Statistics and Registration Service Bill

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Clause 37

Freedom of information
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
John Healey: I will not detain the Committee long, but the clause is important because under it the board will be able to refuse to release personal information following a freedom of information request, whereas, in contrast, public authorities that have received personal information from the board might have to release it following such a request. I think that that might require some explanation and justification.
The clause does not mean that it will always be necessary for a public authority that holds such information to release it. Depending on the information in question, there might be reasons for not releasing it that are permitted under the Freedom of Information Act 2000. For example, in certain circumstances an authority could refuse to release information that identifies a living individual. The clause will allow historical information to continue to be passed to researchers and is consistent with the Government’s commitment to openness made in the 2000 Act.
The FOI Act gives any person the right to ask for, and be given, any information held by a public authority. It also sets out, however, a number of situations in which data are to be protected from release. One of those situations, which are called “exemptions” in the Act, is when there is a legal bar to data being released. The confidentiality obligation for personal information in clause 36 provides such a bar, as we have discussed, as it legally obliges the board and its employees not to pass personal information to others except in the limited cases set out.
As such, personal information held by the board will not have to be released under the FOI Act. That will help to ensure that survey respondents have confidence that personal information passed to the board is unlikely to be released. However, that provision must be balanced against the commitments to openness made in the FOI Act and the value to researchers of historical data. Clause 37 therefore sets out that when personal information is passed by the board to other public authorities, it will not automatically be exempt from release under freedom of information simply because of the confidentiality obligation. It may, however, be exempt from release on another basis, as I have said, such as in certain circumstances if it may identify a living individual.
To that extent, the clause replicates the current situation. For example census records, which are personal information, will continue to be passed by the board to the national archives in time for release after 100 years, and the clause ensures that the archives can continue to release historical census information in accordance with the Public Records Act 1958 and freedom of information obligations.
The Information Commissioner’s view is relevant to the clause. Overall, he welcomes the fact that the Bill recognises the importance of ensuring that personal information is used only when necessary, that confidentiality is respected and that the criminal offence of illegal disclosure of personal data will help to underpin the system.
Finally, Sir John, there has been some suggestion that the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002 should be included in the clause. I am actively considering that and working with parliamentary counsel and the relevant Scottish authorities to determine what, if anything, needs to be done. I hope that the Committee will understand that should an amendment be required, I propose to table it on Report.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause 37 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Clause 38 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 39

Information relating to births and deaths etc
9.30 am
Mr. Hoban: I beg to move amendment No. 163, in clause 39, page 17, line 6, leave out subsection (4).
The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 164, in clause 39, page 17, line 10, leave out subsection (5).
No. 165, in clause 39, page 17, line 12, leave out subsection (6).
Mr. Hoban: These probing amendments were tabled to enable us to understand the process. I suspect that the clause was drafted so as to maintain the existing arrangements but I want to understand why that is, given that the role of the National Statistician and the Registrar General are being prised apart by the Bill. I understand why the National Statistician needs to receive information from the Registrar General but why will the board pass the data to the Department of Health? Why cannot the Registrar General pass it directly to the Department? What is the reason for routing it through the board?
John Healey: I shall answer the hon. Gentleman’s questions simply and specifically, as they refer to what appears to be the main concern about the clause. There will of course be circumstances in which the Registrar General, both now and when the role is separated from the office and function of the National Statistician, passes data directly to the health service. Information that could include name, date of birth, place of birth, usual address and other such data may go straight from the Registrar General to the health service. As the ONS is currently able to do, the statistics board can add to that data coding by post code, by ward and by administrative area. In other words, the statistics service may add further data that enrich what can then be passed to, and used by, the health service.
There are circumstances in which and data on which the ONS can add further analysis of a quality that is of value to the health service. The clause is designed to cover and make provision for circumstances in the future when the Registrar General and the National Statistician are no longer legally and operationally the same person.
