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Mr. Dalyell : On the ground that I do not wish to embarrass the Chair, because I understand that there are not enough Members here for you to name me, Mr. Deputy Speaker, or in any way to inhibit my colleagues who have stayed up all night to take part in their debates, I shall withdraw to facilitate matters.
The hon. Member then withdrew.
Mr. George Robertson (Hamilton) : This must be the only Parliament in the European Community, or in the world, that would choose to debate such an important and far-reaching subject as this at 10 minutes to six in the morning. It is perverse and almost eccentric that we should be having this debate now. I congratulate the hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr. Whitney) on securing this debate under the Consolidated Fund, but I cannot commend him on the fact that he drew a 5 am start.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) said in the less controversial part of his speech, the hon. Member for Wycombe made a brave speech which, at another time of the day, might have been regarded as highly controversial. When the outside world reads Hansard in 48 hours' time, his speech may yet put him on the front pages.
The hon. Gentleman identified several points that are of interest to the House. I take issue with his comment that the Prime Minister's speech in Bruges was popular and that that was regrettable. I do not believe that her speech was popular. The only test of opinion on it was in a poll conducted for The Mail on Sunday a couple of weeks later. It showed that the Prime Minister was out of tune with what the majority of the British people think about the future of Europe. Another reason why it was not popular with the public was that it was insincere. It contrasted with her decisions in the past on the European Community, and
Column 213the British people do not easily take to the double standards represented by what she said at the College of Europe.
The hon. Member for Wycombe admitted mea culpa on not attending enough European Community debates. As one who is obliged because of his position to attend all these debates, I know that they attract only small, rarefied audiences. If the hon. Gentleman is saying that he will attend our debates and make a positive contribution to them, the whole House will thoroughly applaud it.
The hon. Gentleman said that Ministers were giving the impression of not having read the Single European Act. I spent many hours on the Floor of the House when the European Communities (Amendment) Act 1986, which brought the Single European Act into force, went through all its stages. I can tell the hon. Gentleman that Ministers were aware of what was going on. The Minister of State, the right hon. Member for Wallasey (Mrs. Chalker), who sadly is not with us tonight--no one regrets that more than the Under-Secretary of State himself--knew the implications of majority voting, increased powers for the European Parliament and moves towards further political co- operation. The only person who was unaware of what the Single European Act meant was the one who agreed that it should be signed. The occupant of No. 10 Downing street is going through hoops, trying desperately to escape from the implications of what she has decided.
The notion that it was a nasty idea slipped through by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and by the subversive members of the Diplomatic Service beggars belief when we remember that the Prime Minister voted in the Lobby on the European Communities (Amendment) Bill 1986, including voting for the guillotine when the House's consideration of that vital measure was truncacted after an all-too-brief debate. There is a further irony, as the right hon. Member for Shropshire, North (Mr. Biffen)--who has now apparently joined the ranks of CND, and clearly regrets his role in the Single European Act--was the Leader of the House who gave us the guillotine on that measure.
The hon. Member for Wycombe pinpointed the dilemma faced by the Government. That dilemma is caused by the fact that the Prime Minister acts both as Government and Opposition. She signed the Single European Act and then went to the College of Europe denouncing everything in it. She signed the Fontainebleau agreement on the future financing of the Community and shortly afterwards denounced the basis of the settlement. With a Prime Minister who can act both as Prime Minister and as Leader of the Opposition, it is far from surprising that the hon. Member for Wycombe, a Government loyalist, finds the Government's position incoherent. He is not alone in that. Business finds that incoherence confusing and our partners in the European Community find it difficult to understand. They find it especially difficult to understand why the Prime Minister insists on labelling them all as "Socialists and standardisers", since the people whom she appears to include in that gratuitous insult include Chancellor Kohl of West Germany, a good Christian Democrat, and Prime Minister Dimita of Italy, another Christian Democrat of a Right-wing persuasion. However, they all come in for that incredible hostility and sloganising abuse to which the Prime Minister is so prone. There is incoherence between the Prime Minister's actions in agreeing to the Single European Act and her
Column 214rhetoric in denouncing it shortly afterwards when she had forced it through the House. There are also incoherences and inconsistencies in Government. The Prime Minister said in Bruges :
"The Community must not be ossified by endless regulation." She said in the most widely quoted part of that speech : "We have not successfully rolled back the frontiers of the state in Britain, only to see them reimposed at a European level, with a European super-state exercising a new dominance from Brussels." On 23 November, the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the right hon. Member for Wallasey, made a speech of equal importance at a management centre Europe conference on industrial relations in Europe. Apparently out of touch with her leader, she said :
"We need progress on the agreed programme of action on health and safety at work 1992 gives us a unique opportunity for concerted progress in combating unemployment. With over 15 and a half million jobless, unemployment remains the EC's biggest priority. Member state Governments must accord it the priority it deserves."
