Draft Data Protection (Processing of Sensitive Personal Data) Order 2009

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Claire Ward: It might be useful to put the discussion into the context that the scheme has been operating since 1999, albeit with less information than we currently propose to give. Indeed, the idea for the scheme came from the fact that many Members of Parliament wanted to have access to such information in advance of learning about the release of an offender into their constituency through the local or national press. The scheme allows Members of Parliament to have information to determine for themselves whether the arrangements being made are appropriate, necessary and secure in the interests of their constituents. It has practical use, because Members of Parliament can reassure themselves, in their duty to protect their constituents, about the information given.
Claire Ward: I am afraid that I must disagree with the hon. and learned Gentleman. The information that MPs are being given will allow them to enter into discussions with the chief constable or the chief probation officer, and perhaps to look into more detail about any concerns that they might have. Should it be required, there is scope to give more extensive information than simply name, address, where the individual is being released to and, perhaps, other arrangements that are being made.
Mr. Garnier: With respect, if I may interrupt, the scope is not there. The explanatory note says:
“The information that will be released to the MP will be restricted to certain high risk offenders and will include the name of the prisoner, the offence they committed, details of the release date and details of any licence conditions to which the prisoner is to be subject.”
The implication behind that is that the information will be limited to those details, rather than anything wider.
Claire Ward: We would expect to give MPs the offenders’ names, their licence conditions, where they are released subject to licence provision, their release address and whether there is a victim of their previous offences who has elected to receive information under the statutory victim contact scheme, but as the hon. Member for Cambridge has stated, those specific details are not contained in the order. That is what we would anticipate and expect, in normal circumstances, to be able to give to MPs. However, MPs are being encouraged, in the letters they receive from NOMS, to enter into further discussions with the local chief constable or chief probation officer should they have any concerns.
Again, 290 MPs signed up to the scheme that was in operation from 1999. As of last week, and since the Minister of State sent out the letter mentioned by the hon. and learned Member for Harborough, 101 MPs have signed up to the scheme, including the hon. and learned Gentleman. Therefore, there is a great desire and interest from many MPs to have such information in advance.
In respect of the number of cases per year, last year 96 prisoners were released under the CPPC scheme. The numbers will vary from year to year, but that gives an idea of the number of cases that we might expect. I had even forgotten that I had signed up to the scheme until I read through the list, simply because, to my recollection, I have not received any details of such an offender being released into my constituency. I suspect that that is the case for many MPs.
Mr. Garnier: The Minister says that she forgot that she signed the letter. That suggests to me that she received the letter some time ago. I signed the letter about 10 days ago.
Claire Ward: I am talking about the previous letter.
Mr. Garnier: I am unaware of this previous letter. Perhaps the Minister would care to deposit a copy of it in the Library and send me one.
Claire Ward: Perhaps I have not made the issue clear. The reason that we are undertaking this scheme is precisely to clarify, and to give greater certainty under the law for, a scheme that has been in existence from 1999. Since then, Members of Parliament have been informed when such people have been released into their constituency.
The hon. and learned Gentleman looks slightly baffled, and perhaps he is in exactly the situation that I found myself in when I was preparing for this statutory instrument debate. I had assumed, having not received any details of such a person being released, that I had probably not signed up to the scheme. It appears that I had signed up to the scheme, but I probably did so within the first couple of years of being a Member of Parliament. I suspect that most of us had forgotten about it. If members of the Committee would like me to remind them exactly which of them signed up to the scheme, I am sure that I can find their names on my list.
I am more than happy to ensure that the original documentation relating to the existing scheme—prior to the letter from my ministerial colleague, which I believe was dated 10 June—is made available to the hon. and learned Gentleman and that a copy is placed in the Library.
David Howarth: As I understand it, the previous scheme did not include names, and therefore did not constitute sensitive personal data. I cannot follow the argument that the order is required to add legal certainty to the previous scheme, because the previous scheme did not involve any legal difficulty in terms of data protection. However, the scheme that the Minister has in mind has that problem simply because names are going to be included. What is the point of including the names?
Claire Ward: Many Members of Parliament indicated that they wish to have the names and further details. The Government have taken legal advice, and providing names could be in breach of the Data Protection Act. That is why we are seeking to clarify the scheme that was in operation by providing under this scheme more details of the names and addresses of offenders to MPs. The order will allow us to do that. I realise that the hon. and learned Member for Harborough forgot that he joined up to the previous scheme.
Mr. Garnier: I had not forgotten; I was wholly unaware of it. If the Minister wishes to tell me the date on which I joined up to the scheme, I would be prepared to accept that I did so. However, it is not the sort of thing that one would forget, because it is not every day of the week that a serious offender is released into one’s constituency, as the figure of 96 that she gave a moment ago indicates.
Mr. David Blunkett (Sheffield, Brightside) (Lab): Will my hon. Friend clarify the situation? From 1999, details were released for those who signed up, but the majority of MPs did not do so. Quite a lot of people apparently did not know that they had signed up, because they did not receive any information, because no one was released into their constituency. Now that the information will be more detailed, more people are deciding to sign up, because they have just found out that a scheme exists that they did not previously know of. Would my hon. Friend confirm that she and I are probably in exactly the same situation?
Claire Ward: My right hon. Friend has perhaps explained the situation better than I have. I believe that he was signed up to the 1999 scheme. Indeed, he has signed up to the current scheme in the past two weeks.
I hope I can reassure the hon. and learned Gentleman and members of the Committee that the scheme is not as controversial as they may have been led to believe. In reality, it has been operating because MPs wanted access to information. Precisely because they want access to a little more information, we need to ensure that we are legally protected, so that we do not breach data protection legislation when we provide it. That is the reason for the order. It will allow MPs who wish to access those details to do so. Although I do not have the date on which the hon. and learned Gentleman signed up to the scheme in 1999, I am happy to check on that and write to him, as I am told that he was a member of it.
I hope that I have made it a little clearer why we have introduced the order and what the scheme is for. The fact that 101 MPs have signed up to it within a fortnight suggests that it is a scheme that MPs would like to be part of and that they would like the information that is available. It is very clear that that information is confidential and must be restricted, with regard to whom it is given to, and that is precisely why we have asked members to sign a confidentiality clause. The hon. and learned Gentleman asked what would happen to MPs who breached that clause, and my understanding is that they would simply be removed from the scheme and given no further information. I am confident that MPs in the scheme that has been operating since 1999 have shown to date that they have been able to use that information responsibly and that there are no serious concerns about them breaching the confidentiality clause. I therefore hope that the Committee will agree to the scheme and that those MPs who are interested in signing up to it will do so as soon as possible.
Question put and agreed to.
That the Committee has considered the draft Data Protection (Processing of Sensitive Personal Data) Order 2009.
5.2 pm
Committee rose.
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