Tribunals, Courts and Enforcement Bill [Lords]

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Clause 91

Action by the court
Mr. Bellingham: I beg to move amendment No. 146, in clause 91, page 58, line 34, leave out from ‘make’ to end of line 37 and insert
‘an information order in relation to the debtor.’.
The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 147, in clause 91, page 58, line 41, leave out ‘a request or’ and insert ‘an’.
No. 148, in clause 91, page 59, line 1, leave out subsection (5).
No. 149, in clause 91, page 59, line 7, leave out ‘request or’.
No. 150, in clause 91, page 59, line 11, leave out ‘request or’.
Clause stand part.
Mr. Bellingham: The group of amendments is about finding out exactly what information can be gleaned from Departments. I am concerned about clause 91(2), which states:
“The relevant court may make one or more of the following in relation to the debtor...(a) a departmental information request; (b) an information order.”
Subsection (5) states:
“The relevant court may not make a departmental information request to the Commissioners unless regulations are in force”.
The clause effectively states that requests for information can be put to a Department, although it does not specify which one.
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It is important that we look more closely at what is entailed. I am concerned, as are many people, that the tendency of all Governments in this age of hi-tech and IT is to try to accumulate more information abouttheir subjects and to centralise information. In that way they can have more control over us. Looking forward to what will be possible in future, with further technological advances, I envisage many Departments holding a lot of information on citizens.
Clause 91(2) enables a creditor to ask a court to secure information from a Department about the status—possibly even the financial status—of the debtor. What protection is there for the debtor? How much information can be released? What constraints will there be on a Department in terms of releasing such information? What about confidentiality of information and data? In the other place, Baroness Ashton of Upholland addressed some of those concerns and mentioned that specified pieces of information could be made available, particularly from Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs. However, having read her response to the short debate in the Houseof Lords, I am concerned about the paucity of the evidence that she gave, which was able to satisfy the noble Lords that this would not be an intruder’scharter and not an opportunity for Departments to supply information on debtors that might be highly confidential.
I am greatly concerned about the principle ofbeing able to get such information from a range of Departments. Our amendment would removeclause 91(2)(a) and (b) and delete subsection (5) and the references to Departments, because we believe that the clause is going too far. I will not push your good will, Mr. Bercow, by mentioning clause 92, which gives more information about what sort of information can be released. We are looking at the principle—
The Chairman: Order. I say to the hon. Gentlemanin a spirit of good will that he is in no danger of exhausting my patience, because clause 92 stand part falls within the group with which we are dealing. Therefore, he is free to expatiate as he wishes.
Mr. Bellingham: I like the word “expatiate”, Mr. Bercow, but I will not push your good will to its literal conclusion. You are right. I did not want to go into too much detail on clause 92, because no specific amendments to it have been tabled, but I take your point that we can discuss it in under this group.
Clause 92 lists the type of information that can be requested. The Minister may argue that it is limited, simple and basic, but what is “prescribed information”? Will that be made clear in the regulations? Should we really give creditors this amount of power to go to Departments? If we trusted the Government to play fair with consumers, customers and citizens in respect of how information is released already, I would be a great deal more content and relaxed. However, I am not content and relaxed, which is why I have tabled the amendments and moved my amendment.
Jenny Willott (Cardiff, Central) (LD): I want to comment on the points raised by the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk. I share his concerns about the requirement to ensure that information available is well protected in order to safeguard people’s right to privacy. However, I have a question, to which I would like him to respond, if possible. The Conservatives have said that they would like to remove entirely from the Bill departmental information requests, but also to provide in clause 92 for extra information to be made available to creditors—in particular, on driving licence numbers and vehicle registrations. I am confused by the idea that at the same time as wanting no information made available, there is a request for additional information. I would be grateful if the hon. Gentleman could clarify that point.
Jenny Willott: I shall come back to that point on the next group of amendments.
Simon Hughes: I want to make the sort of general points that the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk made and to ask the Minister some questions.
Obviously, we have welcome processes in place for data protection, as well as legislation on freedom of information. I assume that if the Bill is passed, the provisions before us will override the current data-protection arrangements. I should be grateful to know whether they go down the route that the hon. Gentleman suggested and will make further inroads into what personal data is protected. Is this a change in the law or is this retaining the current position? If it is a change in the law on access to further data, what steps have the Government taken to talk to the data protection authorities to ensure that the Information Commissioner is comfortable with the new procedures? Will the Minister reassure us that objective people outside Government have looked at the matter and said that there is nothing to worry about?
Vera Baird: A lot of objective people inside Government have taken account of data protection. I know that the hon. Gentleman has never been in Government, and I am only a lance corporal myself, but such matters are discussed across Government. Legislative clearance must be given by all Departments to all legislation. We do not go sneaking things on to the statute book without telling our colleagues in other Departments and then say, “Aha, we have got you now!” Obviously, the provisions before us are a change in the law. But are they quite as terrifying as people are suggesting? Look at the information that can be requested—name, address, date of birth and national insurance number of the debtor. That is not terrifying stuff. One must be a judgment creditor before being entitled to apply for such information. Palpably,the gateway provision that I have just discussed with the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk deals with the difficulties of enforcement. Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs might possess information necessary just to click things into place and permit the enforcement of a debt that the court has said ought to be enforced.
