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Mr. Neil Thorne (Ilford, South) : I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Sir G. Johnson Smith) on choosing this subject and on the way in which he has presented the debate. He has done an extremely valuable and comprehensive job. As time is limited and as four speeches may have to be made in half an hour, I shall keep my remarks short.
I wholeheartedly agree with my hon. Friend that it is important that the TA is given every encouragement. To a large extent, other NATO countries have national service. Therefore, a substantial number of their young people are trained, whereas ours are not. It is much more important that our youth get such an opportunity through volunteering for and serving in the reserve forces. We must give special encouragement. As my hon. Friend said, the bounty should quickly rise to a figure in excess of £1,000 a year. That is a sensible suggestion. It needs to be of that order not simply to satisfy the members of the reserve forces, but to encourage their wives to want them to continue with their service once they are married and while
Column 643they are raising a family. Unless some positive benefit to the family can be seen from the husband's involvement in the reserve forces, we cannot expect people to continue to give that service. In the same regard, the Territorial Army must give a special welcome to the women folk, not only to those who serve with the reserves, but to the wives of members. I have believed for a long time that the other ranks and sergeants' mess are crucial to a successful TA unit. Both should be the best clubs in any neighbourhood. The Ministry of Defence must give every encouragement to that because if the wives and girl-friends want to spend their weekends and evenings at a TA drill hall, in the other ranks' club, the sergeants' mess or in other mess facilities, that will provide the framework on which a successful reserve force can be built. There should be much greater choice of commitment to the Territorial Army. The Royal Navy has a much wider breadth of commitment. One can undertake different degrees of involvement. The same choice is not available in the Army because we try to ensure that the Territorial soldier is almost as good as, and in some cases better than, the regular soldier, which has meant that the training is extremely arduous. Once people have been initially trained there should be the opportunity to undertake a lesser commitment. I am well aware of the existence of the Home Service force and the valuable role that it plays, but we should give other opportunities to people to continue to serve in the reserves instead of making them leave the reserves because they feel that the commitment is too great. It is interesting that we shall shortly have a statement on the future of the Gurkhas, who serve for an average of 15 years, which means that training is a less arduous problem. The average in the Territorial Army is much lower as I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will mention. I believe that the average is probably three years, which means that a substantial proportion of the time spent in the TA is spent in basic training, which is a distinct disadvantage. We should also consider the age limits. My hon. Friend the Member for Wealden has already mentioned the demographic trough and the problem that it will create. We must consider whether the age limits are realistic in this day and age and whether we should revise them, especially for those in non-combatant units who could continue an extremely worthwhile career in the reserves.
My hon. Friend also referred to the commitment of business and the need to encouraging employers to release their staff for service in the reserves. We must address two issues. The first is the importance of the university officers training corps, which do three things. They help to train regular service officers ; they help to train people who will take up reserve commissions, and the third and a most important category of their role, which is frequently forgotten, is that they show what service life is about and its importance and benefit to the security of the nation. They show people who are unlikely to have the time to serve in the forces either as regulars or reserves what service life is about. In my experience, employers who have released their staff have been much more than appreciative of the type of training that their staff can get by serving in the reserve army. That must be given positive
Column 644encouragement. We should seek to expand our university officers training corps wherever possible and give them every encouragement. More practically, we should reimburse employers for their commitment and we should certainly consider paying national insurance contributions while their staff are at camp. We should also consider other ways in which we could show our appreciation for the sacrifices that firms, often small ones, make for the benefit of our reserve forces.
I have a personal interest in the future of the 39 Signals regiment which at present has its headquarters and drill hall in Selsdon road, Wanstead, which is affected by a Department of Transport road-widening scheme. It has been standing in the middle of dereliction and demolition for many years because the two Departments could not agree now much compensation was to be paid or when that could be settled. At long last, agreement was reached that the building should be rebuilt in Gordon road in my constituency. Clearly, long periods of uncertainty are not helpful to the recruitment of service personnel because they do not know where they will serve. I have experience of that. I served in a drill hall due to be demolished and replaced by a shopping centre. For about eight years virtually no work was done on the drill hall because it was to be pulled down and a new one built elsewhere. We spent many hours debating what the new drill hall was to contain and how it would be designed only to find that the bottom fell out of the property market and the development did not take place. We had to stay in the drill hall that we had. Consequently, we submitted an enormous list of work that had to be done, such as keeping the rain out but we were told that money was short and we had to take our turn. That shows what can happen and how buildings can be run down. I urge the Ministry of Defence to ensure that such circumstances do not arise and to urge other Departments to come to conclusions much more quickly so that we can all get on and build what is required.
