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6.30 pm

Mrs. Lait: My hon. Friend might like to bear in mind the conflicts with the Data Protection Commissioner as to what information is protected, and the demands of the National Audit Office, particularly in the health sector.

Mr. Bruce: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. Right-minded people might think that the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Bill is a sensible measure that can be used to investigate child abuse, for example. Police officers who go into premises to investigate could think from having looked at the Care Standards Bill that they are authorised to get the records from the computer, print them out--perhaps even getting the key for encrypted data. They then think, "The case is all there in black and white." However, the defence lawyer, who is always paid more than the prosecuting lawyer, says, "The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Bill specifically excludes you from looking at these data, and if you have looked at them, a clause in the Bill says that you cannot use them in a court of law."

I hope that the Minister understands that I am not filibustering--this point hit me between the eyes instantly. I know that Department of Health Ministers have an awful lot to do--they cannot know what is going on in the Home Office. Frankly, somebody in the Government--

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I thought that this was supposed to be joined-up Government, after all--should have understood the problem.

I hope that the Government will at least accept the amendment that would protect foster parents. I declare an interest, because my wife and I were short-term foster carers many years ago. I would not like to think that because we had volunteered to do that, our premises could be entered in the course of an investigation.

From looking at the Bill, it seems that someone's home is available to be entered. The Minister may say that it does not mean that. Even so, a police officer could enter a person's home and be told, "You can't come in," but if he showed them the Bill, the person would read it and say, "Obviously you do have the power." The individual is hardly likely to read Hansard and contact a lawyer for advice; he would instead assume that those powers were in the Bill.

Mr. Bercow: I shall certainly study Hansard tomorrow. Can my hon. Friend explain what wording in the Bill leads him to believe that there could be a laissez-faire approach to entry?

Mr. Bruce: My hon. Friend just needs to read clause 44, which says:

The clause continues:

although such a person is not authorised by the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Bill because the registration authority is not one of the named bodies--

What happens is that local authorities approach foster carers to foster a child. The Government have quite rightly said that they will do their best to close down as many children's homes as possible and to put children into foster care or have them adopted, because that is best. If the only avenue that a local authority has when it comes to placing children is a private foster home or adoptive parents, those must be the premises referred to in the Bill. The Minister tries to reassure us that the words in the Bill, which are as plain as a pikestaff, do not mean that, but I am afraid that he is misdirecting both himself and us.

Mr. Bercow: I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who has duly alarmed me by pointing to the relevant provisions of clause 44. On the basis of his 13 years' experience in the House, will my hon. Friend confirm that it is commonplace, when discussing rights of entry for officers or other persons on public authority duty, for clauses to refer to "reasonable force"? However, as far as I am aware--my hon. Friend will disabuse me if I am mistaken--there is no reference in these provisions even to reasonable force, which opens up a worrying spectre of what might be entailed.

Mr. Bruce: Certainly, there are no such words in the Bill. Let us assume that a police officer is called because

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an inspection authority officer is battering the door down. The person living there says that his premises are being invaded by the officer, who says that under the Bill he is authorised to enter and that, as he has been stopped, he is battering the door down. Nothing in the Bill says that there should be an individual at the premises--it is not about requiring people to allow entry to the premises, but about entry to the premises.

Mr. Hammond: It might help my hon. Friend to know that I explored this avenue with the Minister in Committee, and the hon. Gentleman confirmed that there will be no power to force an entry under these provisions.

Mr. Bruce: I am grateful to know that the Minister and my hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond) both know that. It is a pity that it is not made clear in the Bill.

Mr. Hutton: You caught me by surprise by calling me, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I thought that we were in for a couple more hours of debate on these amendments.

There is a small but substantial problem with amendment No. 31, in the name of the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Burstow). We used to say in Committee--I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will not mind if I say it again today--that his amendments were largely unnecessary or technically deficient. Sadly, amendment No. 31 is both unnecessary and technically deficient, which is a first for his party on the Bill.

I should like to reassure the House that the registration authority will require individuals to provide only information that is needed for its regulatory work. Clause 31(1) states that it may require only information that it considers

Part II is concerned only with the commission's regulatory functions. It will therefore not be able to ask for anything that is not necessary for fulfilling those functions under this part of the Bill. That is the purpose of the hon. Gentleman's amendment, and I can assure him that that is already how the Bill is constructed.

Obviously, the commission will sometimes need to require a wide range of information from persons carrying on or managing an establishment or agency. I think that all right hon. and hon. Members will understand the common sense of that. The information will vary, according to the stage at which the service is being scrutinised. Inspectors will not have the powers to go on general fishing expeditions, however, if that is what the hon. Gentleman is concerned about. Nor will they have the power to require providers to give information that may be of general interest for statistical purposes, for instance. They might be able to request such information, and providers will, I hope, be happy to accommodate those requests, in the knowledge that national information of this kind can be useful to all concerned. However, such requests will not come with the force of clause 31.

Mr. Bercow: I am extremely grateful to the Minister for giving way on that point. He says that the commission will not go on general fishing expeditions, and I accept his word. However, can I take it from what he has said

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that somebody seeking entry to conduct an inspection would subsequently, if there were a dispute, be obliged to prove that he or she had grounds for belief at the time?

Mr. Hutton: That must be the case. The powers under the Bill can be exercised only if the conditions of the Bill have been complied with. If there is any argument about that, the appropriate place to hold it might well be the court; it is precisely the type of issue that could be tested by lawyers before a judge. We do not propose any provision that would give the NCSC unique powers to act above and beyond the law--of course not. The hon. Gentleman is correct; no such situation could possibly arise.

Amendment No. 96, tabled by the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond), concerns the commission's powers to inspect premises under part III. In Committee, the hon. Gentleman rightly pointed out that that power to inspect applies to premises used by a local authority in the discharge of its functions. He asked me to look into the matter. Having taken further advice, I am satisfied that the power does not apply to individual foster homes, and we certainly have no intention that it should be used in that way. I agree that it would not be appropriate for the commission to exercise powers of entry to foster carers' homes in the same way that such powers would relate to local authority premises.

The hon. Gentleman's interpretation of the wording is that it would include powers to inspect individual foster homes, but I can assure him that that is not our reading of the provision. The private homes of foster carers are not under the control of local authorities, so it would not be sensible to treat them as though they were premises used by local authorities. We cannot consider that the amendment is either justified or necessary.

As I said in Committee, we expect that, in inspecting fostering services, the commission inspectors will need to speak to foster carers, and to satisfy themselves that the standards required of fostering services are being properly met through the foster carers approved by the authority. We all want assurance about that. That will mean that, sometimes, commission inspectors will need to visit foster carers in their homes, but the commission will not need general powers of entry to a foster home.

As I explained in Committee, we intend to tackle the matter by setting out a requirement--perhaps through the foster placement regulations under the Children Acts--for approved foster carers to co-operate with the commission inspectors when they are carrying out their functions. That will be reinforced by individual foster placement agreements that will set out what might be required for co-operation with the work of the commission. That approach will not give the NCSC a general power to enter foster homes, backed up by an offence of obstructing inspectors. That would be too heavy handed.

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