As a final, crushing blow to the Prime Minister's view of the Europe, the Minister of State said :
"Britain is sometimes charged with having no interest in the social development of Europe. This is simply not true. There must be a social dimension to the single market."
If the hon. Member for Wycombe, who has, after all, been discarded from the Foreign Office despite his pretences at loyalism, finds the Government's actions incoherent, surely the Minister of State, who is still within the charmed magic circle, even temporarily--ladies are exiting from the Government rather quickly these days--is pointing to a more detailed contrast with what is happening.
In the lead-up to the European elections, we are beginning to see the stark contrast between the different visions of Europe. The Prime Minister's vision is one of deregulation, liberalisation and an unrestrained free market without barriers or constraints. Hers is the vision of big Europe for big business, with the weak going to the wall and the mighty flourishing and where standards of conduct and employment, whether achieved through law or negotiation, are abandoned in pursuit of profit.
In contrast to that Thatcherite vision of Europe, there is the Opposition's view of a Europe where growth is encouraged, but where balance in industry, employment and the environment is assured and guaranteed. In our view of Europe, the vulnerable regions, people, industries and firms receive protection from crude market forces. Our vision of Europe is one in which "high standards", to quote the Single European Act, in the workplace, in peripheral areas and in industrial activity is assured. For example, in research and technology the interests of the public will never be reflected in short-term drives for profit. Those areas will be set and policed by accountable public institutions.
The Prime Minister regards the European Community as a huge test bed for a continental Thatcherite experiment. If we lived in more enlightened days and the hon. Member for Wycombe was in charge of Government policy on the single market and the Labour party's views ruled rather than the more philistine values on the Government Benches, Europe would be the true and appropriate location for a real bid to ensure our children's future. It would be a Europe in which joint action by Governments could tackle unemployment and the special misery and waste of youth unemployment and where
Column 215training in skills could be achieved on a continental level to face the challenges from the United States of America and Japan. The hon. Member for Wycombe spelt out those challenges only too eloquently. It would be a Europe of pooled resources where universities and technical centres could be harnessed to build Europe's new competitive edge. It would be a Europe in which the environmental problems that know no frontiers and which pervade our continent could, with cash and the political will, be confronted properly. That is what Europe should be about. It should not be about the narrow, short-sighted pursuit of mega- business moderated only by fashionable words, but with no action on the green issues. That latter approach singles out our Prime Minister from the more aware and socially concerned European leaders today.
So many issues arise from the debate that I do not intend to tackle them all. Perhaps in due course the Government will give us time to debate the six-monthly report of the European Community, which always disappears over the horizon every time that it appears on the agenda. However, a number of issues give cause for concern to which the Minister seconded here to do night duty on behalf of his right hon. Friend the Minister of State can give us some answers. For example, I would like to know what happened at the meeting attended by a Minister from the Department of Employment at which some decisions were taken about improving standards of health and safety. On Saturday, The Guardian reported
"Britain drags feet on Social Europe' plans."
It appears that a British Minister stood in the way of an agreement designed to raise common health and safety standards, and that an unnamed British official--we return to the unnamed officials mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell)--commented that there is
"a conflict between British legal traditions and the absolute guarantees of protection against risk favoured by continental' governments."
