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Westminster Hall

Thursday 19 March 2009

[Sir John Butterfill in the Chair]

A Surveillance Society?

[Relevant documents: Fifth Report from the Home Affairs Committee Session 2007-08HC 58, the Government’sResponse Cm 7449, and the Information Commissioner’s Response Session 2007-08 HC 1124.]

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Mark Tami.)

2.30 pm

Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab): I am most grateful to the Liaison Committee and the House for allowing us to debate the Home Affairs Committee’s fifth report, which asked whether Britain is becoming a surveillance society. The purpose of the debate is to discuss the issues raised in the inquiry and to consider developments since the report’s publication. I am delighted to see so many Members present, including the Minister and the hon. Members for Hornchurch (James Brokenshire) and for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake). The latter is a fellow member of the Select Committee.

The increasing potential, over the past decade, for the surveillance of citizens in public spaces and of private communications provided the Committee with the impetus to investigate the issue further. Much of that impetus came from the public sector. Is the state the kindly uncle Vernon or the sinister Big Brother? That is the fundamental question confronting the public every day. The approximately 4.2 million cameras in the United Kingdom capture a person, on average, 300 times a day. Over the past decade, the Home Office has invested £500 million in CCTV equipment, and, in the 1990s, it spent 78 per cent. of its crime prevention budget on installing CCTV equipment.

The boundary between what constitutes a legitimate tool in the fight against crime and an unacceptable intrusion into an individual’s private life is disputed and poses difficult questions. The Committee set out to examine the evidence, with a view to proposing ground rules for the Government and their agencies. We began by taking evidence from the Information Commissioner, and went on to hear from witnesses on matters such as the collection and use of personal information by private sector organisations, the technological developments that might have affected, or that are likely to affect, the storage and sharing of personal information, and the impact of various kinds of surveillance on privacy and individual liberty. We also took evidence on Government databases and information sharing, surveillance and the fight against crime. We completed our inquiry by hearing from the Home Office.

Our inquiry took about one year, during which—this was not our fault—a number of data loss incidents took place that further highlighted our concern about the potential damage caused by the loss of such personal data. In November 2007, child benefit data, including addresses and bank details, on 25 million individuals and 7.25 million families were lost. On 3 February 2008,
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newspaper allegations claimed that, on two occasions in 2005 and 2006, at Her Majesty’s Prison Woodhill, conversations between my hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Mr. Khan) and one of his constituents, Mr. Babar Ahmad, who was detained in prison on an extradition warrant, had been the subject of covert recording. There are many other examples, but I shall not embarrass the Government or the Minister by going through every data loss since the inquiry began, although I am sure that the hon. Member for Hornchurch will read out the list. However, I do not hold the Minister or the Home Office responsible for the losses. I raised those incidents simply because we are concerned that, although there might be good reasons for collecting data, loss could occur without proper security and scrutiny.

Data collection clearly benefits the fight against crime, including fraud, but we concluded that it also involves significant risks. Mistakes in, or misuses of, databases can cause substantial practical harm to individuals. For example, if an individual’s personal details are lost, they could be used for negative purposes, as demonstrated by the loss of the data on child benefit recipients. I am also concerned about other databases. However, to be fair to the Minister, the Government have reviewed the security of databases, and will do so again as they pursue the mother of all databases—that to hold the information contained on identity cards.

The Committee concluded that Britain is not a surveillance society—yet—but warned the Government that great care must be taken to avoid it becoming one. We found that the Government must be extremely vigilant in protecting individuals’ information and warned that unless trust in the Government’s intentions in relation to data collection, retention and sharing is carefully preserved, there is a danger that the “surveillance society” tag will be rightly placed upon us.

Mrs. Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest) (Con): The right hon. Gentleman is making an extremely important point. Having balanced the evidence, does he consider that our society will be more or less likely to become a surveillance society if identity cards are introduced universally?

Keith Vaz: I do not think that the chance will be increased. The Select Committee produced a report on ID cards before I became its Chairman. There are arguments on both sides, but I am convinced that the scheme can work, as long as the information collected is preserved very carefully. I would like to be reassured that the information will be stored carefully, otherwise it could be lost and misused. As the hon. Lady knows, having been in the House for some time, the simple loss of a disc containing such information, or its transmission from one employer or agency to another, can cause mayhem. Although I support ID cards, I am worried that the information gathered will not be preserved and protected. We do not have a definitive answer.

Mrs. Laing: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his honesty and clarity. Having considered all the issues and concerns, which he rightly and reasonably expressed, do he and the Committee think that the systems in place are sufficient to safeguard the enormous amount of information held on universal ID cards?

