Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Simon Hughes: The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department prayed in aid the experiences of other jurisdictions. We are delighted to know that they are a source of inspiration for the Government. On this occasion, we are persuaded that the experience of other Administrations is a good thing. The Liberal Democrats share the Government's view on the structure for the Data Protection Commissioner and for the Information Commissioner.

We do not take the line proposed by the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins) on behalf of the Conservatives. I was not sure whether the hon. Gentleman's amendment was a probing one or one with more potential. I hope that the debate has persuaded him that it was better as a probing amendment, and that he will reconsider the idea. The Conservatives advanced those ideas in Committee; we did not support them. The hon. Gentleman inadvertently suggested that we were on board on the amendment, but that is not so.

Sadly, the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow), who is accurate in many of his assertions, used an argument that I made yesterday on a different point as support for his intervention in relation to the amendment. My separate point--on which the hon. Gentleman may disagree--was in yesterday's debate on override. We were discussing whether there should be a democratic override, as described by the Government--coming back to Ministers appointed by Parliament--or whether the ultimate decision could be taken by an independently appointed authority. In this case, that would be the commissioner. We argued that it would be better to trust someone who was not a member of the Government on matters relating to Government information. Although I understand the Opposition's point of view, I do not accept it, so I hope that the hon. Gentleman will accept that, on this occasion, he was inadvertently misrepresenting me.

Mr. Bercow: On the question of procedural propriety, I readily concede to the hon. Gentleman on this occasion. However, the truth will out: I wanted to attack the hon. Gentleman's position yesterday, but he sat down before I had the opportunity to do so, so I thought I would use my intervention as an excuse for doing so today.

7.45 pm

Mr. Hughes: If all the hon. Gentleman's attacks were 24 hours late, I would not have much to worry about.

5 Apr 2000 : Column 1043

An important issue in the debate is the citizen's knowledge--how to use the freedom of information system--to which the Minister rightly alluded. We have argued constantly--on Second Reading, in Committee and now on Report--that we need legislation that citizens can understand and of which they are in charge. The more straightforward the system, the better it will be.

It follows from that that the person responsible for the management of the processes whereby people are helped to inquire about the data held about them and the person managing the acquisition of information about public authorities could be the same person and could have the same staff. Indeed, that is the Government's position. The nomination has already been made; we know who is intended to fulfil that function. We support the Government on that matter.

I hope that the fact that we are so happy publicly to support the Government, despite the difference of views in the Chamber, shows how objective we are on each subject under debate. If there is another resurgence of the cross-party view--as I suspect there may be later on--it will be because of the same objective assessment of the facts and of the merits of the case. I hope that the Government will find that especially persuasive--perhaps more so on the amendments on which we have yet to vote than on the previous one, when they were on the defensive and on the wrong side of the argument.

Mr. Greenway: The House should reflect on three aspects of the proposed amendments. First, the cultural mindset of a Data Protection Commissioner is, in essence, one of secrecy; whereas the amendments would introduce, for the first time, a culture of openness. That is not meant to be critical of Miss Elizabeth France, the current Data Protection Commissioner, who will also undertake the role of Information Commissioner under the Government's proposals.

However, the longer we discussed the Bill in Committee, the more it became obvious that much of the current work of the commissioner on matters that relate to the Bill involves ensuring the secrecy of personal information about individuals. The work on freeing up information to be carried out by the new commissioner is a different matter. The Government have not given that point sufficient thought. That is why my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) and my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins) were right to pursue the matter.

The second point about our alternative proposal is that we feel strongly that there should have been a role for Parliament in overseeing the new freedom of information regime. Our debate on the availability of information--the facts and data that have underpinned and informed Government policy decisions--is another example of Parliament wanting to assert itself. Parliament is saying that we still have a role; we are not just a rubber stamp for everything that the Government or the Whitehall bureaucracy think is good for us. A parliamentary Committee to scrutinise the work of the Information Commissioner would be most beneficial.