That attempted sabotage by the British Government was reported last Saturday. Today's newspapers only touch on the matter, but perhaps the Minister will give the House the benefit of his superior knowledge and reveal precisely what happened at that meeting of the Council. It is so rare for the House to hear anything of Council meetings.
Can the Minister say what is the United Kingdom's response to the Court of Auditor's report on the common agricultural policy, in respect of fraud and discrepancies, which was published on 13 December? That report has two implications for the United Kingdom. First, it throws doubt on guarantees obtained by the Prime Minister at the penultimate European summit and on the legally binding guarantees on agricultural production agreed then.
The Court of Auditors identified a form of creative accountancy that the British Government would outlaw in this country, whereby the European Community manipulates its annual budget by cutting short the budget year for farm expenditure, once preset ceilings are reached. That is an ingenious scheme and one that could be adopted by local councils simply reaching their guideline totals and then declaring their financial year to be at an end. There would be no problems for local authorities if they could adopt that form of creative accountancy.
Column 216The report's second implication for the United Kingdom taxpayer is that vast amounts of money are being wasted not just because of negligence--although that accounts for a substantial proportion--but by an equal if not greater amount through fraud. A vast sum of United Kingdom taxpayers' money, as well as that of taxpayers in other member states, if being wasted as a result of sophisticated, highly lucrative and well organised fraud existing on a large scale, and identified but underestimated by the Court of Auditors. It will be interesting to know the Government's view on that subject. Finally, will the Minister enlighten the House in respect of leaks appearing in certain newspapers, about a document arising out of the Delors committee, established at the Brussels summit to investigate monetary union? I refer to an article by Mr. Peter Norman, published in the Financial Times on 12 December, from which it appears that the committee reached the conclusion that certain of the Community's regions, including many of the United Kingdom's most fragile regions, risk considerable suffering if the momentum towards European monetary union gathers support at the pace being suggested by certain European maximalists.
In the Financial Times article, Dr. Helmut Schlesinger, deputy governor of the Bundesbank, warns that 1992 could lead to "a further relative decline in already structurally weak regions and a deterioration in the trade balances of less competitive members of the European monetary system."
That is a serious allegation and conclusion to emerge from a committee established to take forward the momentum for European monetary union.
Although it is late in the evening, and although the Minister, like other right hon. and hon. Members, is not at his brightest, we have now a rare opportunity to secure a ministerial reply to those important questions. I hope that the Minister, when winding up, will address his mind to them, as well as to the significant points raised by his hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Tim Eggar) : I much enjoyed listening tothe fantasies of the hon. Member for Hamilton (Mr. Robertson). I must say that he has worked hard in seeking to develop a sensible and coherent Opposition policy on Europe and I wish him well in his continuing fight, but his description of the Opposition view of Europe was not, I suspect, universally shared by hon. Members on the Benches behind him.
Let me first congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr. Whitney) on his success in the ballot, while not entirely congratulating him on the timing of that success. I think that the whole House listened to his contribution with considerable interest. I remember vividly his speech in April 1982 and tonight's speech continued in the tradition which he started then. Whatever view we hold of what he said, it was a courageous and consistent speech. Let me next deal with some of the individual points that have been made, and apologise sincerely for the absence of my right hon. Friend the Minister of State, who I am sure would much rather be here at this time of the morning than attending the Foreign Affairs Council in Brussels. The
Column 217House will be looking forward to the contributions by my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe to the various scrutiny debates on European documents. An interesting discussion is now in progress--it is not a matter for Ministers in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office--about how we manage our scrutiny and assessment of European legislation, and I am sure that that debate will continue. My hon. Friend commented on the speech made by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister in Bruges. Unlike, I suspect, the hon. Member for Hamilton, he had clearly read the speech in considerable detail, and he drew attention to the powerful points made in it. The bedrock of my right hon. Friend's speech was her clear statement that Britain's destiny is in Europe, and that Britain is as committed to the European Community as any other member country.
