certainly allow the hon. Gentleman to intervene. If we decide that Tesco should be allowed to enforce parking restrictions on that land, the question is how it is to do that. First, the company not unreasonably put up a sign explaining how it would enforce its parking restrictions, so that people knew how long they were welcome to park for free. Secondly, it indicated what it would do if a person decided to exceed the time limit, so that people knew. Thirdly, it explained how it would go about enforcing the restrictions and at what cost.
It sounded to me as though anyone parking there would know exactly the circumstances of the transaction. What would be the alternatives for Tesco? One, which I should like the hon. Gentleman to address when he intervenes, is that it would be forced to clamp vehicles. That is one of my big concerns. If in our consultation we come to the conclusion that private car parking companies should not have access to the DVLA database to enforce private parking, many businesses will have no alternative but to use clamping companies to enforce their parking rules. Tesco would have to clamp the hon. Gentleman's constituents' cars after three hours and charge a fee before it released them. If he thinks that his constituents would be happier about that than the arrangement that Tesco currently uses, I suspect that he does not know his constituents very well. I think that they would be horrified.
I am sorry, but the Minister has not grasped the tenet of this issue; this is a question of principle versus practicality. However, I leave that aside. Of course I understand that Tesco is perfectly entitled to police its car park in whatever way it decides, but there are many ways of doing that other than clamping. If the Minister goes supermarket shopping in many parts of the country, he will find different systems. One system uses a barrier: the person goes in, takes a ticket and has it endorsed at the till, which allows them out free of charge. If the person overstays their time, they are made to pay by an attendant at the barrier. Many other systems can be used without giving a private parking contractor access to DVLA records. That is a matter of principle, not practicality.
I understand the hon. Gentleman when he describes the matter as one of principle rather than practicality, but he describes exactly what I would regard as a case of practicality. In this particular case, Tesco seems to have concluded, rightly or wrongly, that it would rather have a relatively cheap method of enforcement that does not require barriers or people sitting at the gates collecting money after three hours. It would rather have a system that is, or ought to be, more or less self-enforcing—and therefore free—so as not to have to pass the costs on to its customers. The hon. Gentleman's constituents presumably pay less in that Tesco store than they would in other supermarkets that use manned barriers and other methods for collecting money. That is the commercial decision that Tesco has made.
Let us deal with the principle of whether the information should be available. Let us go through one or two scenarios in which we might make it available. If I were to drive into the hon. Gentleman's motor vehicle in the House of Commons car park, leave a dent in it and drive off without telling anybody about it and somebody were quick enough to spot me doing it and take my number, would he not think it reasonable for him to be able to approach the DVLA, get my details and make me pay the bill?
I think that that would be reasonable. If the hon. Gentleman thinks it reasonable—I suspect that most of our constituents would do—the principle is established: there are circumstances in which it is reasonable for the DVLA to provide that information. If he does not think that it is reasonable for a private individual to be able to do that, it is up to him to say how private individuals will enforce their rights when somebody parks on their private property, or dents their motor vehicle and drives away after their number has been taken.
Having said that, I also entirely accept that there are circumstances in which it would not be reasonable for that to happen. The hon. Gentleman described many circumstances in which I would unequivocally say that it would not be reasonable. It is not reasonable for the paparazzi to attempt to trace celebrities by getting information from their number plates from the DVLA. If we find in our review that they are able to do that, I promise the hon. Gentleman that it will be stopped. As he said, it is also not reasonable for information to be provided to people who might be car or motorcycle thieves, and if I find that there are loopholes in the arrangements through which such information can be obtained by such people, we will try to find a way to stop that.
In order to achieve what we want, more is needed than just for me to make an edict. We need to have a consultation about what is reasonable and what is not reasonable. If we decide that there are circumstances in which access is reasonable, we will need to have a discussion about how thoroughly we would expect the DVLA to check that reasonable cause has been established. Current road traffic legislation makes it clear that the DVLA has a duty to provide such information to people who have reasonable cause. That is the basis on which the DVLA is providing that information. However, as I stated in my letter to the hon. Gentleman, reasonable cause is not established in law. Perhaps one of the things that will emerge out of this consultation is that we need to have greater clarity about what is, and what is not, reasonable cause. I will keep an open mind during the review, but my opinion at present is that there are circumstances in which it is perfectly right and justified that the DVLA should be required to make that information available.