Mr. Hoban: I am content with my understanding of the rationale for the process through the board. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Clause 39 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 40

Information relating to NHS registration
Mr. Hoban: I beg to move amendment No. 166, in clause 40, page 17, leave out lines 20 to 26 and insert—
‘(3) The information disclosed may not include any information which would allow the identification of an “individual”.’.
The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 167, in clause 40, page 17, line 30, leave out subsection (5).
No. 168, in clause 40, page 17, leave out lines 32 to 35 and insert—
‘(6) Section 36 does not permit the disclosure by the Board of any information received under this section.’.
No. 169, in clause 41, page 18, line 14, leave out subsection (5).
Mr. Hoban: These are probing amendments through which we are attempting to understand the data flows through the system and to probe what information is required. Amendment No. 166 would delete subsection (3) and replace it with the provision stating that information about NHS registration can be passed but that it should not
“include any information which would allow the identification of an ‘individual’”.
The amendment would reduce the detail of the information supplied in order to protect confidentiality.
I have a question about the amount and detail of the data supplied. Subsection (3)(d) will allow information about the history to be transferred. With reference to amendments Nos. 167 and 169, will the information be used for any purpose other than the production of the mid-term population statistics? Such statistics—in particular Slough’s problems estimating mid-term figures—have been a feature of debates in Committee and were a feature of the Second Reading debate.
Amendment No. 168 would remove subsection (6). Will the Minister explain how the exemptions relateto clause 36(4)(c) and (h) and how they apply toclause 40?
Mr. Brooks Newmark (Braintree) (Con): I shall support my hon. Friend’s amendment unless the Minister can provide me with a little comfort about a concern that I have. I understand the Government’s objectives and the reasons for their proposals, but the Bill should not conflate statistics, which try to identify general trends, and personal information, which might identify individuals. I hope the Minister will reassure me that that will not happen.
Mr. Fallon: I, too, support the amendment, because subsection (3) ranges extremely widely. The Minister tries to ensure that information about registrations between general practices—people moving from one general practice to another, or from one health authority area to another—is properly captured. The explanatory notes describe the process as the creation of an information gateway; I think they mean the creation of a power to ensure that the board still receives the information.
In subsection (3)(d), which the amendment covers, the information to be provided as part of the measurement of flows of people from one general practice to another includes the reasons for an individual’s cancellation or re-registration. There may be many reasons why one cancels one’s registration with one’s general practitioner, and they may have nothing to do with one’s relocation to a different part of the country. One may be unhappy with the performance of the general practice, for example. I am not sure that it is appropriate for the board to start piling up information about why people have moved. Surely the board needs only the statistical information that an individual has moved or has changed GP. I should be grateful if the Minister could explain why subsection (3) must go so far as to cover, in paragraph (d), the reasons for people registering or not registering.
John Healey: Clauses 40 and 41 provide for the Secretary of State for Health, public authoritiesor Welsh Ministers to share patient registration information with the board for the production of population statistics. To be clear, clause 40(4) makes it explicit that patient registration information does not include any information about the health, care or treatment of individuals.
Patient registration information is information about persons who are or who have been registered in any place in England or Wales as persons to whom primary medical services are provided. That may include, but is not limited to, information such as a person’s address, their date of birth, their gender or their NHS number. The provisions replicate the current data sharing arrangements within the Office for National Statistics.
It may be helpful to the Committee if I explain exactly what happens to such information. Patient registration information is collated and held in the national health service central register, which is currently maintained at the Office for National Statistics and is used primarily to manage the transfer of medical records between GP practices and between the NHS and the armed forces’ medical services. Statisticians in the ONS have access to that information, and that access enables the ONS to derive and estimate migration within England and Wales and between England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
The data covered by the clause will therefore allow greater monitoring and analysis of migration and population movements—something in which the Committee has taken an interest, as the hon. Member for Fareham said. I think that all Committee members want there to be better quality, more up-to-date data to assist in some important areas of policy-making.