Of course the Europe of the future will continue to be made up of different national personalities and traditions. It is not only my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister who believes that ; Chancellor Kohl of the Federal Republic of Germany has said clearly that the construction of Europe must not mean the suppression of national identities. All of us in Europe want to build a community that is able to ensure the future prosperity and security of its peoples in the harshly competitive world to which my right hon. Friend referred. Her message is that Europeans should work closely and effectively together on the things that we do better together, rather than on things that we do better alone.
My hon. Friend also referred to frontier controls. It will be important, because of 1992, to minimise delays at frontiers and to make travel easier for EC citizens. However, that does not mean that all frontier controls must be abolished. The EC needs a mechanism that is able to combat terrorism, crime, drug trafficking and illegal immigration. The Rhodes summit reaffirmed that requirement and linked the reduction of further frontier checks with more effective co-operation between member states. As a result of the Rhodes summit, national co-ordinators are to be appointed. They will be responsible for providing assistance over frontier problems.
Not for the first time, the hon. Member for Hamilton ought not to rely on reports in The Guardian. Agreement was reached on health and safety matters at the Council meeting last Friday. I understand that a parliamentary question is to be answered in the near future. It will comment on the outcome of the Council meeting. The hon. Gentleman was right to point out that the Council had to deal with a legal problem, but we believe that there has been a satisfactory outcome. I am sure that he will be scurrying to Hansard to read the answer.
The hon. Gentleman referred to progress on monetary co-operation in the so- called Delors committee. The committee's discussions continue. It is due to complete its proceedings in good time to enable the Minister for Economic Affairs and the Minister for Finance to examine the committee's recommendations before the European Council meeting in Madrid.
My hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe said that he thought that the United Kingdom was being left behind on monetary co-operation. However, we have led the way over the abolition of restrictions on the movement of capital and exchange controls. That is a fundamental first step, and we are delighted that the rest of the Community is following our example. A practical sign of our
Column 218commitment to progress is the introduction of the ecu-denominated Treasury bond. That is an important step.
The hon. Member for Hamilton, casting around for things to say--for which I do not blame him at this time in the morning--asked about the annual report of the Court of Auditors and referred to agriculture fraud. The report states that futher action needs to be taken. We intend fully to support the report. That is consistent with our approach to agriculture. We have been one of the leaders in the fight against fraud in the EC.
The hon. Member for Hamilton expressed concern about the so-called 10-month year. That was a one-off measure to which the hon. Member has referred on previous occasions. It was adopted by the Council in October 1987. At the February meeting of the Council in Brussels, a two-and-a-half month delay was agreed for the payment of advances. We believe that the Council's decision will improve budgetary control over agriculture spending.
This debate provides a valuable opportunity to assess the state of the European Community at the end of 1988 and to look briefly at some of the prospects for next year.
In 1988 we have seen major changes in the way in which the Community's finances are run. I refer in particular to the rules governing the operation of the CAP. In February, the Council reached agreement on a series of stabilisers for cereals, oil seeds and other principle agricultural commodities. The Community has given those stabilisers legal backing through a series of detailed regulations. For the first time, we now have an important automatic mechanism for controlling the growth of financial support to the agricultural sector, a signal to the outside world that we really mean to control the CAP.
The stabilisers are working. Since the summer there have been automatic price cuts for a series of crops. It is intended that there will be a 3 per cent. price cut in cereals in 1989. We have also witnessed major reductions in surplus stocks of agricultural products ; for example, beef stocks have fallen by 25 per cent. during the past 12 months.
