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Column 477Trimble, David
Walker, Rt Hon Sir Harold
Wardell, Gareth (Gower)
Wareing, Robert N
Column 477Williams, Alan W (Carmarthen)
Williams, Rt Hon Alan (Sw'n W)
Wright, Dr Tony
Tellers for the Noes: Mr. John Cummings and Mr. Jon Owen-Jones
Column 477Question accordingly agreed to.
Subsequent Lords amendments agreed to .
Lords amendment: No. 131, to insert the following new clause-- Offence of selling confidential financial information --
.--(1) It is an offence for a person ("the seller") to sell or offer to sell information as to the financial affairs of another person if--
(a) the seller knows that the information has been or will be obtained dishonestly or by deception; and
(b) the information is intended to be disclosed without the consent of such other person.
(2) An advertisement or circular indicating that information of that description is or may be for sale is an offer to sell within the meaning of subsection (1).
(3) A person guilty of an offence under this section is liable-- (a) on conviction on indictment, to imprisonment for a term not exceeding five years or a fine or both;
(b) on summary conviction, to imprisonment for a term not exceeding six months or a fine not exceeding the statutory maximum or both.")
Read a Second time.
Mr. Deputy Speaker : With this, it will be convenient to take the following: Lords amendment No. 150, Government amendments (a), (b), (c), (aa), (bb), (cc), (d), (e) and (f) thereto, Lords amendments Nos. 163 and 180, and Government motions to disagree to Lords amendments 131 and 163.
The Lords amendment introduces a new clause to the Bill which would make it a criminal offence to disclose confidential financial information obtained by deception and disclosed without the consent of the person concerned. Our amendment would make it an offence to sell such information or otherwise to provide it--in other words, even if there were no consideration or sale involved, simply providing information obtained by deception and without consent would be a criminal offence.
There is an increasing problem, caused by the fact that banks and other financial institutions hold considerable amounts of financial information on all of us. Agencies have grown up and people have appeared all over the country who are willing to obtain this information by deception and then provide it to third parties. Indeed, it is
Column 478possible to find out someone's bank balance for about £250, and to find out details of standing orders and other confidential information for payments of about £1,000.
During the summer, ITN, with my consent, instructed a firm of inquiry agents to see whether they could find out information about my bank account. I authorised them to do this because I believed it was possible to obtain the information: and so it transpired. A firm of inquiry agents in London was instructed, and managed to obtain details of my bank balance. It is quite easy to do that by deception, and as far as the inquiry agents knew there was no question of my consent having been given.
Most people want that practice stopped. When Lord Brightman moved the amendment that is now Lords amendment No. 131, there was widespread support in the other place for prohibition of that sort of behaviour. It is not easy to see on what grounds the Government want to remove that new clause from the Bill, other than that they believe that it might impede the activities of credit reference agencies. The legitimate activities of such agencies would not be impeded because they do not need to obtain their information by deception. They might not have consent, but no element of deception is involved because they are, or they ought to be, straightforward about the business in which they are engaged.
There can be no place for individuals obtaining confidential financial information by deception and without the consent of the person involved. If we respect an individual's right to privacy--a fundamental right--it is important that we accept the Lords amendment.
We broadly agree with what the Government are trying to achieve in Lords amendment No. 150. As I understand it, however, the Government amendment would not stop someone obtaining information, if the provider had registered that he or she was able to provide it under the Data Protection Acts. Most banks state on their data protection certificate that they are prepared to disclose information to inquiry agents, for example. The Government amendment does not go far enough, although I welcome the fact that it appears to make limited progress.
The fundamental argument is that the House should accept Lords amendment No. 131, with our amendment to it, because that is the only way in which we will stop people obtaining confidential financial information and making it available. If the Minister is going to reply that such affairs are covered by the law on confidentiality, I hope that the Government will refresh their memory and bear in mind the difficulties that they faced over the "Spycatcher" and Ponting cases. They will realise that the law on confidentiality is by no means straightforward. That law would not provide the protection that people are looking for.
In that spirit, I move our amendment and trust that the Government will think again and accept it.
Mr. Beith: The Lords amendment is most welcome--I shall summarise it and the amendment to it as though they were one, although it is a little more complicated than that. It is clearly necessary to attempt to extend some protection to financial information and the combined efforts of the Government and certain of their lordships have at last achieved some results.
