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Christie NHS Foundation Trust

5.27 pm

Mr. John Leech (Manchester, Withington) (LD): I wish to present the “Cash Back For Christie” petition organised by the Manchester Evening News and signed by more than 100,000 people in Manchester and across the country. The campaign supports the Christie hospital getting back its £6.5 million, and I should like to pay tribute to everyone involved in it.

The petition states:


7 May 2009 : Column 441

Civil Liberties (Mole Valley)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn. —(Steve McCabe.)

5.28 pm

Sir Paul Beresford (Mole Valley) (Con): I shall begin by reassuring the Minister that I do not intend to use all the considerable time available for this debate. However, I want to give him an understanding of a matter that my constituents raise with me in correspondence and at my surgeries with monotonous and increasing frequency.

For the Minister’s benefit, I should tell him that Mole Valley is the largest constituency in Surrey. It is semi-rural and rural, looks green and prosperous, and has two main towns and about 30 villages. More than 50 per cent. of the inhabitants vote Conservative when elections come along—and long may they continue to do so—but some aspects of the area are deceptive. Some constituents are wealthy—some of them extremely so—and knowledgeable, but many of the people, especially in the villages, are poor and live in very difficult circumstances.

When I was out knocking on doors one Saturday morning fairly recently, I spent some considerable time persuading an elderly couple that their circumstances were such that they should claim council tax and rent benefits to ease their financial problems. The husband got very cross, and he explained to me that he was a former soldier who had fought for us in the second world war and then remained in the Army. What worried me was that he did not seem to understand that paying his taxes in effect set up an insurance scheme that allowed him to claim the relevant benefits.

I hope that the Minister might one day look at the benefit form, because what upset my constituent most of all was that it was 30 pages long—it was at that stage; it is now down to 29 pages—and full of questions that he said were too nosey and not relevant. Owing to that, he did not want to claim, and, although I have gone back and tried, he is still not claiming, because he feels that the questions interfere with his civil liberties and are too intrusive.

In the main, my constituents are well educated, very aware and definite absorbers of news. That applies to all age groups, and a considerable portion of my contact with my constituents over recent years has been about various broad civil liberty issues. In Mole Valley, there is a strong feeling that we need national and personal security; it is important. There is also huge support for the police, generally, which is just as well, because the central police grant to Surrey police is so low that almost 50 per cent. of their costs are borne by Surrey council tax payers. That said, there is increasing concern that we are being spied on by the state, that huge volumes of deeply personal data are being collected by the state and others, and that the situation has gone too far.

I read recently that the average person in the United Kingdom has about 3,250 pieces of information about them collected and stored every week. Obviously, much of that is not state-sourced; I refer to store loyalty cards, banks, internet responses, an individual’s place of work data and so on. However, I shall highlight a few areas of Government-generated data collection. First, there is the centralisation of medical data. Most patients are unaware that their medical records are sent from their
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GPs to a central source that can be accessed from other health clinics and hospitals nationwide. The base logic makes sense, especially if I take note of my secondary hobby, which is dentistry, because if an unknown patient arrives with a debilitating condition, or is on a keen medication that may have side effects or interact with other drugs, that and similar information will be required by the clinician. My constituents and I accept that, but more information will be passed down the data tubes and be made available, and more is being collected centrally.

I ask the Minister, if he is bothered, to have a quick look at the Australians. They have a similar system, which has been under way for some years, and about two years ago there was a big blitz. A Sunday newspaper reported it, because there were known to have been more than 750 breaches of that system’s security. The breaches took place over a fairly short period and were not necessarily of national or international importance, but they were certainly important to those whose security, data and information had been sourced. Many, if not all, of the breaches were personal: spouses, lovers, neighbours, relations and so on, checking up on individuals who were known to them. However, one can well imagine the temptation for a scurrilous individual seeking to access a pop star’s health records, a footballer’s health records or even those of a well known politician, and being prepared to pay for that information—pay handsomely on occasions, because of the payback for it.

I find the Government’s intention to keep data on individual phone calls, text messages and internet access details extremely Big Brother. Most disturbing is the spectrum of people who are permitted to access that information. I have discussed the matter with a number of senior Metropolitan police officers, and they have explained to me the procedures that must be gone through before they can give someone permission to access it. However, the spectrum of people who can access it goes right the way along to local government, where I very much doubt that such restrictions apply.

A recent concern for me and many of my constituents has been the UK criminal DNA photo and fingerprint database. Since its launch in 1995, it has, I understand, become the largest or second largest database in the world. It has the details of more than 5 per cent., and rising, of the population. As the Minister would expect me to point out, Government blunders—the loss of personal data and sensitive information, carelessly left for public access—have been a deep concern. Furthermore, there are the concerns about our increasingly Big Brother culture.