The second major element of improved budget discipline agreed last February was a legally binding financial guideline for agricultural spending. In future, spending on the CAP will be able to grow by no more than three quarters of the rate of Community GNP. That is about 2 per cent. per annum in real terms. That means that CAP support will represent a steadily shrinking percentage of the Community's GNP. In the first budget introduced under the new procedures, provision for agriculture is fully £1.2 billion below the guideline agreed in February. I am sure that we all welcome that development. Hon. Members may have felt something missing from their lives this year--the budget crisis which normally reverberates around the Community at this time of year. The peaceful, almost routine procedure in which the 1989 budget has been adopted is a good illustration of the way in which the Community has acknowledged the truth of a persistent United Kingdom theme that a sound Community cannot be built on unsound foundations. The future financing agreement that we secured in February at least gives the Community a sound foundation of budgetary discipline. All parties--the Commission, the Council and the Parliament--now accept that that reform was right, was long overdue and must continue.
Column 219At the Hanover European Council in June, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and her colleagues agreed that progress towards the single market is now irreversible. That means that we really will have a single market with all the opportunities that that will bring for British and European business. Of course, as the House knows, there is a great deal still to be done. The Hanover Council laid down four priorities for work in the immediate future which are important for the United Kingdom.
The Greek presidency in the second half of this year has made solid progress, for example by achieving a common position on the public works directive and by opening up public procurement to competition throughout the Community. That benefits the consumer and British business. The Greeks have also put together a package of key food law measures--a matter to which we attach great importance. I hope that further progress will be made at the last internal market Council for the year which is taking place tomorrow.
The Spanish presidency will begin work in the new year with a fair wind. The priorities fixed at Hanover were confirmed at the recent Rhodes Council. There is plenty for the Spanish presidency to do, and for the French presidency that follows it.
Liberalisation, competition and deregulation must not be limited to the Community's internal affairs. The Rhodes European Council devoted considerable time to discussing the Community's role in the world. Heads of Government issued a declaration emphasising the Community's important contribution to sustaining a liberal economic and trading environment--a clear message to the world that 1992 will not lead to greater external protection as internal barriers come down. In other words, as my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe said, there will be no fortress Europe.
We want the single market to contribute directly to the greater liberalisation of world trade. That liberalisation is essential if the world economy is to continue to expand. The best way to pursue that aim is through multilateral negotiations in the GATT. The United Kingdom and all
Column 220member states want the multilateral system to be strengthened and expanded. The current Uruguay round is essential to that process. As the House knows, we are now at the halfway point of the round. Some good progress has been made but there is still much to do. We were disappointed when the ministerial meeting earlier this month was unable to agree on a detailed framework for negotiations on the reform of agriculture. The Community made great efforts to find common ground with the United States. However, the United States insisted on pressing for a commitment to the total elimination of agricultural support by an agreed deadline. In our view, that was not politically feasible. We trust that the new United States Administration will find it possible to be more flexible. All concerned will have to work constructively in the coming weeks if agreement is to be achieved. We shall be doing all that we can to achieve that end.
The strengthening of the financial foundations of the Community, the progress towards the single market within the Community and the challenges of GATT underline the importance to us of the way in which the Community is developing. Our commitment is not in doubt. As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said in her Bruges speech : "our destiny is in Europe, as part of the Community."
One cannot have a firmer commitment than that.
At the end of a year of achievements, we can face with confidence the challenges that the Europe of 1992 will bring. In 1988 we have secured common-sense budgetary reforms and the acceleration of the drive towards the single market. Both developments have been welcomed by the majority of hon. Members on both sides of the House. Looking ahead, I see the steady development of a stronger enterprise Europe with less regulation and less interference with markets and, as a result, more growth and more jobs. I see the steady development of a Community, the growing economic influence of which is reflected in greater political influence across the world with the United Kingdom playing a prominent part.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe for drawing our attention to the Community's development, for inspiring an unusual and lively debate and for obtaining an optimistic view of the Opposition's policies in Europe from the hon. Member for Hamilton.
Mr. Jeff Rooker (Birmingham, Perry Barr) : I am glad to have the opportunity to raise the subject of the poll tax and local authority social services records. I am doubly grateful for the fact that I am able to use the words "poll tax." The authorities of the House gave permission for the "Poll Tax" to be the subject of the debate. At one time I thought that I might be forced to put a different description on the Order Paper. When I submitted my document I offered an alternative title because I did not want to be ruled out of order. I am glad that a useful precedent has been set in this debate and in the tenth debate on the Order Paper. The words "Poll Tax" can appear in the title of a debate so that people outside know what we are talking about.