The future of the reserves, particularly the Territorial Army, is bright. Indeed, it must be bright because without it we shall not be properly and adequately defended.
Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury) : I congratulate my hon. Friends the Members for Wealden (Sir G. Johnson Smith) and for Ilford, South (Mr. Thorne) on their excellent speeches. I shall talk principally about the Territorial Army although I shall make some brief comments about the regular reserves. I served for 10 years as an officer in the Territorial Army and I am privileged to have just been accepted into the home service force unit sponsored by the Tenth Volunteer Battalion, the Parachute Regiment.
I agree with most of what my two hon. Friends have said. At the heart of keeping people in the TA is developing spirit in a unit. I disagree with my hon. Friends only in that I do not think that pay has much to do with that in the case of the TA, unlike the regular Army where pay and conditions are absolutely critical. There is a serious problem of turnover in the TA. Many good units are fulfilling their vital role and all of the units have a vital role. The problem of turnover must be tackled by developing unit spirit rather than just increasing pay
Column 645scales. I should like to see an evaluation of the impact of the recent increase in bounties on the effect of turnover before we consider putting extra funds into pay.
The three keys to developing spirit in a territorial unit are group leadership, interesting training and the social factors to which my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South referred. Many units face desperate leadership problems because of employment pressures on young officers and junior non-commissioned officers to leave just when they are becoming valuable to the TA. Their family gets squeezed between their two careers.
The employers' initiative taken by the Government is extremely important, both in general terms and in some of its specific more public offshoots, such as Exercise Executive Stretch, which I believe took place two or three weeks ago to give employers a direct opportunity to see what TA units were about. The leadership side is not just direct liaison with business, but it is also about making the young officer see that he has career development within the TA, which will also make him more useful outside.
An important step was the new extended Sandhurst course, so that people coming into the TA can become officers very much more quickly if they commit themselves to a longer period at Sandhurst. However, that is only a first step. The TA should adopt for its officers and junior NCOs the kind of modular approach that business schools are developing for part-time students, who are following full-time careers at the same time, so that an officer in his 10 or 15 years service in the TA can acquire modules that build towards the position where he becomes a good company commander and can point to those modules to show how he has developed his own skills and abilities. He can point those out to his employer, too, so that his employer can see how he is developing. His employer can be encouraged to visit the courses. In that way we would not only have better officers but we would enable the TA officer to see that he is becoming more valuable to his employer as well as to his unit. That would keep the good people in the TA and would mean that the standard of leadership right across the TA would be more uniform, matching what already exists in the best units.
The other aspect of leadership is the interface with the Regular Army. It would be helpful if more of the regular commanding officers coming in had had experience in the TA, either as adjutant or as training major, or, if a good officer had been selected for command who had not done either of those jobs, he could have a few months attachment to another TA unit before he took up his command. That would, perhaps, ease some of the problems that occur in the TA when a commanding officer comes in from the outside with clear objectives--because objectives are the same in the TA as in the Regular Army--but without quite as clear an idea of how to achieve them. The TA is a different environment from the Regular Army. The best commanding officer that I was ever privileged to serve with was a regular officer who had been first an adjutant, then a training major and finally a commanding officer. He was able to bring all that experience of the TA to his unit as well as his regular career. It would also be thoroughly healthy for the long-term planning of the TA for the post of TA brigadier--the most senior officer--to be moved from UKLF Salisbury into the Ministry of Defence. That man would become a true deputy to the major general responsible for reserve forces and would have immediate access and the automatic right
Column 646to see all the major papers that cross that major-general's desk, especially bearing in mind that the filler of that post may have had no TA experience at all.
