Previous SectionIndexHome Page

8.15 pm

Disclosure in the interests of the accountability of the authorities to whom freedom of information requests are made, or the accountability of the commissioner herself, may not pass the "necessary" test. A purposes clause which made clear that the Bill was intended to promote accountability could provide some statutory safeguard. However, the Government have resisted such a provision.

The most objectionable element of the restriction is that it contains no "harm" test. The offence is not limited to the disclosure of trade secrets or commercially damaging information, but could be caused by a harmless disclosure of information about an identifiable business. The perverse consequence would be that information about a business which an authority would have to disclose under the Bill, because it did not reveal a trade secret or prejudice the commercial interests of the business concerned, could result in the commissioner being convicted of a criminal offence if she disclosed it.

At the time of the Data Protection Bill's passage through the House, the registrar commented:

which is now section 59--

    is potentially to criminalise disclosures of information relating to an identifiable business in circumstances where it could not sensibly be maintained that this could cause any harm. For example, where a journalist queries the lawfulness of a company's processing activities, a member of the Commissioner's staff could commit a criminal offence simply by confirming that the company had discussed the processing in question with the Registrar because this disclosure is clearly not absolutely necessary for the discharge of the Commissioner's functions under the Act. The Registrar has always sought to be as open as possible with the Press. She is aware of no evidence that this has caused any individual or company significant harm. She is therefore concerned that this clause could require her and her staff to be unnecessarily guarded in future.

5 Apr 2000 : Column 1051

    Such a restraint on the Data Protection Commissioner's dealings with the press would be undesirable; to restrain the Information Commissioner would be unthinkable. It could undermine her ability to explain the basis of her approach. Any suggestion of secrecy on the part of the commissioner could damage the credibility of the legislation itself.

During the Data Protection Bill's passage through the House, the Government suggested that the Data Protection Commissioner's general power to disseminate information--the Information Commissioner would have the identical power--would protect the commissioner in making the necessary disclosures. However, the Minister himself suggested that this would allow the publication of "anonymised" information, implying that the disclosure of company-specific information would be constrained.

A similar general power to publish information, coupled with the specific prohibition of disclosures, appears in the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974. The Health and Safety Commission and the Health and Safety Executive have long maintained that it prevents them from disclosing information obtained under their powers unless disclosure is strictly necessary for health and safety purposes.

Mr. Dalyell: I apologise for interrupting the hon. Gentleman, who is making a very well-sculpted speech, but could he share with us whose view this is? He is reading out a highly technical, carefully worded legal view. Whose view is it?

Mr. Shepherd: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that point. Of course it is the view of the Data Protection Registrar, as was. It was put forward during the DPA's passage through the House, but it did not obtain a satisfactory response. That is why it has had to be raised again. I apologise to the House for the sheer technicality of the explanation, but we never succeeded in getting a Minister to focus on it. I gave Ministers advance notice of my previous endeavours to raise the matter and I accept that it is highly technical.

Mr. Lock: May I speed things up by saying that I have seen the freedom of information brief, that the hon. Gentleman can assume that I am aware of what it says, and that I shall respond to that brief as to his speech?

Mr. Shepherd: I was referring to the earlier stages when the Data Protection Bill was passing through this place. This speech is almost a repeat of the previous speech so it is in the machinery of Government, and the Whips Office has it--the Minister may relax.

It was hoped that the debate would not be a dialogue of the deaf, in which I would read a highly technical script and the Government would brush it aside. There is a point of importance in this, and, in that sense, I am grateful for the Minister's intervention. If he has something material to say, I shall conclude my speech. He has the information; he has the brief; he is apprised of the argument; and we would like a response and action.

Mr. Lock: I shall not detain the House by explaining the background to the debate and the purpose and effect

5 Apr 2000 : Column 1052

of section 59 of the Data Protection Act 1998, other than to say that it requires the Data Protection Commissioner not to disclose information save in specified circumstances. Section 59 is required by article 28(7) of the European data protection directive, and--this may be a crucial point--schedule 2 of the Bill applies the relevant parts of the Data Protection Act 1998 to the Bill; and paragraph 19 of the schedule extends the duty of confidentiality and the related offence in section 59 of the DPA to information obtained by the commissioner for the purposes of the Bill. The effect of amendment No. 177 would be to disapply that extension.

I heard what the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) said, but the Government's view is that the amendment would lead to an impossible situation for the commissioner and her staff, because we do not believe that it is possible for section 59 to bite for one regime and not for another. We have already said that we believe that the vast majority of requests for information and, consequently, complaints to the commissioner, will involve both personal and non-personal information. Therefore, the information obtained by the commissioner will not fall neatly into one regime or the other--one to which section 59 would apply, and another to which it would not. So, because we have to have section 59 for the purposes of the data protection regime, the only practical way forward is to have it also for the purposes of the freedom of information regime.

However, the Data Protection registrar expressed two concerns. She has expressed concern, first, that she would be unable to share information with other investigatory bodies--such as various public sector ombudsmen--which she may have been in contact with in the course of investigating a complaint; and secondly, that the prohibition on disclosure without lawful authority could act to prevent the commissioner from disclosing the fact that she had received a complaint and that she was investigating it, which would be contrary to the principles of freedom of information.

I tell the hon. Gentleman that we have listened very carefully to both those complaints. We accept the strength of the argument for an amendment to the Bill to allow information to be shared by and between the commissioner and other proper regulatory investigatory bodies, and we shall table an amendment to that effect in another place to deal with that perfectly legitimate concern.

We have considered the second objection, and we are not satisfied that schedule 2 would have the effect claimed. From the Government's perspective, nothing in the Bill seeks to prevent the release by the Information Commissioner of information about the handling of complaints where that disclosure was made with the consent of the individual or company to whom the information, obtained in accordance with section 59 of the Data Protection Act 1998, relates.

I have heard the hon. Gentleman's argument, but where information is sought, the application has been made and the person making the application does not wish it to become public at that time that they are making the application, in the Government's view it is right that the Information Commissioner, who is carrying out a statutory function on behalf of that individual, should not be able to overrule that view and routinely disclose the information that she was looking into that complaint. The Information Commissioner's office is not intended to be

5 Apr 2000 : Column 1053

an alternative source of information that is available under the Bill for public authorities, and there is no need for the commissioner to disclose information obtained from a public authority if that information is obtainable under the Bill.

Furthermore, the commissioner can lay reports before Parliament about the exercise of her functions under the Bill and will do so, as clause 49 provides. Any disclosure of information in such reports would obviously be done for the purpose of, and be necessary for, the exercise of the commissioner's functions, and there would therefore be lawful authority for that. If the commissioner is worried about any matter that comes up in an individual complaint, the right body to report it to is Parliament through the laying of a report under clause 49; it would not necessarily be right for the commissioner to report the matter to the press against the view of the individual who was submitting the complaint.

Thus we accept that section 59 of the DPA will inhibit the exercise of the commissioner's functions save in the one respect that I have mentioned, and the Government will table an amendment in the other place. I acknowledge the problem, and the balance that has to be struck, but I hope that that concession concerning the operation of the interrelations between the commissioner and other regulatory bodies is enough to satisfy the hon. Gentleman that we have taken the issue seriously and cause him to ask leave to withdraw his amendment.

Next Section

IndexHome Page