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Keith Vaz: Honestly, no, the Committee is not absolutely certain, which is why we regularly seek reassurances from Ministers, who will note that this matter was a key finding in the report. I pay tribute to the Minister, who has given evidence on numerous occasions. He is always willing to do so. In fact, we think that he probably enjoys visiting us, although that was never our intention.

We have said to the other Ministers in the Department—including the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier), who was responsible for such issues before her maternity leave began—that they need to take enormous care because we do not take this matter lightly. We will hold Ministers to account if data disappear.

Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington) (LD): May I highlight one other concern around identity cards, which is something that I experienced when I lived in France between 1970 and 1980 and which has been confirmed again by a French intern who works for me? Identity cards in France are used to target certain sections of the population—and surprise, surprise, they do not include the white section.

Keith Vaz: The hon. Gentleman is right to voice that concern. Liberty and other groups fear that people from ethnic minorities will be stopped and asked for their identity cards. However, further east, people from Poland and Hungary think that we are daft because they have identity cards virtually from birth. I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman was with us when we visited Poland, but we found that people there have a unique number from the day that they are born. It is stored on a computer and everything that they ever do contains that number. That may not be a good example bearing it in mind that that happened when the communists were in control. None the less, people from eastern Europe feel that identity cards are part of their way of life and are quite happy to accept them.

The hon. Gentleman is right that there is concern about identity cards in France, and there are ample examples of difficulties. Citizens in other countries have received such cards and unique numbers from very early on in their lives and they are very happy to keep them.

The report advises strongly against the expansion of surveillance techniques and notes the dangers of function creep—when information is used for purposes beyond that which was originally intended. If someone needs to collect information for a particular reason, they should have the information for that reason but should not use it for other purposes. We sought assurances from the Government that that would be the case.

The Committee was particularly anxious to stop any attempt to use patient data or information held on children for the purpose of predictive profiling for future criminal behaviour rather than child protection. On 9 March 2009, the Home Secretary confirmed that the youngest person to have a DNA profile held on the database was less than a year old and the oldest was over 90. Apparently, DNA was taken to eliminate the baby from a crime scene. What a baby was doing at a crime scene and how they could possibly be considered to be part of a crime scene is beyond me.

We also have examples from Members of the House. The hon. Member for Hammersmith and Fulham (Mr. Hands) has repeatedly written to the chief constable
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of his area to ask for his DNA to be removed. Again, he was not at a crime scene when his DNA was taken. An elderly relative had died, and the DNA was taken from all his family to eliminate them from the crime scene. The case is known to the Government, and the hon. Gentleman mentions it to me every time he sees me, and I ask him about it every time I see him. He still has not received a reply from his chief constable as to whether those data will be retained.

Following the ruling of the European Court of Human Rights, the Home Secretary announced the removal from the database of the DNA of children under the age of 10. As the House knows, the European Court ruled that the United Kingdom should not indefinitely retain the DNA and fingerprint records of people who are not convicted of a crime.

I raised the matter with the Leader of the House at business questions last week. The Government’s position is that we must have those data because, at some time in the future, someone on the database will commit a crime and, hooray, we will have their DNA so we will not have to look for them. None the less, that is predictive profiling and, in my view, totally unacceptable. We must either put everyone on the database—and I would be very much against that—or we put on the database those who have been convicted of a crime so that we know that they have been involved in criminal activity. We should not put on the database people who may have been stopped quite innocently.

I had a case recently in my constituency of a have-a-go hero. A young man tried to stop a fight between two individuals. The police arrived, arrested everyone and took his DNA. They released him several hours later saying that he should never have been arrested, but they still retained his DNA. Trying to get the young man’s DNA off the database has been cumbersome. The police stopped replying to our letters, so I stopped writing on his behalf. Perhaps I just gave up, but the fact is that there was no point in continuing to write when we were getting no answers.

As part of our inquiry, the Committee considered the Home Office’s responsibilities in relation to the collection and sharing of personal information, including CCTV, identity cards and the national DNA database. We considered how information collected in other public and private sector databases might be shared for use in the fight against crime. We recommended that the Government should show restraint in collecting personal information and constantly questioned whether surveillance activities are proportionate responses to threats.

The DNA database contains samples from 4.6 million people. Currently, 730,000 innocent people’s details are retained on the national DNA database, which is the largest amount per head of population anywhere in the world. The fingerprint database holds 7.5 million entries, including 800,000 innocent people. The UK’s DNA database is 50 times the size of its French equivalent. Our report urged that the Government should only collect information from individuals that is essential, and that it should be stored only for as long as necessary. That includes the retention of innocent people’s DNA.