I do not want there to be a proliferation of clamping companies throughout the country. My constituents would not welcome having even more clampers out on the streets, but that will be the consequence if we take away the right of people legitimately to police private car parking by this method. People will have no alternative but to enforce parking in private car parks and on private land through clamping. We do not want to encourage that.
I believe that most people think that there are circumstances in which insurance companies and others should have access to the information. However, it would certainly not be right if the information could be obtained and used for marketing purposes. I am not a lawyer, but my understanding of the Data Protection Act is that if one obtains personal information about somebody, it can be used only for the purpose for which it was obtained, it can be stored and processed only in accordance with the purpose for which it was obtained, and the data protection registrar would expect the computer database that holds that information to be managed in accordance with that purpose.
Therefore, if Tesco were to put up a sign in the hon. Gentleman's constituency that said, "If you park for more than three hours, we will take a picture of your car number plate and use the information we get from that to enforce a charge against you," that is the only purpose for which that information could be used. However, if Tesco were to put up a camera in its car park in order to record its customers entering in their cars to obtain personal information about them, I doubt very much that that would be legal, and it would certainly not be legal with the type of notification that the hon. Gentleman has described as being displayed in that car park. In any case, I doubt very much that Tesco would contemplate doing that sort of thing.
The hon. Gentleman nods his head; he does not think that Tesco are using it in order to get that sort of information.
A debate needs to be had on this matter. We have to decide what is and what is not a reasonable cause. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman is going to be absolutist about this matter and say that there is no reasonable cause. If he said that the only two groups of people who should have access to the information on the DVLA database are the DVLA for the purpose of collecting vehicle excise duty and the police for the purpose of criminal investigations, and if that was the general view, we would need to change the law to reflect that.
However, we must consider what the consequences would be. It would be difficult to enforce private parking, there would be cost increases for people engaged in certain transactions because the cost of the transactions would increase, and there would be no recourse for individuals who cannot get the help of an insurance company or the police to track someone who is responsible for damage to their vehicle. We have to accept that those would be the consequences of taking the absolutist view.
If we decide that the absolutist view is not the correct one, and that in some circumstances reasonable cause can be established, we must ensure that reasonable cause is being established. The hon. Gentleman painted a picture of completely unauthorised individuals getting automatic access to the DVLA database, not providing details of the incident about which they are requesting information and not establishing reasonable cause. That is not my understanding of how the system works.
At present, individuals who want information about somebody must provide information about themselves and about the incident. They must fill in a comprehensive form to establish why they need the information. Organisations that wish to engage in a high volume of such transactions must first establish their bona fides. They must provide details of their business, including when it was established, on headed letter paper. There is a sift to ensure that there is reasonable cause, and they must give the time and date of the incident in respect of which they are requesting information each time they apply for information.
We may decide in the course of the review that things need to be tightened up. Perhaps a more thorough investigation of these matters must be carried out before we allow such access to the database. Perhaps we need to sift more information before we provide information on individual cases, in which case the cost would increase. Why should the taxpayer pay for this? I am not suggesting that the DVLA will want to make a profit in the future any more than it has in the past, but we would have to increase the cost if we took that approach.
Another possibility that should be considered in the review is one that I confess I found out about by accident, while reading a thriller on the train the other day. In some states in America, if an individual requests information about the owner of a vehicle on the basis of a registration number, the information is provided if reasonable cause is established, but the owner of the vehicle is contacted and told that that information has been provided, why it was provided and to whom it was provided. Both the owner of the vehicle and the person requesting the information know that a request has been made for information. I would like the review to consider whether that should be built into the system as an additional protection.
I promise the hon. Gentleman that the views that he has expressed today and any other views that he wishes to present will be included in the consultation, which will be thorough. We will start on it as soon as possible by producing a consultation document. We need to focus on what is reasonable cause and whether it can be established. If we decide that it can sometimes be established, we need to focus on whether we are checking thoroughly enough to ensure that the sort of abuses that he identified do not happen. Then we must consider the consequences of any change, including the cost to the taxpayer and customers, and any unintended consequences. As I have said on several occasions, we certainly do not want to encourage the growth of clamping. I doubt that our constituents would thank us for that.
The review will be thorough. The views of the hon. Gentleman, his constituents and The Mail on Sunday will be taken into account. I encourage anybody who has evidence that the system is being abused to provide me with it so that we can get to the bottom of matter.