Despite today’s Home Office announcement—or perhaps, in part, because of it—serious questions about the functions and ethics of the database still need to be answered. DNA samples taken at arrest or from a crime scene are collected and sent off to a third-party company for analysis and storage. The profile, consisting of the DNA sequence, gender, ethnicity and age of the person involved, is then loaded on to the database. The database costs millions each year to maintain. Between 2000 and 2006, it cost the taxpayer about £270 million, excluding the storage costs for the individual samples; they fall to the individual police forces. I hate to think of what the costs would be today.

7 May 2009 : Column 443

I understand and support the fact that we have a national database for criminals, but a considerable number of my constituents who are not criminals are on that database, and they include children. That is the biggest concern. I shall tell the Minister about two cases that illustrate my point. A quiet, retired engineer lives in one of the villages in my constituency. He does a little work on his computer to supplement his pension. One Saturday morning last year, there was a knock on the door and a policeman and policewoman pushed in and arrested him. They took him off to Guildford police station and charged him with the theft, some months earlier, of a laptop computer from Currys in Guildford.

My constituent protested his innocence. The police took his DNA, fingerprints and photograph and set him down for a court case a few weeks later. He went home, checked his data and was able to prove, through a combination of factors and witnesses, that at the time of the alleged crime he had been sitting at his own laptop in his own office 20 miles away. His solicitor put that to the police and a more senior policeman considered the scant evidence—a couple of fuzzy photos on CCTV showing someone who looked faintly like my constituent, except that my constituent’s spectacles were different. That senior policeman saw that it had all been a mistake, and the case was ripped up. An apology was given to the engineer and one of the arresting officers got a severe rap over the knuckles. However, my constituent’s DNA, fingerprints, photographs and so on were kept. There were months of battle before that clearly innocent man—who had no record, no charge, no brush with the police—could get the information taken off the database.

Perhaps a more important case involved a young lady coming home on the train to another of the villages in my constituency. On getting off, she was violently attacked by a group of young ladies. When the police were called, the attackers ran off; when the police arrived, they arrested the victim. It took considerable time for them to recognise that they had made a mistake. They had already taken my constituent’s DNA, photographs and all the rest of the data. In spite of the apologies and a rap over the knuckles for the police concerned, it took nearly a year to get my constituent’s information taken off the system. Following the new idea that has come forward today from the Home Office, that young lady’s data will be stuck on that file for seven years, yet she was plainly the victim and totally innocent.

Last year, I had the privilege, pleasure and entertainment of meeting the Association of Chief Police Officers representative responsible at that time for the national DNA database. He spent a considerable length of time explaining and reassuring us about the security measures to protect the integrity of the database. It was impressive. I asked him whether he agreed that the bigger and more expensive the database, the more valuable it is to attackers. After all, if hackers can get into the Pentagon files, they can probably get into DNA files in this country. I put it to him that if the file is important enough, or big enough, somebody with criminal intent, groups with criminal intent, or someone from outside the country may try to hack into it or to pay somebody for access. He said that the last of those scenarios was his deepest worry.

In the past few weeks, the big issue that I have been hit with by many constituents is ContactPoint. At first, I was surprised that my trusting public, and so many of
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them, were so concerned. They all agree that vulnerable children need protection and that the system may help them, but I believe, and so do the parents, that it is outrageous progressively to place every child on the system. Effectively, every child will now have a Government number—yet another one. It will not be tattooed on their arm, but stored on a Whitehall computer. I have to tell the Minister that the parents are far from happy. I asked them to have a look at the website so that they could get a full understanding of it; now, if anything, they are more concerned, and I share their concerns. Next, there is the prospect of ID cards, and behind them there is the national identity register; it is not only Orwellian but, as one of my constituents put it to me, smells of a database ready for the Stasi. The whole project is an expensive data-collecting mistake, and it should be dropped. I support my Front Benchers’ view on that emphatically.

Many Government databases have legitimate reasons for existence, such as car licence data files, taxation records, information on individuals entering and leaving our shores, passport information and so on, but the variety of information collected for many of those systems seems to be expanding. It was a great relief to me, and to many of those who wrote to me, when the proposal for centralising access to the various systems was withdrawn from the Coroners and Justice Bill. However, Government form is such that unless the public throw them out at the election, which is looking increasingly likely, that horrible little measure will return at the next opportunity.

We have CCTV cameras everywhere, but few people are aware of how much of the data is stored, for how long it is stored, how many cameras there are, or that a policemen sitting in New Scotland Yard can use many speed cameras to view and follow cars along our London roads. Of course, it is all in the cause of crime prevention and detection, and so on.

The key point for the Minister is that the greater the collection of personal data, and the more it is centralised, the more vulnerable we are as individuals and the greater the temptation for theft of these data. It may not necessarily be theft. Given the way that the Government have been behaving, the data could simply be lost—or, as I have already inferred, hacked into or purchased. If our bank details are lost, sold or something like that, we can change the accounts, but we cannot change much personal information such as DNA and identity. Lost or stolen, it could be in unwanted hands for ever and used against the freedom of individuals for criminal or other reasons.

