Coroners and Justice Bill debate
Commons Today – text will change tomorrow 27 Jan so this post will be updated to reflect that.
Jack Straw: If I may, I want to make some progress, as I have already been on my feet for getting on for 50 minutes.
The Bill also deals with better supervision of knives by the court, which has also been drawn to the attention of the House, and with the issue of profiting from criminal memoirs.
Let me turn finally to the provisions relating to changes to the Data Protection Act 1998. In an age of instantaneous electronic information, it is fundamental that data held on individuals are secure and properly protected. That plainly has not always been the case. At the same time, provided security and scrutiny are guaranteed, better data sharing can greatly work in the interests of the public. It can help to improve opportunities for the most disadvantaged, provide better public services, reduce the burden on businesses, implement policies more effectively and detect fraud.
At present, when a family is bereaved they often have to contact Government Departments and local authority departments many times over to make the necessary arrangements, often providing the same information. Responsible data sharing between the relevant agencies would reduce the number of people who would need to be notified of a death, thereby helping to relieve distress at a difficult time.
Last year, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister asked Professor Mark Walport and the Information Commissioner,Richard Thomas, to conduct an independent review of data protection and data sharing. The review recommended stronger safeguards to protect data and upgraded arrangements for data sharing. It said, in particular, that
“there is a lack of clarity about what the law permits or prohibits.”
So, alongside new powers, clause 152 provides a new scheme for data sharing. Under those powers, an order may be made only in circumstances where sharing the information is in the public interest and proportionate to the impact it may have on the person affected. The Information Commissioner will provide independent oversight of the process, scrutinising draft orders and laying before Parliament a report of his findings. Every single order will have to be debated and approved by Parliament.
Dominic Grieve: With his characteristic skill, the Secretary of State reduces a seismic change in the relationship between the state and the citizen to something utterly benign. Is it not the case that a great deal of the information that the state acquires from individuals is acquired for specific purposes that Parliament has set down? The Government are proposing to drive a coach and horses through the duty of confidentiality that the state owes to individuals in any case where a quite nebulous concept of public good decides to trump the private right. That is surely not a matter that we should be considering in a portmanteau Bill of this sort. It ought to be contained in separate stand-alone legislation. It has enormous implications for civil liberties and it is not right that the Government should come to the House and ask us to have it as a little add-on to another complex piece of legislation.
Jack Straw: The hon. and learned Gentleman does nothing for his case with his gross exaggeration of the provisions. The measures follow the Walport-Thomas review, which was rather widely welcomed, as I recall. There was then a period of consultation. The Government published their detailed response, which effectively accepted what the highly independent reviewers had proposed, and that has now found its way into the Bill.
I should also say to the hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield that this Bill is not about choosing between the private individual and the public good, as it were, but about helping private individuals, in many cases, through better data sharing. There are separate provisions for the use of anonymised data for statistical purposes, and the hon. and learned Gentleman needs to look at them.
David Heath: Will the Secretary of State give way?
Jack Straw: In the interests of proper debate, I am about to finish my remarks.
The safeguards in the Bill will be complemented by additional proposals in part 8 to strengthen the auditing and inspection powers of the Information Commissioner. This Government recognise the need to strengthen the protection of personal data, and to restore public confidence in its security. It is right to consider the risks of data sharing, but these should not blind us to its potential benefits.
And, later, a very good point:
Jenny Willott: Does the hon. and learned Gentleman share my concern at how the Government are presenting their case to the public? We saw an example this afternoon, when the Secretary of State talked about families suffering bereavement. I have also heard him give examples involving people moving house. That makes what is proposed sound like a very minor change, made just for people’s own convenience. Does the hon. and learned Gentleman share my concern that, if that is what is going to be done, a change in the law is not needed; people just need to be asked to give their consent? The Secretary of State is using minor examples to cover what is, as the hon. and learned Gentleman has said, a huge change.