The Minister will say, "But how many appeals will that Committee have to deal with?" We are not proposing a Committee in lieu of a commissioner--even if we are

5 Apr 2000 : Column 1044

talking about an Information Commissioner who is separate from the existing Data Protection Commissioner so as to reflect their two different roles. What we are proposing, however, is a Committee in lieu of the Government's proposed tribunal. How many appeals does the Minister think their tribunal will have to deal with? The impression given throughout the Committee stage was that it would not have to deal with that many--that Ministers will be so reasonable, as will other public authorities, in their interpretation of their responsibilities under the Bill, that appeals to the tribunal will be quite rare. I do not think it would be as onerous a task as the Minister implies for a parliamentary Committee to oversee the work of an independent Information Commissioner.

My third point is a practical one, which we addressed in Committee but which was not answered satisfactorily. There will be a huge programme of work in implementing the Bill. One must question whether it is sensible for the Data Protection Commissioner, at this key point when the Data Protection Act 1998 is coming on stream, also to have the programme of work under the Bill--work with regard to the 2,000 or more public authorities which it is anticipated will be affected by the Bill.

Under the Government's proposal, all that will have to be done by the selfsame Data Protection Commissioner and her staff, so there is still an opportunity for the idea of a separation of roles between data protection and information to be progressed further.

Neither my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath nor I want to detain the House for too long on this point, but one other thing should be said. The Minister said that the Opposition in the other place could think through a better scheme, which the Government could then look at. I was encouraged by that. Perhaps, like the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath), I am unnecessarily optimistic, but the Minister has given us some encouragement. He will certainly have given the other place some encouragement to find a way in which to bring forward a scheme that might command more support and a more favourable response from Ministers.

Perhaps we have not given the attention to this proposal that we have given to some of the other meaty issues in the Bill. We have perhaps not thought through all the detail and structure in quite the way that we might have done if this were a Government proposal. I have, however, outlined several issues: the difference in cultural approach, arising from the fact that the Data Protection Commissioner is primarily involved in ensuring secrecy--confidentiality is perhaps a better word; the assertion that there should be a role for Parliament in overseeing the work of the Information Commissioner; and the huge practical work load that the Bill will put on the commissioner. Those issues suggest that the matter should be rethought. I hope that, in the other place, a scheme of arrangements that might commend itself not just to the Government, but to the other place as a whole, will be introduced, so that the Bill can be amended. In the meantime, I urge my hon. Friend to press the amendment to a Division to reinforce our view on the matter.

Mr. Hawkins: Again, I can be very brief. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) for what he has said. I will certainly accept his suggestion that we press the amendments--

5 Apr 2000 : Column 1045

which were never intended to be probing amendments--to a vote. I was encouraged by the Minister apparently leaving the door ajar.

Attention has been drawn to the fact that there is a similar regime in France. As a member of the Anglo-French all-party parliamentary group, I am delighted to find that my francophile tendencies are supported by what I am doing as a Front Bencher. I do not, however, accept the Minister's suggestion that the fact that some other Commonwealth countries have not accepted such a proposal is necessarily a criticism of it. As my hon. Friend said both tonight and in Committee, it would be a substantial and useful extra safeguard.

Like many other hon. Members, I am sure, I have always believed that the more parliamentary scrutiny there is, the better. There are far too many occasions when Members of all parties are ridiculed in the press and media. We are all the targets of criticism. We put ourselves up to be shot at. We must come to expect that. Nevertheless, whatever party we represent in this place, we all, I hope, have a genuine belief in the value of parliamentary scrutiny.

That is what the new clause and amendments are intended to achieve. We believe that they are right. We do not say that they are necessarily perfect. I was encouraged when the Minister suggested that, in another place, the issue might be returned to. It should be. Ultimately, it will be something that the Government will have to concede--I think the other place will insist that the Government do so. In the meantime I intend to press the amendments and the new clause to a vote.

Question put, That the amendment be made:--

The House divided: Ayes 116, Noes 373.

Next Section

IndexHome Page