I go around many secondary schools, and the sixth-formers remind me that the situation smacks of “Brave New World”, “Nineteen Eighty-Four” and the cult TV series “The Prisoner”. As an aside, I thought that the new Government Department, the Ministry of Justice, had a George Orwell ring about it. A few constituents who have had a measure of support for these data collection measures have told me, “But I have nothing to hide.” They are reminded that that saying is derived from Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four” as cameras were being installed in people’s accommodation, and that as this Government continue to collect more and more personal data, we may well soon be in the position of actually having nothing left to hide.

7 May 2009 : Column 445
5.45 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr. Shahid Malik): I congratulate the hon. Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford) on initiating this timely debate. I suspect that he does not recall that the last time we spoke was probably in about 1994 or ’95. I believe that he was Under-Secretary of State at the Department of the Environment, and I was part of a delegation from Sheffield. We got what we wanted, but I never got a chance to thank him, so I do so this evening.

I have listened with great interest to the points that you have made this evening. I shall attempt to address them all, hopefully to your full satisfaction, although I suspect that that might not quite be the case.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. Can we just get things right? It is the hon. Member who has been raising these things, not I. The Minister used the term “you”, so I correct him before we get any deeper into it.

Mr. Malik: My apologies, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

I wish to comment first on the hon. Gentleman’s private Member’s Bill. I thank him for his continued support for the protection of children, particularly on the internet, and for his valued contribution to that ongoing debate.

The hon. Gentleman raised a number of points relating to his constituents. He said that benefit forms were too long and, in the words of his constituent, too nosey as well. He talked about data collection and about his secondary hobby, dentistry. By virtue of the Data Protection Act 1998, benefit forms are meant to contain only information that is appropriate and essential, and of course it is protected information. People will always come to different judgments, and clearly his constituents—sadly, in some ways—have come to the one that he described.

In this debate, we are considering the profound question of the role of the state in protecting civil liberties and freedoms in Mole Valley and much more widely. I am clear that the role of Government is to safeguard our citizens from those who would seek to do us harm, while ensuring that our rights to privacy and freedom are protected. The Government have put in place a strong legislative framework to protect the rights of individuals. The Human Rights Act 1998 enshrines privacy in law as a qualified right that needs to be balanced against collective interests such as national security and the prevention of crime.

We live in a fast-changing world. Developments in technology are especially rapid, providing greater opportunities and benefits to us as individuals. Those who would do us harm can also take advantage of those developments, which creates an ever-increasing challenge as we seek to safeguard and protect the public, a challenge to which the Government and their enforcement agencies are duty-bound to respond.

The hon. Gentleman spoke at some length about DNA. I am sure he agrees that DNA techniques have helped to bring thousands of serious offenders to justice. They helped police solve 1,000 rapes and murders in 2006-07, and more than 18 million employment checks
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stopped more than 80,000 unsuitable people working with children and vulnerable adults in the past four years. The list goes on.

The four key principles that underpin the Government’s approach to privacy and security are: proportionality, safeguarding, transparency and, of course, common sense. Recent announcements demonstrate the Government’s commitment to those principles. To focus on DNA, today marks the commencement of the public consultation exercise on the retention, use and governance of DNA and fingerprints. In the case of S and Marper, the European Court found a violation under article 8 on the “blanket and indiscriminate” retention policy for DNA and fingerprints. Of course we accept the Court’s judgment but also its recognition of the importance of using DNA and fingerprints to tackle and prevent crime, including terrorism, and ensure public protection.

Public protection is a key consideration in what we do.

Sir Paul Beresford: I have accepted the importance of criminals having their data on a national database that is accessible to the police and so on, for the reasons that the Under-Secretary set out. However, I am worried about the innocent. I deliberately gave him the second example of the young lady, who was clearly innocent but would still have her files on the system for seven years under the Government’s new proposals.

Mr. Malik: The hon. Gentleman talked about one of his constituents who was wrongly arrested. Our proposals set out possible grounds for removing data—for example, in cases of mistaken identity. Criteria will be set out in regulations that we will develop as the consultation rolls out.

Let me give the hon. Gentleman some reassurance. Kensley Larrier was arrested in May 2002 for the possession of an offensive weapon. His DNA was taken at the time and loaded on to the DNA database in June 2002. The proceedings were discontinued in October 2002, but his DNA was retained under the Criminal Justice and Police Act 2001. In July 2004, a rape was committed in the north of England and DNA from the investigation was speculatively searched against the national database and matched with the acquittal sample. Larrier was arrested and charged with the offence in November 2004. He was convicted in June 2005, jailed for five years and entered on the sex offenders register for life. That is one example of what can happen if DNA data are retained.

Sir Paul Beresford: I understand that point. We accept it because the dates fall within the suggested three years. However, I am worried about people who are clearly innocent and cases in which a mistake has clearly been made. Surrey police keep the data.

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