I should just touch on two aspects of the issue of the regular reserves. The home service force, which I have just been privileged to join, offers a new lease of life for the regular reserves. The home service force has an exceptionally low cost. It involves just 10 training days a year and needs little equipment. The more of our regular reservists who can be encouraged to join it, the more people we will have doing just a little training and keeping themselves current, at a negligible cost to the regular army. A big expansion of the home service force from the present ceiling of 4,500 to, perhaps, 20,000 or 30,000, or even more, could be achieved at negligible cost.
I would ask my hon. Friend for his assurance that his colleagues on the procurement side will take account of regular reserve factors in evaluating equipment. I shall mention one piece of equipment as an example, which has nothing to do with my constituency or my unit. I have no vested interest in it. On the question of the appraisal of the new B vehicle for the army, there are several different vehicles there, one of which is Bedford. I hope that when we are looking at a vehicle, even as simple as that, we will do what the Russians always do. We must ask to what extent the controls and the parts inside for which maintenance people are responsible are similar to the generation that they are replacing. Those people we bring back from the regular reserves who have served in earlier generations of the Army will then be able quickly to become acquainted with the vehicle.
I believe that it is still true today that Soviet tank commanders in reserve forces--the Soviets have a few people in their early 60s in those forces who fought in the war, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden- -would be able to get into a first-class modern Soviet tank and still be acquainted with most of the controls. All our procurement decisions should consider the regular reserves and whether the people who came out of the Army 10 or 15 years ago would still understand the controls of different, new equipment. I shall conclude as I am looking forward to my hon. Friend the Minister's reply. This is a very important subject and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden on bringing it before the public.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Armed Forces (Mr. Michael Neubert) : I greatly welcome the opportunity presented by the motion to draw attention to the importance of the reserve forces in the defence of the nation. It is a mark of the commitment of my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Sir G. Johnson Smith) to defence policy and the needs of the nation that, following his good fortune in the ballot, he has chosen to bring this subject before the House. As a former Under-Secretary of State for the Army, he has a special authority on the subject. In that capacity, he referred in particular, to the Territorial Army.
In terms of numbers it is, of course, by far the most significant of the volunteer reserve forces and, if I may, I will follow my hon. Friend's lead and concentrate my remarks on the Army reserves. A number of the points I shall make apply, however, as much to the reserves of the Royal Navy, the Royal Marines and the Royal Air Force
Column 647as they do to the TA. Indeed, the Royal Naval Reserve, the Royal Marines Reserve, the Royal Auxiliary Air Force and the RAF Volunteer Reserve play an equally vital role in defence of the nation, and my concentration on the TA today should not be seen as detracting in any way from that.
As my hon. Friends have acknowledged, the Government have consistently given the fullest support to the volunteer reserve forces, and the past decade has seen their strength increase from 73, 500 to 90,600. Over this period, the TA has increased by some 25 per cent., involving a major expansion programme which has seen the formation of six additional infantry battalions and an Air Defence Regiment, along with a large number of smaller units. This expansion reflects the crucial nature of the role of the TA, on which my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden touched.
On mobilisation, the TA would provide some 58,000 personnel in formed units to reinforce the British Army in Germany, making up more than half the infantry, logistic support and medical services in the British Army of the Rhine. I have just been there for an intensive 48-hour visit, in the course of which I experienced death by 1,000 vufoils, many of which emphasised the importance of the reserve forces in our order of battle and logistic plan.
In addition, a further 29,000 posts, including the home service force, are earmarked for home defence roles--that is, guarding key installations, undertaking reconnaissance and providing communications facilities. The Royal Naval Reserve has increased by about 7 per cent. since plans for its expansion were announced in 1984, and the Royal Marines Reserve by some 60 per cent. during the past 10 years. During the same period, the Royal Auxiliary Air Force and the RAF Volunteer Reserve have increased fivefold. As with the TA, this reflects their increasingly important roles on mobilisation and in war. It should be a matter of great pride to those concerned that reserve forces can assume such a heavy share of the burden of the defence of NATO, the Western Alliance and the nation.