Column 479One must be aware of the seriousness of the problem. I have seen newspaper reports of advertisements by companies that offer to obtain such information and charge tariffs. A company called ACT is reported to have a tariff for information from banks and building societies. For obtaining a balance, the charge is £245--in some of our cases, that might be more than the balance--and a statement can be obtained for £1,000, while confirmation of overdraft or loan facilities costs £300.
Those services are freely advertised by companies purporting to have access to information that can be obtained only by some form of deception, or by inviting a dereliction of duty by employees of banks, building societies and other financial institutions. Such institutions are extremely worried about the situation. The majority of their staff would not assist such an activity in any way, but the possibilities of deception on the part of the person obtaining the information, the failure of security systems and the fact that someone might occasionally be willing to pass such information in dereliction of his or her duty, combine to expose the security systems of financial institutions and individuals to such a danger. The fact that companies are able to offer a tariff for that information suggests that it is being obtained on an extremely wide scale.
I support the Lords amendment, which the Government are resisting, because I am anxious about information that is not obtained directly from a computer. I hope that the Minister can clarify the position. If we do not pass the amendment, although information held on computer will be protected, all sorts of similar information, which is in written form or is not necessarily obtained direct from a computer, including many of the things listed in the tariffs, will still be available to those organisations.
I do not know to what extent it will be possible to transfer information from a computer, write it down and pass it on. In many cases, the information will already exist in written form. Copies of statements, a passbook or a number of other things may be floating around the office.
Mr. Nick Hawkins (Blackpool, South): The right hon. Gentleman may know that I was a banking lawyer before entering the House, and that I helped to draft the codes of banking practice. Once material has been produced in computerised form, it is covered, even if it becomes part of a separate written document.
Mr. Beith: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that advice, for which I am pleased not to have had to pay any fee--the House is greatly advantaged. I would still like to hear the information from the Minister's mouth.
There must be some ambiguous cases. Information might be held in a computer as well as in written form, perhaps because a cashier has written something down for a customer, or because of some correspondence that is entirely separate from the computer records, which leads me to believe that the amendment's provisions must be bolstered. Their lordships were certainly persuaded that the amendment was appropriate. Despite the wish to
Column 480dispatch the matter quickly, I hope that the Minister will realise that it is important, and that he needs to explain the position.
Sir Ivan Lawrence: I shall, of course, support the Government, but there is some good sense in Lord Brightman's amendment. My hon. Friend the Minister might well be arguing that it would have all sorts of ramifications for press freedom, which we do not want to develop by imposing swingeing criminal offences when we have not yet sorted out what we are going to do about Calcutt. I must warn my hon. Friend that an awful lot of people are concerned about press freedom, and if we do not introduce some of the Calcutt proposals, we may well have to return to this element of the Bill.
The Minister knows that I believe that we must do something to contain abuses of press power, but I fear that the Government will not do anything- -certainly not before the next election. There may be good political reasons for that. If they do not intend to do so, Lord Brightman's amendment should be reconsidered. I should be grateful to my hon. Friend for giving us some sign that he has not totally closed his mind to the viability of the amendment in due course.
The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. David Maclean): My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Burton (Sir I. Lawrence) knows that I never have a closed mind on any subject, and he has touched on an important point. It is far from easy to determine how far the press should be allowed to go to expose stories about criminal activity or anti-social conduct in a democratic society. Sir David Calcutt dealt with the issue, suggesting, inter alia, new criminal offences in certain circumstances.
The Government will, before long, be announcing their reactions to those recommendations. At this stage, I cannot anticipate what line we will be taking, but I am clear that it would be wrong for the House to agree new criminal offences that would impinge on the press, in ways that go beyond anything suggested by Calcutt and which contain no form of defence on which the press could rely, in advance of the Government's proposed White Paper. That would be the wrong way to proceed, as I am sure that the House and my hon. and learned Friend would agree. Those are sensitive issues and we must consider them properly.
Mr. Beith: Surely any restraint on the press from the amendments applies to the amendment that the Government are accepting as much as it does to Lord Brightman's amendment. Is not the only circumstance in which the press would appear to be affected if a freelance reporter were involved, and that therefore there was a financial consideration to the passing of the information?