I promise the Minister that before I sit down there will be one occasion on which I will be forced to refer to the poll tax as something else. The circumstances are such that I have no alternative. I shall stick to the narrow issue of social services records, but I make no apology for returning to the important issue of the poll tax, which was not fully debated during the passage of the Local Government Finance Act 1988 because it was guillotined in Committee and on the Floor of the House. There has been no discourse by the Government about their intentions or about why they are sticking to their plans for social services records, which is why, before the poll tax comes into operation, I chose the subject for debate.
There is no access for poll tax registration officers to Inland Revenue records or to those of the police, health authorities and employers--even to local authority records. All names and addresses held by a local authority's social services department are accessible to the poll tax registration officer. No doubt those records will include people reporting possible child abuse, the names and addresses of those involved in adoption cases and the names and addresses of families who, for various reasons, want their addresses kept secret, such as a woman who is regularly beaten by a man. The Government make a remarkable distinction between sensitive and non-sensitive information. I want to explore that distinction. In Committee, the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment said :
"We have made it clear that the power"--
the power for registration officers to have access to information-- "will be used to ensure that registration officers do not have access, for example, to social work case files and national sources of data".--[ Official Report, Standing Committee E, 9 February 1988 ; c. 484.]
When the issue was raised in the other place, the Earl of Caithness said :
"Sensitive data in social services records will not be available, and rightly so."--[ Official Report, House of Lords, 6 June 1988 ; Vol. 497, c. 1112.]
The Minister later said :
"It is the Government's firmly held belief that certain non-sensitive information, once it is held within a local authority, should be available to the registration officer for the purposes of compiling the register."-- [ Official Report, House of Lords, 29 June 1988 ; Vol. 498, c. 1600.]
The Minister was taking part in a debate on excluding information relating to all social services purposes. He said that both proposals were unacceptable to the Government for reasons that he had given. Social work case records will
Column 222not be available, but all the names and addresses held by social services departments will be. One must contrast that with Inland Revenue records, of names and addresses only. Health authority records and employment records are so sensitive that they are not available, but names and addresses in social services records are non- sensitive and are therefore available.
This issue has nothing to do with promoting evasion or protecting evaders. The poll tax is legal and must be collected. If the issue of evasion and evaders were raised, the immediate argument would be, "Give access to employment records, to names and addresses held by the Inland Revenue and to health authority records." No argument can be made about social services departments trying to protect or promote evasion. That argument can be put out of the way straight away.
On 28 October, the Government issued draft poll tax guidelines in a hefty document which has no number because it is a draft. The consultation period lasts until 23 December--later this week. It is the first set of poll tax administration enforcement
regulations--there will be others--amounting to several pages of A4. The list of recipients includes all local authority associations, the Small Landlords Association, the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux, the British Property Federation, and all sorts of bodies, but, of course, not Parliament. As legislators, that is one of our complaints : when the regulations come before Parliament, we shall have no opportunity to amend them. That is one of the problems with delegating legislation. Although a consultation process is going on outside this place, on matters which, because the Government used the guillotine, were not properly debated in the House or in Committee, we were deprived of an opportunity to consider them. That is another reason I have raised the subject tonight.
The Association of Directors of Social Services and the British Association of Social Workers are not on the list of recipients. Obviously, they and local authority associations have had access to the draft regulations--they are not secret.
Draft regulation 6 refers to information obtainable by poll tax registration officers from public bodies. The argument is that the regulations fall far short of what is required. The regulation does not place all social service records off limits. It does not address the fact that names and addresses in social service records can of themselves constitute sensitive information. There are some circumstances in which a name and address can constitute sensitive information. There are safeguards. I would be a fool to say that there are none, having spent hundreds of hours considering the poll tax Bill.