The reserves are an integral part of the services they support. As the recently published "Statement on the Defence Estimates" said, they are not a follow-up force--a point that my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden spotted--separated from the regular services. That is well illustrated by the often heard reference to the "one army concept", which we strongly support and which clearly underlines the fact that the Territorial Army is not, in operational or equipment terms, of lower standing than the Regular Army. Rather, as with the other reserves, it is a vital and integral part of our overall effort to defend the country in times of crisis. As the volunteer reserves are part-time forces, they make their contribution at a cost significantly below that of additional regular forces--a point to which two of my hon. Friends drew attention.
The volunteer reserves are excellent value for money and we appreciate that well. What is more, the reserves are without the costs--both financial and social--of compulsory military service. We therefore remain committed to making the maximum use of this highly cost-effective manpower asset and to ensuring that its capability is maintained. However, I will be warned by what my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden said about the need to
Column 648maintain the reserves at a satisfactory strength by comparison with conscript armies elsewhere in the Alliance.
Fighting alongside regular troops in the front line, it is vital that the volunteer reserves should be as efficient and professional in carrying out their varied tasks as their regular counterparts. The key to that is well planned and concentrated training. Our efforts in that direction continue to be aimed not only at providing a wide range of training opportunities on evenings and weekends and at annual training periods, but at recognising that external pressures may come into play and ensuring that we provide the scope for volunteers to reach peak efficiency through optimum levels of training.
My hon. Friend the Member for Wealden brought with him today a shopping list almost as long as the one my wife takes to the Nine Elms branch of Sainsbury. I counted no fewer than 11 points on it, so he will understand that I cannot respond to him on all of them. Both he and our hon. Friends will understand that, if I cannot cover their points in every detail, I will write to them after the debate and take account of their views.
My hon. Friend made the point that training should not be confined to Salisbury plain. I am glad to assure the House that it is not the only focus for training. A Territorial Army volunteer can find himself or herself in Germany, Cyprus or Gibraltar, and some lucky ones can take part in exchange visits with the National Guard and go to the United States. We recognise the need to provide the incentive of travel just as much for the volunteers as for the Regulars. We continue to strive to reach our target ceilings for the reserves, but we must never sacrifice quality for quantity. We continue to strive to build up the trained strength of the reserves. Recognising the special pressures that may be brought to bear on volunteers, and which do not apply in the same way to their regular counterparts, it is also essential that they should be made aware, at the earliest possible opportunity, of precisely what is expected of them and, in the Territorial Army, for example, we endeavour, where possible, to make available unit training schedules by November of the year preceding the training year, which runs from the beginning of April to 31 March.
One of the important aspects of our overall training programme is to offer volunteers the opportunity to participate in major exercises such as, last year, the main field exercise of the British Army of the Rhine, Iron Hammer. I am sure that the House will be pleased to note that the Territorial Army continues to acquit itself well in exercises of that nature. Training is demanding in terms of time and effort and requires a strong sense of dedication from the volunteer. It is therefore only right and proper that it should be not only relevant, but interesting and exciting. In addition, it is essential that Territorial Army units are provided with the necessary equipment to carry out their roles. In that connection, I can answer the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden about up-to-date equipment.
