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Mr. Mark Fisher (Stoke-on-Trent, Central) (Lab): When my hon. Friend the Minister replies to this group of amendments, will he explain how and in what way the commissioner will have the power to protect the rights of the individual? The hon. Member for Woking (Mr. Malins) touched on that. If information on the register is inaccurate and wrong, or if the register is in some way abused, how will our constituents seek redress? I cannot see in these clauses that the commissioner has specific powers to act as a tribunal and guardian of individuals' rights. Should our constituents appeal to the commissioner, either through us or in their own right, and what could the commissioner do to put the matter right?
I suspect that every hon. Member has had constituents who have found that their credit rating is incorrect. A couple of years ago, one of my constituents had that problem and although the credit card company recognised and eventually admitted that its information was wrong and my constituent should not have been denied a credit rating, it took me nine months and unending correspondence to get it corrected. If that happens with a relatively small commercial data bank, how will constituents obtain redress and correct information? Surely, we must have a fast-track method of appeal to the commissioner, or to someone else, to have such information corrected. Otherwise, there will be absolutely no confidence in the scheme.
Mr. Hogg: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the commissioner might wish to use his annual report to identify such errors and to bring them to the attention of the House, so is it not undesirable to give the Secretary of State the power to amend the commissioner's report in the wide terms set out in clause 25?
Mr. Fisher: I agree with the right hon. and learned Gentleman. He is addressingcorrectlythe strategic macro point, but I do not want to lose my micro point about individuals. Whatever the virtues of the scheme, it will be completely discredited if it is seen to abuse the rights of individuals and people will not have confidence in it. In a scheme of this scale, which requires individuals to submit 56 pieces of information, things are bound to go wrong and there must be a fast-track procedure to put them right.
Sir Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine) (LD): I appreciate the hon. Gentleman's concern from past experience of things going wrong. When the previous Government introduced the poll tax, one of its flaws, in addition to its unfairness, was that it attempted to keep a register of where everyone lived and, in the process, managed to introduce many mistakes. That register involved just names, addresses and locations of people, not the wealth of information that the national identity scheme will require.
It is inevitable that there will be mistakes, so it is essential that our constituents have an easy, comprehensible and swift way of putting them right, otherwise their career and many other aspects of their
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life could be put at prejudice. I hope that the Minister will be able to respond to that point before we vote on the new clause.
Mr. Richard Allan (Sheffield, Hallam) (LD): I am pleased that this group of amendments has been tabled, as it is an opportunity to explore at more leisure than we had on the previous group whether the commissioner will be any more than a fig leaf to cover the Government's embarrassment or genuinely an organisation or individual who will be a fearless champion for the citizen. That is what we are interested in.
When discussing these issues we must remember why an individual might want to go to the commissioner. What might have happened to them? They may be seeking redress for a range of serious circumstances. We know that the cards will be used for public services. A person may have had all kinds of hassle accessing a public service; they may have found it difficult to obtain health care or education. Those are serious matters for an individual. The person may have been falsely arrested and have had problems with the criminal justice system. We have seen how errors in the Criminal Records Bureau system have led to individual cases of hardship, where a person has been denied a job because a record is fake or has been falsely matched. We must be aware that people could be seeking redress for serious circumstances.
Mr. John Taylor: On cue! The hon. Gentleman knows my themeabout needing a passport to acquire a new car. He was talking about accessing public services with the aid of an identity card. Would he care, just for a moment, to speculate on how widely the use of an identity card might be made necessary in private sector transactions?
Mr. Allan: The hon. Gentleman is correct. A typical circumstance that someone may take to the commissioner is that in a financial transaction a bank has denied them access to financial services or they have been hauled up on suspicion of doing something they had not done, because the identity card checking process has gone wrong somehow, as it will do in some cases.
In Committee, we discussed the fact that there will be a trickle-down effect. Banks will be offered a voluntary service for checking people against the identity register and will be charged for that service. That is in the Bill. But then the Government could come along with money laundering regulations that will make the process mandatory if the banks want to be in the clear under those regulations. There will be a trickle-down effect; the ID card could come into play for a huge range of everyday transactions, for all of which people might want to go to the identity commissioner.
We must take the amendments seriously. They try to remove some of the restrictions that the Government have placed on the ability of the commissioner to carry out his or her work. Governments increasingly like commissioners for all sorts of things. We have seen how some of themfor example, the Information Commissioner, Richard Thomas, and the data protection commissioner, Elizabeth France before himcan build
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their roles and perform a good function. The Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards performs an effective function. The measure of that is the extent to which commissioners can criticise Ministers and the Government, on a serious and well-founded basis, and have that criticism accepted.
Well-functioning commissioners have an important role in making criticisms of particular instances and in drawing lessons from them to show why the system is flawed. That is what we want the identity scheme commissioner to be able to do. If, as we fear, the identity card system contains serious flaws, we want the commissioner genuinely to be able to highlight them and bring them to Parliament so that we can hold an informed debate and either scrap the scheme or change it, depending on the depth of concern. Our fear is that unless we accept some of the amendments or the Government make their own proposals to strengthen the commissioner's hand, the commissioner will be too weak.
The Government, like previous Governments, have been desperately keen to avoid judicial review of anything that they do. It now seems to be built into legislationMinisters do not like being hauled up before the courts and told that their legislation is poor. I suspect that the commissioner process is part of that. The Government hope that the commissioner will deflect some of the criticisms that might otherwise come through the courts and be directed at a Minister.
I fear that the proposed commissioner system will still leave citizens having to take the judicial review route, which is much less satisfactory than being able to put the case to the commissioner, particularly in respect of the exclusion applied to the commissioner looking at the way that fines are levied. As we understand it, the Secretary of State, almost personally, will be taking people to court. The Secretary of State will take people to the county court saying, "You owe me £1,000 because you didn't register. You didn't notify your change of details or do x, y or z." The county court could send the bailiffs round if a person did not pay up. The Government are trying to avoid poll tax martyrs, so they have set up a complicated civil recovery scheme, yet the commissioner, unless the clause is amended, will have no power to look into that system.
If such an explanation has been offered, I have not yet heard it and it is palpable that, particularly in the early stages when all sorts of mistakes are made, the Government will have a huge vested political interest in suppressing publication on the ground that otherwise confidence in the whole scheme mightperish the thoughtbe damaged.
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