In such a situation, the information would be disclosed not to the creditor, but to the court. That is why the gateway provision is important. The creditor could then ask the court, “How should I proceed from here?”, and the court could say, “Well, why don’t you go down the attachment-of-earnings route or some other route?” It will have information to direct the creditor.
Jenny Willott: What information does the Minister see as falling under “prescribed information”, which is the general catch-all at the end?
Vera Baird: It is not a general catch-all. It mustbe carefully dealt with. What we are looking at is nomenclature changes in Government or some Government services. In other words, changing the means by which information is requested. We have no intention of asking for sensitive tax information, which may be held by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs. There is a control over the use of any power, which is that it must be compatible with the purpose set out. There will be no conceivable purpose in disclosing sensitive tax information to a court whose sole function is to implement a judgment debt. Therefore, the court could not ask for it and would not get it.
Jenny Willott: The Minister may have misunderstood my intention. I was not trying to make a stroppy point. I was asking what sort of information would fall into that category.
Vera Baird: I did not think for a moment that the hon. Lady was being stroppy. However, I think that I have answered her question. There are tough criminal sanctions for anybody who misuses that kind of information, and I am sure that that is reassuring. Since the information will go not to the creditor but to the court, I think that all concerns about Big Brother can be set firmly aside. I have made it clear that “prescribed information” will be for the purposes that I have said—technical changes in how to approach a Department or to access the way it stores its information. I have also made it clear that there is a control over the use of any power, according to its purpose. Given that the court is interested only in accessing that information to enable the proper and due obtaining of a debt, it cannot seek any sensitive information, and such information would not and could not be disclosed. A judgment creditor will make a request to the Department for information. The court will process that request and then advise how to enforce the debt. The information will go no further than the court; it will not go back to the creditor.
Simon Hughes: I am grateful to the Minister, butI have two ancillary questions. First, once the application has been made and the court has answered the question, how long does the court then hold on to the information and, physically, what happens to it? Is it destroyed? It is a question about the guarantee that the debtor has that there is not a lot of information about them around the place.
Secondly, does the debtor have the right at every stage to ask for any information held by the courts to be made available to them? I presume that they do. How do they do that? Are they alerted to the factthat the court has the information? Just as we are all entitled to pay our money and get a credit reference print-out—I think that we can all do that if we want to—does the same apply here? If someone wants access to the information held by a court, or which they believe to be held by a court, can they make an inquiry? Will the court give them an accurate answer? Will it tell them whether it holds such information, since when and until when? Will the court tell them what the information is, if it is asked? Does a debtor have to pay for such information. What is the process if the debtor wants to know what is going on?
Vera Baird: The hon. Gentleman has slipped back into pub quiz mode again. The information that we are talking about is the man’s name, address, date of birth and his national insurance number, and that is it. We do not want to know the name of his latest mistress or how much he owes the Inland Revenue or anything else at all. There is nothing in this that changes the general law about the information rights of an individual. The court will give them notice that an order has been sought and the court will give them the information that they ask for, but I cannot imagine anyone wasting their time asking whether it has their name or not. The debtor will already know that there has been a request. If they want to, they can block such a request, but it will be very hard to block if someone already has a judgment debt before them. What else can I tell the hon. Gentleman so that he feels that he has had answers to his questions? If the information is not to be used, it will be destroyed. If it is to be used, it will not be destroyed; it will be used. Is that satisfactory? Can I do more?
Simon Hughes: I will ask one last question. Obviously, people know what their name and address is. I was more concerned about the more general information in the prescribed information category. Fine, I understand that if the information is not to be used, it will be destroyed, but I presume that the court keeps it for a period. Again, I am not trying to elicit information that is difficult to find, but there is a normal procedure whereby information is held by authorities for a certain time. If the police have information, they are entitled by law to hold it for a certain time—some information indefinitely and some for a certain period. Does the Minister know whether there is a one-year limit? Can she tell us or point me in the right direction? Her compendious knowledge, with the help of her civil servants, as to where all these bits of information are to be found is greater than the compendious knowledge even of all of us on the Opposition side of the Committee.
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Vera Baird: Does the hon. Gentleman want my compendious knowledge or that of my civil servants? There is no change to data protection; there is no change for the Information Commissioner; there is no change to all the things that we have grown used to in the legislation. So that he has perhaps a better grasp of what “prescribed information” means, let me set out what the provision might also enable the court to request.
Mr. Bellingham: May I make a recommendation to the Minister? Further references to pub quizzes might be slightly risky, because I understand that in the unlikely event of there being a hung Parliament and a coalition between the Labour party and the LibDems, the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey might be the hon. and learned Lady’s boss in a future Administration. I therefore strongly suggest that they do their level best to ensure that relations from now on are as cordial as possible—I know that I am digressing a little bit.
The Chairman: Order. The relationship between those observations and amendment No. 146 is at best tenuous, and more likely non-existent.
Mr. Bellingham: Thank you, Mr. Bercow. I take the light rap over the knuckles in the spirit in which it was delivered.
We were right to put on the record our concerns about the way in which future Governments might abuse information and the fact that Governmentshave a tendency to disseminate information across Departments. Checks have to be in place and there has to be a responsible attitude to the way in which that information is used in future, but I am grateful to the Minister for the way she has explained the provisions, and on that basis I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Clause 91 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
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