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House of Lords

Tuesday, 18 July 2006.

The House met at half-past two of the clock: the LORD SPEAKER on the Woolsack.

Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of Leicester.

Baroness Jones of Whitchurch

Margaret Beryl Jones, having been created Baroness Jones of Whitchurch, of Whitchurch in the County of South Glamorgan, for life—Was, in her robes, introduced between the Lord Sawyer and the Baroness Prosser.

Lord Bradley

Keith John Charles Bradley, Esquire, having been created Baron Bradley, of Withington in the County of Greater Manchester, for life—Was, in his robes, introduced between the Lord Sheldon and the Baroness Taylor of Bolton.

Privacy: Pervasive Computing

2.48 pm

Baroness Gardner of Parkes asked Her Majesty’s Government:

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Trade and Industry (Lord Sainsbury of Turville): My Lords, there are already in place regulations to protect privacy in the electronic communications field. The Privacy and Electronic Communications (EC Directive) Regulations 2003 and the Data Protection Act 1998 implement the relevant EC directives in this respect. The Government will keep this legislation under review as the use of technology develops over time.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. I am sure that he will know that 8 billion embedded microprocessors are produced each year, which is an alarming number. The Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology states in its POST note that it is important that the volume of transmitted data should be kept to a minimum, that transmissions should be encrypted and sent anonymously without reference to the owner and that security should be treated as ongoing. The Minister has said that security will be treated as ongoing. Evidently, there is some concern about whether manufacturers should be encouraged to build in safeguards from the very earliest stage. Will the Minister comment on that?

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Lord Sainsbury of Turville: My Lords, I do not know whether trying to keep the amount of information to a minimum is a realistic strategy. This will clearly be a huge and developing trend in the future; now that microprocessors have in-built communications, this will be a growing field. The Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations were introduced to address just these questions. They require, for example, a system of consents for processing location-based data. Service providers are required to take appropriate technical and organisational measures to safeguard the security of services. For the moment, that seems to be appropriate legislation but, as I said, we will need to keep it under review as the technology develops.

The Countess of Mar: My Lords, what is Her Majesty's Government’s view on the report of the Leeds NHS trust, which stated that there were 70,000 instances of illegal access to patient data in one month?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: My Lords, patient data would be covered by the Data Protection Act. Clearly, if there is that number of instances of illegal access to data, there is something wrong with the systems in that place. That should be taken up in the light of the Data Protection Act.

Lord Avebury: My Lords, is the Minister aware that the British Computer Society has appointed an expert committee to look into the implications of pervasive computing? If any legislative changes are required, it would be sensible to wait until that committee had reported. On medical applications, does the Minister agree that the use of devices for sending data from within a patient’s body to outside recorders has proved to be an enormously valuable diagnostic tool, with no privacy implications for the patients?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: My Lords, we must wait and see how the technology develops before we rush into any kind of regulation to control it. There have, as yet, been no complaints to the Information Commissioner on this area of location-based services. Information taken out of people’s bodies by such technology can clearly be enormously helpful medically.

The Earl of Northesk: My Lords, does the Minister agree that the issue is as much about ownership of the huge amount of data routinely collected about all of us as it is about privacy? If so, what stance do the Government take on the questionable legality of the Home Office authorising the DNA database to be used by the Forensic Science Service to research whether race and ethnicity can be determined from DNA samples?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: My Lords, the Question was about pervasive computing, which is a specific area. The whole area of data protection is covered by the Data Protection Act 1998. Pervasive computing is a completely different subject.

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Baroness Gardner of Parkes: My Lords, does not the Minister agree that there is—according to this POST note, for example—debate about whether the Data Protection Act covers the matter? The National Consumer Council is concerned about whether people could have all their information transmitted from, say, their home—or even their body, as was described in relation to medical things—and not know that it was being obtained or what use it was likely to be put to. That could be a bad use.

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: My Lords, as I said, there are two pieces of legislation: the Data Protection Act 1998 and the Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations. The second obviously covers the security of data communication from one place to another. As I said, that involves issues of consent and security, which are well covered in that legislation. Of course, it may turn out that the legislation does not properly cover the subject and that there are issues to be considered. As I said, however, there have been no complaints on that point as yet.

Lord Campbell of Alloway: My Lords, will the Minister explain what pervasive computing is?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: Yes, my Lords. This is an interesting subject. Some microprocessors now have in-built communication facilities. The most obvious example of that is radio identification. I do not suppose that the noble Lord ever goes to the back of his local supermarket, but if he did he would see that packages that are brought in have an identification code that can be read electronically without taking the goods off the pallet. That is done by radio communication and is an enormous step forward in efficiency. The same principle applies to smart keys; one can open a car door from a range of three feet with a smart key, using the same technology.