Amendment No. 166 would prevent the Secretary of State or another public authority from disclosing tothe board any information that would allow the identification of an individual. That would mean that all information would have to be in an anonymised, non-identifying format. I hope that the hon. Member for Braintree will understand that the distinction he tried to draw between statistics on general trends and data on registration represents a conceptual difference, but in practice it is important to bring them together.
Mr. Newmark: I believe that I understand exactly what the Minister says, but my concern is that in trying to identify such trends, one should not use personal information that might end up identifying specific individuals.
John Healey: I understand the hon. Gentleman’s concern. Although information will be processed at an individual level by the statistics board, only aggregate statistics will be published. The Bill introduces legal provisions to maintain the confidentiality of information and will penalise any breaches of those provisions.
Alun Michael: It is interesting to see the way in which the debate is going because it illustrates the importance of having absolute clarity about the tension between having the quality of information at the most local level and ensuring that confidentiality is protected in the way set out by the Minister. That is important because if one errs too far in one direction, one may find, as we did in the past, that information simply does not pick up what happens at the most local level, particularly in rural areas. The protection must be there so that we can be assured that data are used in an appropriate way to ensure that the interests of every area are properly analysed and understood.
John Healey: My right hon. Friend is right. In dealing with concerns about understanding flows of population, it is necessary for statisticians to have access to the data. The important question then is whether that takes place in circumstances that sufficiently safeguard the confidentiality of certain types of data and the uses to which they may be put. That is the essence of the debate that we are having this morning.
9.45 am
The reason is that, just like the ONS at present, the board will need to have access to identifiable information if it is going to continue to produce—let alone improve— useful and meaningful population statistics. Such statistics require the ability to identify all moves where an individual has registered a change of permanent address, thus enabling the board to identify which individuals should be counted as migrants and in what data periods, areas and population sub-groups. Individual records are required for matching and tracing migrants between separate reporting periods; research into understanding, for instance, patterns of migration by linking recent and older records is possible only if the two types of records can be matched individually.
It has become increasingly important for policy makers to be well informed about migration, both to monitor the pattern and trends in flows and to respond to changes in the position and impact of migrants within society and the economy.
Fiona Mactaggart (Slough) (Lab): This aspect of the data caused some of the problems in Slough which I spoke to the Minister about, and part of the failure to estimate mid-year populations accurately is to do with such things. For example, young men in particular do not necessarily have a health record, as they tend not to register with GPs. Therefore, connecting all the pieces of information has significance, if only to statisticians, who can work out whether particular classes of people not registering and so on. That might help to improve the accuracy of some of our poor counts, with results in respect of the failings in our current population counts.
John Healey: My hon. Friend has become something of an expert in the field. She has powerfully made the case for the provisions, which we continue in clause 40. The clause is drafted to create a statutory gateway that will allow the board to continue to have access to patient registration information for the production of population statistics.
Amendments Nos. 167 and 169 would widen the scope of clauses 40 and 41 so that the patient registration information could be used by the board for any purpose. The clause would, therefore, not restrict how the information might be used by the board—although, clearly, when taken with amendment No. 166, the usefulness of the information for the board would be limited.
I have explained the Government’s intention, as part of the reforms, to transfer the national health service central register from the Office for National Statistics. Given that, placing the long-standing data-sharing arrangement on a statutory footing is necessary, so that the board can continue to use patient registration information for the production of important population statistics. I hope that that assures hon. Members.
Mr. Hoban: I am grateful to the Minister for the way in which he has talked through how the information can be used, but I still wonder whether there is any way in which less detail could be provided, while still achieving the objectives that the hon. Member for Slough referred to.
I was also struck by the Financial Secretary’s comments on subsection (5), which restricts the use to which the data can be put. The restriction is very clear. I am not sure that I would wish to remove it, but it is a tight restriction compared to the broad ability in clause 36(4)(a) for any enactment to be used to share the data. On the one hand, we have provisions that enable broad use, subject to legislation, and on the other, some tightly worded subsections restricting the use of data. There is a contradiction, which we need to explore later. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Clause 40 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Clause 41 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
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Prepared 26 January 2007