In consultation rather than co-operation with local authority associations, the Government are producing practice notes. In particular I refer to the data protection practice note, which is practice note No. 4. In chapter 3, paragraph 4, there is discussion of the Data Protection Act 1984 and the exemptions for personal data from disclosure provisions. Paragraph 3.6 of the practice note states :
"In addition to these exemptions there are a series of partial exemptions from the disclosure and access procedures set out in the Data Protection Act. Section 28(1) specifies that information held for three purposes below may be liable for special treatment. The purposes are :
(a) the prevention or detection of crime
(b) the apprehension or prosecution of offenders
(c) the assessment or collection of any tax or duty.
Column 223Information held for these purposes is exempt from the subject access' and non disclosure provisions' of the Act where the application of those provisions would be likely to prejudice any of the purposes. Similarly the Act provides that data is exempt from the First Data Protection Principle in any case where its application would be likely to prejudice any of the purposes."
Paragraph 3.7 consists of one sentence. It is useful to put it on the record. It states :
"It should, however, be noted that the community charge will not, according to legal advice received by the authors, fall within the definition of a tax or a duty as provided for in section 28(1) of the 1984 Date Protection Act."
The preface to the practice note also refers to general data protection guidelines for the registration officers in England and Wales. Paragraph 3(e) makes it clear that individual citizens must be told that the information that they give can be required by the poll tax registration office :
"If there is a possibility that the information held for another purpose will be disclosed to the CCRO"--
the community charge registration officer--
"then wherever possible the individuals concerned should be informed that this might be the case."
That is crucial, because it means that a local authority social service department can never say to a client or informant that it can offer complete confidentiality. In fact, the reverse is true. The practice note and the data protection principle make it quite clear that local authority social service departments must inform anyone who approaches them--client or informant--that their name and address can be made available to the poll tax registration officer. That brings me to the Government propaganda leaflet published last week, entitled "You and the Community Charge--Your Step by Step Guide". It is incredible. Page 2 says :
"You will almost certainly have read about the new community charge in the papers, or heard about it on television. You will probably have seen it called the poll tax, but the community charge is its real name."
Before one even reaches the list of contents, one reads : "The booklet is quite detailed and you may not want to read all of it. You will find it helpful to read pages 6-14, however, as these apply to almost everyone."
For the purpose of this debate, I shall stick to page 11, which deals with the transfer of information. It answers the question, "Will Registration Officers be able to get information from anywhere else?" having mentioned the electoral register and so on. It says : "The inquiry form will be the main source of information for Registration Officers. They will not be able to approach the Inland Revenue, for example, or to use any sensitive information (such as confidential records held by police authorities). They will be able to refer to other local authority records, but only for the information that they need for the register."
The only information that they need for the register is a person's name and address, his age and the length of time that he has lived at a given address. But they will require more than names and addresses. The booklet refers to sensitive information. This House has a right to complain-- perhaps the other place has greater cause for complaint--that no mention is made of sensitive social service information. People are advised to read pages 6 to 14 of the pamphlet as the rest will probably be too boring, but the pamphlet really should have said something about sensitive social service information. Page 11 gives one the strong impression that the Government are allowing open
Column 224season on social service records. I do not think that that is what they wanted to do, but that will be the effect of their proposals. Let me give a few examples to show how social service records giving a person's name and address, and his age or the length of time for which he has lived at an address contain information that is sensitive in itself irrespective of the details.
I shall give the House five brief examples. Many social workers are located in hospital social work departments. In the inner-city part of my constituency is the Birchfield medical centre. It is first-class and doctors and health service personnel from other areas queue to visit Dr. Pike and his colleagues. Indeed, the Home Secretary has visited it for a private briefing. They have a research effort, foot doctors, a link with the university and social workers attached who are employed by the local authority. That means that the social workers share information with their medical and nursing colleagues.