Mr. Maclean: I shall explain that we have concluded that Lord Brightman's amendments went further than was appropriate before we have the Government's conclusions to the Calcutt report. We are not dismissing his suggestions out of hand, and we have carefully considered them.
We have now concluded, in the light of Lords amendment No. 131, that we should go a stage further in regard to the Data Protection Act 1988. We cannot advise the House to keep Lords amendment No. 131, but we propose in an amendment that is now before the House to
Column 481attach the key feature of that amendment-- the offering for sale of improperly obtained information--to our own new data protection offence.
Accordingly, we propose to make it an offence for a person to sell, or offer for sale, data procured in contravention of the Data Protection Act. That is the effect of the new subsection (7) inserted into section 5 of the 1984 Act. The new subsection (8) covers the situation of the person who makes an offer for sale at one point in time, and carries out the illicit procuring subsequently. Such a person will be guilty of the new selling offence once data are actually procured.
I listened carefully to the arguments advanced by the hon. Member for Edinburgh, Central (Mr. Darling) for the amendment standing in his name and that of the hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Mr. Michael). I think that I can see the intention behind them. If the person who sells data that he has procured in breach of the Data Protection Act 1988 is to be guilty of an offence, so ought a person who has given data away to a third party or might get his reward by devious means some considerable time later. If the words "or otherwise provides" were capable only of covering such a person, the Government would have no substantial objection to them.
The words are capable of being much wider in their application. They would, for example, cover the handing over of data to another person in the same organisation simply to be filed with a view to future use. It is unsatisfactory in principle that the scope of a criminal law should be so vague in its application that it is capable of covering acts that it is not intended to prohibit.
I must also say to the hon. Gentleman that the additional words are unnecessary. By virtue of Lords amendment No. 150, it is already an offence to procure disclosure of personal data, knowing or having reason to believe that the disclosure constitutes a contravention of subsection (2) or (3) of section 5 of the Data Protection Act. Accordingly, the person who has obtained personal data in this way is already guilty of an offence.
The additional amendments standing in the name of my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary are designed to catch the person who, in addition to procuring the data, sells and offers to sell the data. This is intended to cover some of the concerns that lay behind Lords amendment No. 131, which, as I have explained, is unacceptable in its width. Those concerns were principally to combat the advertising and sale of improperly obtained information--companies which specialise in commercial activities of the nature to which the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) referred. 6.45 pm
The Government's amendments to Lords amendment No. 150 are deliberately aimed at sales and advertisements offering to sell. We believe that they do not need the further extension that would be made in the amendments standing in the names of the hon. Members for Edinburgh, Central and for Cardiff, South and Penarth. Although I have listened carefully to the hon. Member for Edinburgh, Central's point of view--I can understand the way in which he wants to widen the amendment--I must advise the House not to accept the amendment.
Column 482deals with information obtained by deception and without consent, so those elements are necessary in order to constitute the offence. The amendment would therefore not cover information that was legitimately passed around in an organisation, because there would not be deception and there might well be consent.
The second point was the question of press freedom. The Opposition have no desire whatsoever to limit investigative journalism--would that there were more of it. The problem the law faces is that it cannot discriminate between a member of the public and a journalist, because a journalist is a member of the public who happens to be engaged in the business of writing. It is not possible within the framework of the law to put journalists in a privileged position. The mischief that we now face, where people are willing to obtain financial information by deception and without the consent of the individuals concerned and then sell it, ought to be stopped. Every one of us has substantial amounts of information held by banks and financial institutions. As I have said, I welcome the fact that the Government are introducing additional protection so far as the Data Protection Act 1988 is concerned.
The point of Lords amendment No. 131 and our amendment would be to cover cases that are not covered by the Data Protection Act. A lot of information is held that is not covered by the Act, and the amendments would ensure that anyone who tried to obtain that information dishonestly, by deception or without the consent of the individual concerned would face a criminal offence.
I have a great deal of sympathy with the point made by Government Members, that the Government will have to consider these matters sooner or later. But frankly, to say that we must wait for the Government's consideration of the Calcutt report does not carry much weight.