It is a firm policy to introduce new equipment based on the role of units, be they regular or TA, and in some cases the TA units receive it before Regular Army units. Among equipment already issued to the TA are Javelin air defence missiles, the Milan anti-tank missile, the light gun for artillery units, Fox and CVR(T) vehicles and Clansman radio. We are also exploiting modern technology in the provision of training equipment, and moving towards the
Column 649greater use of simulators as one way of providing more effective and realistic training. That will have a number of subsidiary advantages, not least by reducing the pressures on ranges and training areas and, in so doing, lessening the impact of training on the environment and on the people who live near our training areas. As far as the Royal Naval Reserve is concerned, as my hon. Friend will know, each of the 11 sea training centres has now taken possession of its own River class fleet minesweepers, and the RNR is planning to man more than half of the Navy's wartime MCM forces. The Royal Marines Reserve continues, as we have heard, to be equipped for its main role in defence of NATO's northern flank in Norway. It is critical that we sustain the enthusiasms of the volunteer and, in addition to the training and equipment aspects which I have already mentioned, that we continue to keep under the closest review the pay and conditions of service. I take the point made by my hon. Friend about that, but he will not expect me to respond precisely today. This fact has become more important than ever at a time when, as my hon. Friend pointed out, with our continuing efforts to retain our volunteers, we need to take account of the potential effects of the demographic trough. As my hon. Friend said, not only are numbers falling but competition for the few that there are is increasing. To be young and employable in the early 1990s will be heaven. Pay continues to be linked to that of the Regular forces, and in the training year just completed there was a significant increase in the annual training bounty--more than 30 per cent. for those with at least three years' service. That means £600 tax-free, a not insignificant lump sum. We are not complacent ; we continually review such benefits, and will take account of the points made by my hon. Friend about increasing these bounties.
We have also introduced for the TA, or are trying out, new schemes offering volunteers who may feel unable to meet the full training obligation the opportunity to continue in service on a lower training liability. We have simplified administration, including recruitment procedures, and introduced a number of concessionary medical and travel arrangements for volunteers. The RNR has undergone a functional reorganisation, with increased emphasis on its war task training.
We also need to ensure that units are provided with good functional accommodation in which to train. My hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South (Mr. Thorne) may rest assured that we will be in contact with him about his local problem shortly and hope to be able to help with
Column 650it. We are now well on the way to completing the new and rehabilitated TA centres required for the TA expansion programme, and I am pleased to say that we are giving priority to the programme of renewal and maintenance of the existing centres which make up the TA estate ; and we are making improvements in accommodation for the other services.
Whatever improvements we may introduce in pay, training, equipment and accommodation, we cannot afford to ignore the many external pressures affecting recruitment and retention, one of which may well be the influence of a wife. Again, my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford South need be in no doubt that we understand that very well. To a large extent, these factors are outside the Ministry of Defence's direct sphere of influence. Although the complex nature of recruitment and retention makes it difficult wholly to divorce the two, it is worth highlighting our particular thrusts in both areas, especially in the light of the potential effects of the demographic trough.
My hon. Friend will have heard of the Army's study into manning and recruitment in the 1990s, when demographic pressures on service intakes will become particularly acute. It has pinpointed a number of measures calculated to benefit the TA. As an early step, we have recently embarked on a national recruiting campaign aimed jointly at prospective Regular and TA soldiers. The naval services too are actively engaged in addressing the recruitment and retention difficulties of the coming years at a time when the economy is sound and competition from industry is keen.
In the area of retention, it has been clear for some time that domestic and work pressures have often caused volunteers to foreshorten their service. I am sure that the House will appreciate the prime importance of retaining the high degree of trained ability of our more experienced volunteers. Largely as a result of that, the National Employer Liaison Committee was set up to look at these points and other issues of interest. Along with a number of recommendations on training and conditions of service, many of which have already been implemented, the committee recommended a major image campaign, which is under way. It was launched in September and is designed to bring home to the public at large and employers in particular the importance of the reserve forces and to demonstrate to employers the two-way benefits that may accrue from employee's participation--
It being half-past Two o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.
Private Members' Bills
Order for Second Reading read.
Second Reading deferred till Friday 9 June.
Second Reading deferred till Friday 9 June.
Order for Second Reading read.
Second Reading deferred till Friday 9 June.
That, at the sitting on Tuesday 23rd May, Motions in the name of Mr. Neil Kinnock relating to Community Charges and Rating and Valuation may be proceeded with, though opposed, for one and a half hours after the first of them has been entered upon ; and if proceedings thereon have not been previously disposed of, Mr. Speaker shall then put the Question already proposed from the Chair.-- [Mr. Chapman.]
Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.-- [Mr. Chapman.]
Mr. Harry Cohen (Leyton) : I have just come from the opening of a sheltered housing project in my constituency. It was opened by Frank Bruno and halfway through my speech big Frank boomed out, "Thank you Harry." I do not think that the Minister will be saying that at the end of the debate.