It is vital that the Government accept the principle of data minimisation, which was recommended by the Committee. Failure to do so might result in the erosion of trust between the individual and the Government, and could change the nature of the relationship between
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the citizen and the state. The Committee urges the Government to resist the collection of more information and the creation of larger databases. That could be detrimental to the relationship of trust between the Government and individuals. It is crucial that the public are kept fully informed of all data collection motives, and any decision to create new surveillance tools, such as databases, should be based on a proven need.

The decision to use surveillance should always involve a publicly documented process of weighing up the benefits against the risks. Security breaches and the consequences of unnecessary intrusion into individuals’ private lives should be considered as part of the decision. That is essential to ensure the trust of the public in Government and authority organisations, and it is important to ensure that that trust is maintained.

The Committee also determined that the Information Commissioner should lay before Parliament an annual report on surveillance and that the Government should respond formally. I am pleased that the Information Commissioner responded positively to our report and has agreed to that recommendation. I am not sure what the Government’s position is. Perhaps the Minister could tell us whether the Government’s response to the Information Commissioner will also be formally laid before Parliament.

The Home Office should be exceedingly cautious in extending the collection and use of individuals’ personal information. The fight against crime is very real and should be undertaken with a large amount of seriousness and action. There is a distinctive and thin line that currently separates the protection of the public and the preservation of individuals’ liberty.

The Government’s response has, overall, been welcomed by the Committee. I am reassured by their commitment to carry out reviews of the authorities who have access to surveillance powers and look forward to the new code of practice that was promised. I am concerned, however, that they have rejected several of the Committee’s recommendations intended to prevent abuse of the information held on the national identity register. They have also responded negatively to our recommendations to ensure that privacy impact assessments for new data collection or storage projects are not just tick-box exercises.

I hope that the Government will look again at the Committee’s concern about the lack of control over how CCTV operatives deploy cameras and about the effectiveness of CCTV. The inability of individuals to access camera footage is dealt with in the CCTV code of practice published by the Information Commissioner. I have had several cases in which constituents who have been arrested by the police and wish to prove their innocence have asked those who have the cameras whether a film can be made available, but often they are told that the film is unavailable. In fact, I cannot think of a single case in which film has been made available to allow a constituent to prove their innocence.

There are constantly articles in the media about privacy and surveillance, and that interest further demonstrates the public concern and the passion for the issue. I am delighted that the Government have decided this week to drop their proposal for a Government super-database from the Coroners and Justice Bill. There has been widespread concern about those proposals from many sectors, and those concerns are valid and ought to be taken into account. The Committee would
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be delighted if the Government had decided to drop that proposal as a result of our excellent report, but I think that they probably realised, having looked at it, that it was totally impractical. The Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor has said that he will redraft the provisions. I hope that he does not come back with a proposal for an even bigger database or one that will cost even more money, but I will leave that for the Minister to respond to when he comes to talk about the Government’s initiative.

A recent police exercise tried to find out how many CCTV cameras there are in Britain, as no one has figures. The figure I gave at the beginning of the debate is an estimate, as we do not have an absolutely accurate figure, but perhaps the Minister will have that information.

The House of Lords Constitution Committee published its report, “Surveillance: Citizens and the State”, in late January. The Committee was generally more alarmed by the extent of surveillance and the lack of limitations on it than was our Committee, although many of its detailed conclusions echo ours, such as the recommendations to give greater power to the Information Commissioner, remove profiles from the DNA database and commission research on how effective CCTV really is. The figures on the effectiveness of CCTV cause us concern. We are not absolutely enamoured of the information and have not been led to believe that the cameras actually help in the detection of crime, although I think that every Member here today will have had representations from constituents claiming that the only way to stop crime in an area is to put up CCTV cameras. Some even say that we should put up the cameras but not bother to put in the film, because at least that would frighten criminals. I remember the Minister, shortly after he was appointed to his current post, coming to my constituency to deal with that very issue in Humberstone in Leicester, where all the residents gathered around him and said that they wanted cameras put up. Of course, not all crimes are solved by the presence of CCTV cameras. In fact, the use of those cameras in crime detection is quite low.

Finally, I would like to take the opportunity to thank the Minister and fellow Members for attending the debate, and members of the Committee for working extremely hard on the report. I inherited the report six months after it had started. It went on for 12 months and is the longest report that the Committee has undertaken for some time, but it was worth it. Our message for the Government is the importance of retaining the public’s trust when dealing with personal information. The correct balance must be struck between protecting the public, which we all understand, and fighting crime on the one hand and protecting the liberties of the individual on the other. Our real message is this: we have a lot of information and technology, but enough is enough. Let us now pause and consider how best we can use what we have before moving on further and being in danger of creating a surveillance society.

2.55 pm

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