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19 Mar 2009 : Column 327WH—continued

Earlier this week, the Minister could not give any clarity on the timetables for the consultations on RIPA or the interception modernisation programme. Can he do so now to avoid the impression that they are simply being kicked into the long grass? Will he confirm that the consultation on RIPA will happen, given the comments in the annexe to the information memorandum on the statutory instrument implementing the second part of the EU data retention directive, which suggested that
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there was no planned change in policy? We have discussed that previously. If the outcome of the review is unfavourable, will there be policy changes or has the Home Office already set its face against any changes in RIPA and the way in which it applies? I think that the Minister is gesticulating for me to give way.

Mr. Coaker: May I apologise? I was not gesticulating rudely. I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way again. I sometimes forget to answer one or two questions in my closing remarks. It is not that I do not mean to answer them.

The hon. Gentleman’s patience will not be tried for too much longer because the RIPA review will be out shortly. Notwithstanding the comments he rightly made during the debate on the statutory instrument to implement the EU data retention directive and those he has made today, the Government are open to consultation and to changes in how RIPA is used. Obviously, any changes will be made as a consequence of the consultation. We plan to have an open, fair and honest consultation.

James Brokenshire: Again, I am grateful to the Minister for providing that clarity.

Some of the statements in the annexe to the information memorandum on the EU data retention directive on telecoms and internet data suggest that there will be no change in policy. Clearly, there has been a change in policy this afternoon. We welcome that approach to the review of RIPA. The review is essential. Greater confidence and trust are required in the use of those powers because they have been over-extended and overused by a number of organisations and agencies in the past.

The right hon. Member for Leicester, East made some valid remarks on CCTV. The Home Affairs Committee report highlighted the value for money of CCTV. The report stated that £500 million has been spent. There is little doubt that millions of pounds have been spent on CCTV cameras. That form of direct surveillance has an important purpose in providing public and national security. The problem is that many of the systems that have been installed do not meet expectations. For example, they are sometimes in the wrong place or the images that are captured are not of sufficient quality to be used in evidence.

The Home Office rightly identified various weaknesses in the “National CCTV Strategy”, which was published in 2007. It recommended:

It said:

Recommendation R3.2 stated that

Will the Minister say what progress has been made on implementing that strategy?

Will the Minister explain how he expects others to improve their standards when the Home Office does not know the status of its systems? No overall assessment
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has been made of whether Home Office CCTV systems comply with the Data Protection Act 1998, the CCTV code of practice published by the Information Commissioner and relevant British Standards Institution standards. Does the Minister accept that it is a bit rich for the Home Office to lecture others when it has not got around to checking whether its own house is in order?

Will the Minister explain the Government’s apparent wish to mandate the introduction of CCTV in pubs and other licensed premises on a blanket basis? He will be aware of the concern that the Government’s new mandatory code on licensing will be used to impose such requirements. Why is such a blanket approach proportionate and necessary? How will it reassure the public over fears of a creeping surveillance state?

That brings me neatly to the concerns about identity cards and the ID card database. The Government have still not made a case for the necessity of the entire scheme. The arguments about the need for identity cards from a national security perspective have been shown to be based on weak foundations. Biometric passports and visas are one thing, but requiring the entire population to have compulsory national ID cards is a completely different proposition. Ministers seem to be scouting around for other justifications for their highly controversial policy.

Mr. Coaker: The ID card scheme is not compulsory. If I did not mishear, the hon. Gentleman said that it was. It will not be compulsory to have an ID card.

James Brokenshire: I am grateful for the Minister’s statement, but he will recognise that there is not unreasonable concern—this was discussed when the Identity Cards Act 2006 was being considered—that we are looking at an incremental change and a steady direction of travel that is leading to that end result. I referred to compulsory ID cards not to suggest that the Government’s position is different, but because of the concern that that is the Government’s end point. I shall listen with interest to the Minister’s response as to where the issue currently sits.

The Government’s thinking is confused. A Home Office Minister’s suggestion that it would be appropriate to consider extending the ID card scheme, if it proves popular, to 14-year-olds is certainly an interesting view of market forces. It seems ironic that the scheme, which was argued for as essential and necessary to combat terrorism, should be foisted on children. From 2010, 16 and 17-year-olds will be able to volunteer to have an ID card, apparently to help them to prove their identity when they open their first bank account, take out a student loan or start employment. Yet that line of argument founders when one considers that banks and employers are not seeking ID cards. I know that young people are some of the biggest participants in volunteering, but I somehow do not see them queuing up for an ID card as the next must-have accessory.