I welcome the debate because it gives me the opportunity to draw to the attention of the House the Government's neglect of the Data Protection Act 1984. The Government are riding roughshod over that Act and in many cases using the loopholes in it to undermine individual privacy. As my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Blackley (Mr. Eastham) has said, it is not only the Government who do that. Individual privacy is also seriously damaged by organisations such as the Economic League, which keeps a blacklist of names and details of thousands of people who may be active, perfectly legally, in the trade union movement, in CND, the anti-apartheid movement and in many other lawful organisations.
I shall start by dealing with the Government's abuse of the Data Protection Act by reminding them of the words in the 1975 White Paper "Computers and Privacy", which stated what then seemed obvious : "The time has come when those who use computers, however responsible they are, can no longer remain the sole judges of whether their own systems adequately safeguard privacy".
What do those resounding words imply? They imply that the controller, owner or collector of data, even if they are the Government, cannot be the sole judge and jury with respect to the personal data that are collected, processed, used or disclosed. As I hope to demonstrate, the Government are currently active as both judge and jury on this personal information and they have a record of disregarding all eight of the data protection principles. The first data protection principle is, in theory, supposed to let people know what happens to their personal data. To guide data users, the data protection registrar in his guideline No. 4 has advised them to
"Explain to the individual why information was required". He has also advised people to ensure that individuals are not "misled as to why the information is required, or why it will be used or disclosed".
That advice is ignored by the Government, who daily mislead people with respect to the poll tax and the electoral register. According to the Scottish Office, none of the departmental propaganda distributed by the Government informs Scottish poll tax payers how their personal data will be collected and compiled from hitherto confidential sources to form the poll tax register. That information is contained in Hansard of 5 May 1988 at column 534. The same is true of the "Ridleyspeak" poll tax publication from the Department of the Environment.
I do not wish to cover a lot of ground unnecessarily, so I refer the Minister to the explanatory memorandum of my Poll Tax (Restoration of Individual Privacy) Bill, which attempts to give poll tax data the same legal protection as data for the national census. Aptly introduced on St. Valentine's day, it also commemorates the Government's
Column 653massacre of individual privacy. I refer the Minister to Hansard of 5 March 1987, which shows that the Government have continually refused my request that voters be told when their details are sold on to third parties. The Government have also refused to redesign electoral registration forms to give voters the option of saying whether they want their names and addresses to be sold.
The second data protection principle relates to the need to register all the specified purposes for which information on individuals is kept with the data protection registrar. It comes as no surprise that the second largest Government Department, the Ministry of Defence, has one of the smallest numbers of registrations--only 16. The reason given is national security. In exploring this subject, it is important to repeat what the report of the Lindop committee on data protection said about public trust. In section 23.21, Lindop said that, with independent supervision, the security services would
"be open to the healthy--and often constructive--criticism and debate which assures for many public servants that they will not stray beyond their allotted functions."
Instead, the opposite occurs, and section 27 of the Data Protection Act is designed to give the national security apparatus a free hand. Thus, many personal data details are kept from the registrar's minimal supervisory powers, and the Government act as judge and jury on how this applies for national security purposes. That undermines the status of the second data protection principle.
The third data protection principle deals with disclosures of personal data. The legal position with regard to disclosing personal data is positively dangerous. In many cases, a "non-disclosure" exemption applies. This awful piece of jargon means that the disclosure is not subject to the requirements of the third data protection principle, that it need not be registered with the data protection registrar and that because of section 26(3)(b) of the Data Protection Act, it is not subject to the enforcement powers of the registrar in relation to all eight data protection principles. In short, the registrar does not know when these disclosures take place, and if he did know, he would have no powers in relation to them. A small list of "non-disclosure" exemptions shows the full extent of the registrar's impotence in law to control disclosures. These are the exemptions. The first relates to any disclosure of personal data held by any organisation if it is required by law for the poll tax register. Even the Minister of Social Security can breach a previous duty of confidentiality. Second is any disclosure from any Government Department to the police for the purpose of prevention and detection of crime. That is almost open-ended. Third is any disclosure from any Government Department to the Inland Revenue or to VAT officers for the purpose of assessment of any tax or any duty. Forth is any disclosure from any Government Department for the purpose of national security. Fifth is any disclosure to or from any Government Department to or from any other organisation if there is a legal power authorising the disclosure. I shall not dwell on this small list of illustrative disclosures that the registrar cannot oversee, as their breadth and scope speak for themselves.