In addition, social workers approved under mental health legislation are required to be involved in certain compulsory admissions to hospital of people suffering from mental illness. In each of those cases social workers are employed by, and their records are the property of, the local authority. Accordingly, the Government's assurances on health information would be subverted in respect of names and addresses where vulnerable people are helped by social workers who happen to be members of a multi- disciplinary team. That cannot be good for the patients, let alone for the social workers' professional effort.
In my second example, names and addresses are the highly sensitive information. We all know that social workers are often the intermediaries between hostile individuals, occasionally within a family. They have to protect the whereabouts of some family members--for example, of a mother whose children are at risk from a violent father. Such mothers would not be reassured to know that after leaving the matrimonial home their names and addresses were on a public register. Moreover, there is the theoretical possibility of the mother having to demonstrate to the registrar the need to exclude that information from the register. Some Scottish social workers have not yet received replies from the Scottish Office to questions about parents against registration and given that the Scots are a year ahead of the English that does not encourage us to believe that this has been thought through properly. We in England and Wales must learn from the experience of our Scottish colleagues.
Thirdly, in some circumstances the expectation of names and addresses being available to the registrar could be detrimental to wider interests of society. In other words, it is incumbent on local authority social services departments to make it clear to anybody who either offers them information or makes a complaint about something in the community, that in so doing their name and address can be made available to the poll tax registration officer. It is inadequate to claim that a member of the public would not know for certain that his name and address was made available from social service records. Many would deduce that, but they need to be told.
For example, it could be important for a neglected child regularly to attend a day nursery where help can be given in parenting skills and supervision of the child maintained. That course of action, which I know from constituency experience many parents are reluctant to take, would
Column 225juxtapose with a demand for the poll tax. The obvious conclusion would be drawn and the child might be made more vulnerable by being withdrawn from the service. It is no good saying, "Ah well, the parents shouldn't do that because they cannot escape poll tax that way. There is no hiding place." The mere fact that their social service records with their name and address can be handed over could make the child more vulnerable by being withdrawn from essential help. That is the case, and the Minister must not assume otherwise. It is similarly unrealistic to postulate that social workers should not condone poll tax avoidance. As I said, this is not a charter for evasion or avoidance, but the fact is that social workers have a legal obligation to their clients, certainly to give confidentiality, to give primacy to the interests of vulnerable people and to make it clear to such people that they can be assisted only if there is a full transfer of confidential and private information.
A problem can arise, because some people will be dependent upon adults who are liable for payment. It may be argued that there is a borderline in the case of mental handicap. I do not say that this was not debated, because it was. The Government moved a little way in the right direction, but nowhere near enough. The initial uncertainties about the liability to pay will be compounded by the exemptions of handicapped people, as some social workers have already discovered in Scotland. Where there is doubt in a family, because of the dependence of one adult upon another--there may be a borderline case because of mental handicap--that is a problem for the social services. It will not be a problem for the surveyor or the canvasser who knocks on the door and discovers who lives at a dwelling, but it is a further pressure on social service records.
My final example is a serious one. It concerns the fundamental instance where names and addresses form the sensitive information, which, of course, applies to adoption cases. Parliament has legislated to protect the confidentiality of adoption information, most recently in the Data Protection Act 1984. I believe that, legally and technically, social services departments are adoption agencies. Adoption regulations have been based upon a concept of absolute confidentiality, to protect the identity of the adopted child in his or her adoptive family.
As I have said, local authority social services departments are adoption agencies, but they will no longer be able to offer the unconditional guarantee of confidentiality of information conveyed to them unless the Bill is amended directly--which it will not be--or unless the regulations are amended and, as they are still in draft form, they could be. It is not too late, because the consultation period for the regulations is continuing. The adoption point must be one that concerns the Minister and her colleagues. If it does not, there is something sick at the heart of the Government. There can be no argument--even as a spin-off of pursuing the legislation for the poll tax--for upsetting the sensitive adoption arrangements of this country.
Given the range of legitimate information available for the poll tax registration officers--such as the electoral register, the marriage register, the rating and the rent records, the library cards and the entire gamut of local authority information--and the fact that the Government have excluded local authority employment records, police