In any event, phasing in ID cards in that way is certainly not helpful for age verification, because the plan is to issue them to under-18s. Whether it has dawned on the Government that age verification is about proving age, not proving that one is under age, is relevant. It is a cynical ploy to target young people in
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that way, and it sends out confusing messages when the Home Office is actively accrediting other proof-of-age programmes.

A broader fear is that if biometric data were compromised, how would the situation be remedied? The comments of Ross Anderson, professor of security engineering at Cambridge university, when giving evidence to the Committee that considered the UK Borders Act 2007—comments that were highlighted in the Select Committee’s report—are germane. He said:

The professor’s statement was stark, but there are relevant and serious concerns about where we are going with the use of biometrics if it is extended so widely, and how safety and security issues can be properly addressed in the architecture, the protections, and the way in which this technology is starting to be used. A huge amount of care is needed.

In conclusion, I return to the key recommendations in the report. The Government should operate a policy of data minimisation. That is a useful principle to have at the forefront. Too often, the Government harvest information and create databases which, if linked or combined at a future date, would go far beyond the remit for which they were set up. Sadly, the Government seem to have been unwilling to listen to the arguments about surveillance and data, but I hope that the Minister has listened this afternoon. They have sought more and more powers of surveillance of citizens and data tracking, apparently paying little heed to the arguments about an individual’s right to privacy and the sort of society that they might create. There are things that the Government need to know about the public, but the mission creep that has occurred is worrying and disturbing. The Select Committee has highlighted some extremely serious and important issues, and the outstanding question is whether the Government are really committed to doing something about them.

4.25 pm

The Minister for Security, Counter-Terrorism, Crime and Policing (Mr. Vernon Coaker): Good afternoon, Sir John. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I welcome right hon. and hon. Members to the debate. I shall make some general remarks before going on to the more formal part of my speech. That is what I usually try to do.

This is an incredibly important debate, but let me clear the clutter out of the way, because that will enable us to have a better debate. It is not only the Government who wrestle with the issue of where privacy butts up against national security and the detection and prevention of crime. Obviously, no right hon. or hon. Member here would argue that no data should be retained and no DNA collected, or that there should be no sharing of data. The argument is always where to draw the line.

Those who drafted the European convention on human rights had the same problem. Article 8.1 states:

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But they had to put in article 8.2:

What we are wrestling with this afternoon is wrestled with all the time. When that is cleared out of the way—when we forget about the wicked people versus good people argument, accept that the debate is serious and fundamental, and that it goes to the heart of our society—we shall start to make better progress. If the debate is caricatured, we cannot make progress.

We debate the matter in many different guises, in many different Committees and in many different areas, and an interesting question that I often pose to the hon. Members for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) and for Hornchurch (James Brokenshire) is, what would they do? To be fair, the latter knew what he was doing and caveated his remarks about what a Conservative Government would do if they were elected, because he knows that responsibility for making such decisions is difficult. Does one collect the information in the way that one is told to, and how does one access and safeguard it? Views and advice on where the line should be drawn are often conflicting. The debate has highlighted, thoughtfully and interestingly, how we should take the discussion forward.

It is necessary for us collectively to get a grip on the debate and to try to move it on. Before making my formal comments, I shall make some concrete proposals on some of the things that I shall try to do with regard to the report produced by the Committee chaired by my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz). He has had to leave for a short while, but I congratulate him, and the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington and his Select Committee colleagues, because it is an excellent and challenging report.

If there is one thing that works exceedingly well in Parliament, it is the Select Committee system. This is an exceptionally good report. It is challenging, evidence-based, thoughtful and non-partisan, and it addresses the issues. I am glad that my right hon. Friend has come back into the Chamber, because I think that the Select Committee system overall is one of the best parts of our Parliament and the Home Affairs Committee is one of the best Select Committees. I am not being sycophantic to him. The report is excellent. It challenges the Government to do things, and causes us to stop and think.

This issue involves not only legal change, but cultural change. It is about all of us giving a bit more thought and time to data management. I shall show how the Home Office is at the forefront of that drive. The point about cultural change is serious. The Committee made the point that, culturally, individuals have to change; this is not just about big Government decisions. There is a need for everyone to take more responsibility for the issue.

While walking into the Home Office today—this is not something that was set up—members of staff and civil servants were given a leaflet that said:

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The leaflet tells them how to do that and says:

Far be it from me to say that that means that, therefore, all the different issues that have been raised this afternoon and in my right hon. Friend’s report have been solved, but it does show that there is some movement in the undergrowth on taking this issue much more seriously.