The fourth data protection principle deals with the adequacy and relevance of personal data to the specified purpose for keeping it. In the debate on the new housing benefit regulations, my hon. Friend the Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook) and the hon. Member for
Column 654Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) both pointed out that, due to the lateness of the DSS regulations, local authorities would not have the complete software to administer the regulations, and staff could not be properly trained. In the same debate, my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) said that the tardy performance of the DSS meant that Newham council software could not accept manual corrections.
These problems have repeated themselves with the social fund and poll tax rebates in Scotland. According to the lead story in Computer Weekly on 3 November last year,
"claimants are being left in the dark about their repayments because the software producing their figures is unreliable and faulty."
A reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, West (Mr. Madden) on 5 December 1988 shows that the Government had to wait until version six of the software before there were significant reductions in software difficulties. In other words, the Government admit that they have inflicted the unreliable versions one to five on the public, in the knowledge that inaccuracies would result. They have also tolerated contraventions of the fifth data protection principle by casting considerable doubt on the accuracy of data held for benefit purposes. In their indecent haste to short-change the poor, the Government have a track record of ensuring that personal data required to administer their new regulations are inadequate or inaccurate for the purpose of providing benefit. So much for the fourth and fifth principles.
Another example of the Government's disregard for the spirit of the fourth data protection principle arises in the Scottish poll tax regulations, under which everyone must provide his date of birth for the reason of identification. There may be two John Smiths living at the same address in Edinburgh, but the Government do not say that it is only if there is more than one person with the same name that dates of birth should be provided. Instead, they prefer the authoritarian solution of making everybody supply a date of birth. In the vast majority of cases, therefore, the poll tax officials have information that is excessive for the purpose of collecting the poll tax. That has sinister implications as the information could be used to compile a data network covering everyone.
The sixth data protection principle calls for personal data to be deleted if it is no longer required, but that, too, is being disregarded. I refer the Minister to my Adjournment debate on 20 February 1987. The police still keep all criminal records for at least 20 years. Many of those records are on line and available to all police officers in all circumstances when they tap into the police national computer. That is a breach of the spirit of the sixth data protection principle and undermines it because the data is hardly ever deleted. That practice certainly undermines the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1979. Some of those old records are inconsequential, but are now being regurgitated in job-vetting procedures which are being increasingly adopted by the Government, local authorities and health authorities.
The seventh principle allows for subject access, but there is a perverse aspect in that third parties are obliging people to use their right of access to police records before those third parties confer employment or benefit to them. The Minister knows full well that some English local authorities are vetting taxi drivers before they apply for
Column 655licences. That sort of vetting should not arise through the back door of an Act that is supposed to extend liberties, not deny them. Access itself is far too costly, as was shown by the answers to my parliamentary questions in October 1987. It costs a data subject a maximum of about £900 to have access to all the register entries from the Department of Employment ; £720 for those from the Scottish Office ; and from the Minister's Department it is a snip--real value for money--at a maximum of £700. That is to be compared with the registrar's suggested fee in his third annual report of between £3 and £5 for access to all files on an individual held by a data user. That figure was based on a comprehensive survey of members of the public, but it has been ignored by the Government.
Recent surveys at the end of last year by the National Consumer Council, the consumer magazine Which? and the Freedom of Information Campaign have all shown that the cost of subject access is seriously deterring data subjects from exercising their rights under the law. With only millionaires eligible to regard subject access to Government files as an option, it is not surprising that ordinary members of the public are not springing into action to exercise their rights. In March last year, I was told that the Home Office had received 16 requests when it had expected between 5,000 and 50,000. Such is the scale of the Government's undermining of one of the basic rights of the Data Protection Act.