Fuel Duty: Northern Ireland

2.55 pm

Earl Attlee asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Lord McKenzie of Luton: My Lords, the introduction of regional fuel duty rates would represent a departure from the principle of uniform duty rates across the UK. Furthermore, it would also create a new control problem of ensuring that Northern Ireland duty-paid fuel was not used in Great Britain.

Earl Attlee: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. HMRC is doing a sterling job in combating fuel fraud in Northern Ireland and in the rest of the UK. Would not my suggestion of requiring all HGVs leaving Great Britain to leave with a nearly full tank of fuel, coupled with the harmonisation of the rate of

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fuel tax between the north and the south of Ireland, stem the loss of hundreds of millions of pounds of Treasury revenue and disrupt the activities of some very unsavoury characters?

Lord McKenzie of Luton: My Lords, the Government take seriously the problem of oil frauds in Northern Ireland and have taken strides to deal with that. Matters are improving, as the noble Earl has acknowledged. I am aware that he has pursued the suggestion of vehicles having to fill up when they leave Great Britain, but the Government’s position on that is still the same: we think that is likely to be regarded as contrary to the EU treaty concerning quantitative restrictions on imports and exports and, in any event, would cause considerable practical difficulties such as the delay caused to vehicles leaving the country and the Customs resources needed to apply it.

Lord Newby: My Lords, could the Minister give us some idea of the scale of the fraud to which the noble Earl has referred? Given that it is significant, what discussions are under way with the Government of the Republic of Ireland to try to minimise it?

Lord McKenzie of Luton: My Lords, the estimates of non-UK duty-paid consumption for Northern Ireland are based on the total situation, rather than on just the illicit market, so they do not distinguish between cross-border shopping and illicit activity. The latest figure that I have for the amount of lost duty is £245 million for 2004. A considerable amount of activity has been undertaken, resulting in the dismantling of 76 laundering plants, the disruption of 17 criminal gangs, 25 convictions for oil frauds and the seizure of more than 9.94 million litres of fuel and 4,285 vehicles from oil fraudsters.

Lord Hylton: My Lords, from his base in the Treasury, is the Minister aware that already most of the fuel pumps in Northern Ireland located within10 or 20 miles of the border have closed down? Ina sense, it is too late to act. However, would harmonising duties be of considerable benefit to the rest of the economy of Northern Ireland?

Lord McKenzie of Luton: My Lords, we have to have uniform duties throughout the UK. I think that that is the right approach. Once we start having a regional basis for duties for fuel oil, what else will follow from that? On dealing with fraud, I have outlined the figures and the action that the Government have taken that is improving the situation.

Lord Forsyth of Drumlean: My Lords, is this not a general problem caused by the fact that the Irish Government have been reducing the overall burden of tax, resulting in increased revenues and growth in its economy, while this Government have increased the burden of tax? The problem is not only that fuel suppliers are closing on the border; we now see inward investment going into Ireland rather than coming here because of the burden of tax that has been imposed by the current Government.

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Lord McKenzie of Luton: My Lords, I admire the noble Lord’s ingenuity in broadening the question in that way. As he knows, on the overall competitive position of the UK in comparison with other countries in Europe and worldwide, the UK stands strong. In 2005, we were at the top of the world league for foreign inward investment. That is testament to the policies that the Government are pursuing.

Lord Smith of Clifton: My Lords, is not the position of Northern Ireland rather different from the rest of the UK because it has a land border with another EU country? As the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, said, it is a tremendous disadvantage to Northern Ireland if that is not considered by the Government in the light of taxation and other fiscal arrangements in the south. Is there any expectation that the Government will look at the problem, particularly in relation to the level of corporation tax?

Lord McKenzie of Luton: My Lords, huge problems would be associated with having a separate corporation tax regime for Northern Ireland, such as how to compute the profits that fell within Northern Ireland for companies that operated generally in the UK. Tremendous problems would be associated with that and other levies that might be pursued on the same basis. It would not be the right way forward.

Lord Kilclooney: My Lords, I live within 15 miles of the Irish border, and I can assure the House that all petrol stations are open there. Is the Minister aware that most people in Northern Ireland are suspicious of those who campaign for uniform taxation systems in the island of Ireland and suspect that there is another agenda? Will he confirm that, if we reduced either fuel tax or corporation tax in Northern Ireland, the central Exchequer would have less income from Northern Ireland and would logically then transfer less to the devolved administration for public expenditure on schools, housing and infrastructure?