If I remember rightly, the Calcutt report was prepared in 1990 or 1991, and we still have not had the Government's response. The matter raises some delicate political problems and Government Members may now take a different view on the freedom of the press from that which they took before the election, because the press have--for the moment, at any rate--turned their unwelcome attention on the Government. It is not our function to try to curtail the legitimate activities of investigative journalism, but I am concerned that there are individuals in this country who are in the business of obtaining confidential financial information, and at the moment there is nothing to stop them. It has affected me and other hon. Members who have experienced people trying to get into their bank accounts and to get information, and members of the public generally look to Parliament to protect their privacy. I am sorry that the Government have taken the view that they have, and for that reason we will press the amendment to a Division.
Question put, That the amendment to the Lords amendment be made:--
The House proceeded to a Division:
Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark and Bermondsey) ( seated and covered ): On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Several colleagues and I have come immediately from No. 7 Millbank. We took the same lift, and we got here as quickly as we could. We have just missed the Division because it was impossible to get here in the time allowed--I do not know how many minutes were allowed
Column 483for the Division. I wonder whether you could allow the Doors to the Lobby to be reopened to allow us to vote, as we came as quickly as we could.
Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Janet Fookes): No, I am afraid that I cannot allow that. I have taken account of the fact that we recently had a Division in the House, so I think that hon. Members had warning that further Divisions were likely.
Ms Clare Short (Birmingham, Ladywood) ( seated and covered ): Further to that point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. There was a Division about an hour ago, but those of us who have to work in our offices in Millbank have to return to them in order to do our job properly. We all know that we have to leave that building the minute the Division bell goes- -we sometimes run down the stairs if necessary.
We left instantly the bell rang and ran across to the House--we did not delay. Earlier, we were given a clear undertaking from Madam Speaker that discretion would be exercised to allow the Doors to be reopened if a Division was not called at a fixed time, as happened just now. I appeal to you to reconsider your decision, Madam Deputy Speaker, because we were given a promise, and we all came here as fast as was physically possible.
Madam Deputy Speaker: I am sorry, but I was not in the Chamber previously, and I did not hear what Madam Speaker said. Obviously discretion may be used at a particular moment when a decision has to be made, but I am not aware of any suggestion that something will happen for ever more; otherwise, we would need to alter the normal arrangement whereby we have a set amount of time for a Division.
Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) ( seated and covered ): Further to that point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. In view of what has been said by you and other hon. Members, it is within your power to order a new Division to be called to enable those hon. Members who could not get here, through no fault of their own, to record their votes on this important matter. It would not delay business.
Mr. Greville Janner (Leicester, West) ( seated and covered ): Further to that point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I am one of the inhabitants of No. 7 Millbank. I always have to run over to vote. When I inquired, Madam Speaker said that, when it is a first vote, she does, as a matter of discretion, allow extra time before the doors are locked. If it is a matter of discretion, colleagues can be locked out, as has happened to hon. Members on both sides of the House on this occasion.
Would you be kind enough, please, to talk to Madam Speaker to see whether an extra two or three minutes can be added to the first Division of a series, so that colleagues can get over here? It is difficult even for the able-bodied to get to the House in time, but it is impossible for those who are not able-bodied. My only parliamentary win against the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Mr.Coe) occurred when I got here in time
Column 484to vote and he did not, but he left Millbank much later than I did. Even that hon. Member has been locked out of the Lobby on occasion.
Madam Deputy Speaker: I appreciate the fact that difficulties arise from time to time and I have, on occasion, exercised that discretion. But tonight, people had due warning that votes could be expected at various times. I shall draw this matter to the attention of the Speaker and further consideration may be given to the general principles involved. I think that that is what the hon. and learned Gentleman has in mind.
The House having divided : Ayes 246, Noes 279.
Division No. 311] [6.46 pm
Column 484Abbott, Ms Diane
Adams, Mrs Irene
Ainsworth, Robert (Cov'try NE)
Anderson, Ms Janet (Ros'dale)
Beckett, Rt Hon Margaret
Beith, Rt Hon A. J.
Benn, Rt Hon Tony
Bennett, Andrew F.
Bray, Dr Jeremy
Brown, Gordon (Dunfermline E)
Brown, N. (N'c'tle upon Tyne E)
Campbell, Menzies (Fife NE)
Campbell, Mrs Anne (C'bridge)
Campbell, Ronnie (Blyth V)
Campbell-Savours, D. N.
Clark, Dr David (South Shields)
Clarke, Eric (Midlothian)
Clwyd, Mrs Ann
Cook, Frank (Stockton N)
Cunningham, Jim (Covy SE)
Cunningham, Rt Hon Dr John