With regard to the last data protection principle, I am concerned that the Government seem to equate the eighth principle, which deals with the security of personal data, with individual privacy. For example, in the one debate on the Government's data network, the Government stated that privacy is related to "unauthorised access". Government Departments, it is said, will have to authorise disclosures which will be logged, scrutinised and audited to ensure privacy.
That is not good enough. The carefully abridged specification for the Government's data network, as placed in the House of Common's Library, anticipates new data interchanges between Departments of state. In relation to the Government's data network, I repeat my earlier point that those activities are not subject to the independent scrutiny of the data protection registrar. The registrar cannot see the detailed list to which I referred earlier. Until an element of independent scrutiny is introduced, the Government data network should not proceed another step. The current position is best described by a parody of the White Paper statement--the time has come for the Government to be sole judge as to how far the Government's data network can invade privacy.
My final comments relate to codes of practice. As the Minister is aware from his recently legalised readings of "Spycatcher", page 360 states :
"the main interest F Branch of MI5 had in the Computer Working Party was to establish widespread computer links, principally with the National Insurance computer in Newcastle."
Concerned by that, I asked the Home Secretary on 9 March 1988 about a code of practice for national security purposes. I was told that there was
"no advantage in a code of practice in this area."--[ Official Report, 9 March 1988 ; Vol. 129, c. 195. ]
Column 656I then asked whether some information, which would not compromise national security, could be given to the data protection registrar. I was told :
"Such arrangements are not required by the Data Protection Act".--[ Official Report, 31 March 1988 ; Vol. 130, c. 679. ]
That completely undermines the concept of codes of practice. If MI5 holds much personal data about an individual's political activities--on 6 April last year The Guardian estimated that data was held on 1 million individuals--if MI5 can link to Government Departments such as the DHSS computer at Newcastle and we can only read about that in books which the Government want to ban, and if the Government data network will link the Home Office to other Departments when the Home Office is responsible for internal national security issues, I think that some code of practice is essential to restore public confidence.
Before I finish, I must state that my expectations are not high. The Government have a track record of invading the BBC, cajoling the IBA, promoting identity cards, legalising burglary, tightening official secrecy and introducing the poll tax. Systematically undermining the Data Protection Act is about par for the course. 2.48 pm
The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Tim Renton) : I congratulate the hon. Member for Leyton (Mr. Cohen) on securing this afternoon's debate and for the cogent manner in which he set out his concerns. At the risk of breaking with the practices of the House, I will echo the words of Frank Bruno and, with the exception of the hon. Gentleman's final few sentences say, "Thank you, Harry." If I may say this without being patronising, the hon. Member for Leyton has built up a very good knowledge of the intricacies of the Data Protection Act 1984 which is not a subject on which many hon. Members are expert. He has also built up a great knowledge of its underlying principle of the protection of the privacy of individuals in respect of personal data which is processed automatically. I know that he has tabled a number of parliamentary questions on the question because it has fallen to me regularly over the past two years to answer them. He further demonstrated his concern when he introduced the Data Protection Act 1984 (Amendment) Bill 1987. There is no question of the Government neglecting the Data Protection Act 1984 or of breaking it in spirit or deed.
As to the community charge, the Local Government Finance Act 1988 is very restrictive on the sources from which data can be obtained and on the disclosures that can make use of that data. The Department of the Environment was mindful of the views of the data protection registrar and of others when that legislation was prepared, and the registrar issued guidelines that go beyond the Act's statutory requirements.
On the question of whether the same principles should apply to security or crime investigations, sections 27 and 28 of the Act set out limited exceptions to the normal operation of the legislation, and section 29, which deals with mental health, makes the point that the non-disclosure rule is in the interest of data subjects. Most right hon. and hon. Members, including, I hope, the hon. Member for Leyton recognise the prime importance attached to national security--not least in tackling crime
Column 657--and that it is not feasible to apply exactly the same constraints to such activities as to the generality of data use.
I was surprised at the hon. Gentleman's assertion that only a millionaire can afford to exercise his access rights. That seems to be going too far. Up to £10 may be charged by a data user for granting subject access in an individual case.