Also recommended by the Committee was a Home Office information charter, which is now available on the website. We even have an information rights team. That is progress and radical civil service change for you. The serious point, which is very important, is that change is there.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George) made a point about the importance of the private security industry, and I agree with him about that. As long as I have been a Home Office Minister, he has come to see me, advised me and challenged me about the role of the security industry as a whole. He and I have had a lot of debate and discussion about the role of the Security Industry Authority and how things should be changed. The private security industry is unrecognisable from what it was previously, and it is thanks to my right hon. Friend and people like him that that change has taken place.

I agreed with my right hon. Friend’s answer to the question put to him by my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East. I do not care how many cameras there are; I want effective cameras. If there needs to be an increase in the number of effective cameras, there needs to be an increase. I think that the public will accept that. They will not accept it if cameras just appear and no thought has been given to that. There could be 300 cameras or there could be three. Their effectiveness and placement are what is important.

The hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington made a good point, which I will look into. He knows that I try to answer the question and if I do not know the answer, I look into the issue. His idea to look at prior approval for some of the things that appear on the website is probably a difficult one to achieve, but that does not mean that it should not be considered. He is right to say that some of the things that appear are of great concern. Because something is difficult, that does not mean that we should not do it. I had not thought of what he suggested, but I will consider it. It is an interesting perspective on the issue.

Tom Brake: When the Minister is considering that, will he consider whether many of these facilities or applications should be ones that people have consciously to opt into, rather than there being an opportunity to opt out? There is some interesting advertising, for instance, driven through the web. People have to opt out of receiving targeted advertising, rather than choosing to opt in.

Mr. Coaker: The hon. Gentleman is pushing it now. I have said that I will consider the idea and now he is trying to take me down the path of what I should decide. I need to consider the idea. Let me consider it and see whether we need to go anywhere with it. In my formal remarks, I shall also deal with his points about access to data and some of the comments that the hon. Member for Hornchurch made about that.

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I absolutely agree with the hon. Member for Hornchurch on the importance of the work of the Information Commissioner. In a minute, when I make specific commitments, the hon. Gentleman will see that the role of the Information Commissioner is crucial. Both the hon. Gentleman and my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East think that there is a need to inject more urgency, speed and pace into this area of work. I will take up that point.

Obviously, chief constables have a right to delete DNA from a database if they think that appropriate. That is an operational decision for them. They own the data; it is a matter for them. I think that the hon. Gentleman, supported by my right hon. Friend, was asking me whether I, as Minister responsible for the police, should consider how I could remind them of that process and its importance. I will do that, and do it in a way that is necessary and proportionate, but I will do it. Sometimes, it is important to remind people of such things. I might send them a copy of the report of the debate, so that they can see the points that were made. I hope that that is helpful to my right hon. Friend and to the hon. Gentleman.

Let me say a couple of specific things, drawing on the report. First, let me make some specific commitments to try to drive the issue forward. We have made a commitment to having the national CCTV body. I will try to progress that more quickly so that we have the national oversight body. Let us try to drive that forward. I have already made a point about the RIPA review. I shall make some formal remarks on that in a moment. It will happen shortly. It will be a consultation about how some RIPA authorisations are given and who does that.

The Information Commissioner is talking to the Ministry of Justice about an annual report to Parliament. I will try to ensure that we get that annual report to Parliament so that it can be debated. Again, that is important. I hope that what I have said is helpful, although I cannot give a guarantee. The decision involves the Ministry of Justice with the Information Commissioner, but I will talk to fellow Ministers about the issue to see whether we can progress it. I hope that that also helps my right hon. Friend.

I will make another commitment so that we start to get some meat on the bones of this. I will meet the Information Commissioner and talk to him specifically about some of these issues. I will get his view and, from then on, set up regular meetings with the commissioner to see how all this is progressing, or not.

The communications data consultation document will be published shortly. The hon. Member for Hornchurch mentioned a consultation on DNA. That, too, will commence in the near future.

I say to my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East that I think it would be helpful to his Committee—I hope he will confirm whether that is the case—if the Home Office updated its response to the Committee. If we sent one to him, he could share it with the members of his Committee. I cannot give him a specific time, but perhaps we could do an update in the next two or three months or so and send it to his Committee, specifically addressing some of the points that have been made. I hope that he and the Committee will find that helpful, and then we can take it forward. He may want to do other things as a consequence.

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