Lord McKenzie of Luton: My Lords, reduced fuel duty rates for Northern Ireland and reduced corporation tax are not on the Government's agenda, so we do not need to address that issue. Starting to look at those things on a regional basis would genuinely raise the issues that the noble Lord has identified. However, it is not on the Government's agenda.

Viscount Bridgeman: My Lords, have the Government made a comprehensive assessment of what organisations are behind the smuggling of fuel into Northern Ireland?

Lord McKenzie of Luton: My Lords, there a lot of activity. I outlined earlier the results of the activity that Customs was pursuing. The dismantling of laundering plants and the disruption of criminal gangs are evidence of the efforts that the Government have made and will continue to make, which are improving the situation. The number of deliveries into Ireland has increased, which shows that some of the illicit activity and cross-border shopping is diminishing.

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Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville: My Lords, do the Government understand that we are raising our taxes and the Irish are lowering their taxes in this instance as a function of the Kyoto protocol, under which our obligations were raised and those of the Irish were lowered? Since Northern Ireland is living under purely Irish conditions, people there are a little surprised that they are penalised in that way.

Lord McKenzie of Luton: My Lords, I do not accept that Northern Ireland is being penalised in a particular way, but the noble Lord is right that the rates of fuel duty are an important part of the UK as a whole meeting its Kyoto obligations. It is important that we do that.

Visit Britain: Chairman

3.04 pm

Lord Lee of Trafford My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. In doing so, I declare an interest as chairman of the Association of Leading Visitor Attractions.

The Question was as follows:

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, because of the importance of the post, further applications are being sought from suitably qualified candidates to supplement those already received, following advertisement of the vacancy in the national press. Our objective is that my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport should make the appointment this autumn.

Lord Lee of Trafford: My Lords, I realise that the Minister is somewhat removed from this particular situation—I say that in the nicest way—but does he accept that the chairmanship of VisitBritain should be a much coveted position that involves leadership of our tourism sector at home, relations with the Government, the media, the RDAs and Scottish and Welsh tourism, and a huge ambassadorial role overseas, especially with the build-up to the Olympics? The idea that it is a two-day-a-week position—or even less, as is apparently now suggested by the Government—is ludicrous and an insult to the industry. Seemingly, there is not even a peerage at the end of that role. I believe that the chairmanship should be a near full-time position that is paid appropriately and sufficiently to attract a high-calibre individual who is capable of carrying our national tourism banner with professionalism, authority and energy.

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, the remuneration that is on offer and the time required should attract good candidates, and we expect it to do so. I hear what the noble Lord says about the need for a full-time appointment. That is not the view of the Government, nor do I think that it is the general view of the tourist industry, except that, by definition, it would hope for the maximum time possible. This post has been filled in the past as a part-time appointment.

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It is important and requires leadership. That is why we want good candidates to come forward and that is why we have extended the timescale to make sure that we do have good applications.

Viscount Astor: My Lords, is the Minister aware that the noble Lord, Lord Lee, was Minister for tourism in another place? I followed him into that position, whereupon he promptly defected to the Lib Dems. I am not sure whether that is connected. However, I find myself again agreeing with the noble Lord, Lord Lee. Is it not the case that the industry, which is worth £14 billion a year to the economy, should have an important person leading it? To cut the number of days a month for the job from eight to six is disgraceful.

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, I am grateful for the potted biography that the noble Viscount presented. I was aware of the credentials of the noble Lord, Lord Lee. We have reduced the time because we want the highest calibre of appointment. It is a part-time post; nothing comparable to it has ever been a full-time post. We expect a contribution to be made from someone who is working professionally the rest of the time in a high-level occupation but who can bring those skills to bear on this responsibility. We have no doubt that just as in the past VisitBritain has been served well at senior level, it will be in the future.

Lord Borrie: My Lords, does the Minister agree that in light of the overstretched transport and other facilities in London, more should be done by all the organisations concerned to ensure that visitors from abroad go to all sorts of other places in the United Kingdom apart from the capital?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, that is certainly the case. It is part of the requirement for the post that the chairman succeeds in identifying the other attractions of Britain apart from London, but we face the obvious fact that a very high percentage of visitors to Britain come to London because it is one of the greatest tourist centres in the world.

Lord Clement-Jones: My Lords, is not the lack of attention paid by the DCMS over the chairmanship of VisitBritain entirely consistent with the approach taken by other parts of Government? The Minister will of course remember the letter from the Prime Minister to the Secretary of State in May which set out seven challenges for the DCMS—the 2012 Olympics, the BBC charter, digital switchover and so it goes on, with not a single mention of tourism. How can the Minister explain that, when tourism accounts for some 6.5 per cent of gross domestic product?

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