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The hon. Gentleman is right to draw attention to that point. We received no explanation whatever in Committee because the clause was not debated; it just passed through. We had no opportunity
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to go into the detail of how the process would work. There is a clear statement in the clause that the Secretary of State can suppress matter if it would be contrary to the
I think that plays to the hon. Gentleman's point. If the functioning of the identity card scheme would be damaged by publishing criticism of the scheme, we shall not criticise it. The law as currently drafted would seem to permit the Secretary of State to do that. If the Government have something to be embarrassed about, if they have dirty washing, let us have it out in public. What is the point of having a commissioner if they are not able to do that?
Unless the clause is amended, sadly, we shall have a fig leaf commissioner rather than, as I want to see, a fearless champion of the citizen. There will be a spill-over. If people cannot obtain satisfaction from the commissioner, there will be judicial review. The case will go to the parliamentary commissioner, the ombudsman, instead of to the identity commissioner. People will bypass the process. For example, if the problem was with the health service, they would go to the health service commissioner. We run the risk of creating a real mess and that is not satisfactory from the citizen's point of view.
Mr. Hogg: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the great advantage of new clause 4 is that it makes information available to the citizen, on the back of which the citizen can go to the court for judicial review if he feels that the Secretary of State has acted unreasonably?
Mr. Allan: The right hon. and learned Gentleman is entirely correct about the citizen having access to information. There are other examples of the kind of harm we are talking about. Something may have happened to the system that meant that a citizen was denied entry to another country. They may have spent several thousand pounds to somewhere, but then have immediately been flown home again. That would be a serious incident in anyone's life. If that occurs, they must be able to obtain information about what went wrong. If there is any suggestion of blanket coverage, if the individual was told for example, that it was an agreement between the UK and the United States authorities covered by terribly secret terrorism provisions, when they were merely going on holiday to Disneyworld, that would not be satisfactory in terms of the citizen's ability to obtain redress. I question the point of having a commissioner if they were unable to expose that type of information. I hope that the citizen could go to the commissioner and say, "I turned up at Orlando airport and they sent me back. They said it was something that came out of the identity system that we are all part of now." I hope that the commissioner could say, "Right, I'm going to get on with that. We will take the case through whatever process we need to get the redress that you are after."
My fear is that the citizen will meet a blank wall and the commissioner will not offer such satisfaction. I hope that the Minister, in the time available to him, will be able to offer some more assurances. I suspect that this is one of the issues that will have to be picked up at greater length in the Committee proceedings down the corridor
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in the Lords, where they often do have sufficient time to consider such things. I certainly feel that to establish the commissioner without testing his real powers and accepting some of the amendments will not offer citizens the safeguards that they need for a scheme of this significance.
Mr. Hogg: I shall be brief because this is a time-limited debate. I shall confine myself to three points. First, the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher) made an important point. It is certain that errors will be made with regard to individuals. One of the problems about the Bill is that the individual will not be well placed, perhaps not placed at all, to identify the fact of an error or to challenge it. The advantage of the proposal made by my hon. Friend the Member for Woking (Mr. Malins) is that it will make it possible for a citizen, using the procedure set out in new clause 4, to identify errors of fact made in relation to them. Once an error of fact has been identified, corrective action is possible. I say to the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central that new clause 4 goes directly to the anxiety that he has properly expressed.
Secondly, looking at the wide powers set out in clause 25(4), one has to accept that, in reality, they give the Secretary of State of the day the power to amend at will the report of the commissioner. Phrases such as
are so wide that there are few Secretaries of State who could not bring their own prejudices within the parameters of those phrases. And of course the discharge of that amending function is not reviewable, which takes one back to new clause 4. If new clause 4 is accepted, individualswhether they be Members of this House or someone elsewill be able to say, having obtained that information, that the exclusion of material from the commissioner's report is unreasonable and does not fall within the language of this Bill and either raise it as a parliamentary matter or seek judicial review of it. That is particularly important when one reflects that the commissioner might well wish to use his annual report as a vehicle for criticising the Government's use of the scheme. It would be intolerable if the Secretary of State was able, by using the language of clause 25(4), to delete that criticism.
My final point is that my own preference, and one that I commend to the House, and through this House to the other place, is the approach recommended by my hon. Friend the Member for Woking, namely, to approve new clause 4 or something like it and to amend the language of clause 25(4) broadly in terms of amendment No. 38, which is in this group, so as to remove the offensively wide language on which I have addressed the House.
I rise to oppose the new clause and amendments and to speak to amendment No. 56, which I think, when I explain it, will give some significant
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comfort to hon. Members, especially those who espouse the provisions of new clause 4. Amendment No. 56 in substantial measure covers exactly the same ground as new clause 4, although there are qualifications, which I shall come to in a moment.
Before I deal with the new clause and amendments and the questions that I have been askedto the extent that I am able to answer themit is important that I put on record the position in relation to the Government's response to the Joint Committee on Human Rights report. I am disappointed at the way in which hon. Members have implied in the House that the Government were dilatory or that there was some attempt not to make the information available to Members of the House at the earliest possible opportunity. I might say that those observations were made to some degree in bad faith because no one asked me about the matter at any point or made any inquiries about the true circumstances.
The fact of the matter is that my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher) is correct. The Chairman of the Joint Committee on Human Rights requested that the Home Secretary respond to the Committee's report within seven days and named the date of 7 February. The letter that was sent from my right hon. Friend the Chairman of the Joint Committee on Human Rights was dated 26 January, and it arrived at the Home Office and was received by the Home Secretary on 28 January. He responded by 8 February, which was one day out. Bearing in mind the fact that the report was received two days after the date of the letter that accompanied it, I do not think that that is a matter of serious criticism.
I think that all hon. Members have now had access to the letter, and they will see that its final paragraph contains an appropriate request to the Chair of the Joint Committee that with her permission, which was sought by implication in the request,
That permission was given yesterday, and the letter was deposited in the Vote Office before 10 o'clock this morning. Nothing could have been done in any sense any quicker, and I do not think that there can be any criticism of the way in which the Government and my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary have acted in relation to this issue.
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