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Baroness Blatch: My Lords, first, I understand the concern lying behind the noble Lord's Question. He described what is called HOLMES--or the Home Office Large Major Enquiry System--a system used by the police but only employed in pursuit of very serious crime. As he knows, the crime being investigated at that time was murder and the weapon used in the murder was a .38 revolver. Anyone owning a revolver of that calibre in the area was visited, as was the noble Lord. The information involved, as I understand it, was checking on the licence and security of guns. I know from what the noble Lord said that that was all in order, but the officer then went on to personal details, which is part of HOLMES.
In response to the question of what it is used for, the police can do a number of things. Having gone back to the force with the information, they can either deem it so irrelevant as not to be even remotely material to the case, whereupon it can be destroyed. It can be inserted on the computer because at some point it may become relevant. Alternatively, it may go on the schedule of non-relevant information which goes to the prosecution and is made available to the defence in the pursuit of the trial.
The system is for the pursuit of serious crimes and the information may well by now have been deemed wholly irrelevant or it may be on the computer, where it will lie as non-relevant information for the purposes of that case.
Lord Campbell of Alloway: My Lords, may I ask the Minister whether it is right that, the information having been found non-relevant on that schedule, it will be destroyed at the end of the trial? In such a situation with personal information which I gather was improperly obtained, has not the Home Secretary a discretion to order its destruction now?
Baroness Blatch: My Lords, whether or not the information is relevant must be a matter for the police. They are the people with operational responsibility for pursuing serious crime. My noble friend asked whether it would be destroyed. Yes, it would be at some point. That may not be until the trial is at an end and the appeal system is exhausted, but at some point it will be destroyed, consistent with the policy of the force.
In passing, my noble friend Lord Campbell said that the information had been "improperly obtained". I think that the noble Lord, Lord Cornwallis, would say that it was a proper investigation in the first place to check the licence and the security of the guns. What he objected to was that the detailed personal description of himself was systematically recorded and might then go on the computer. The noble Lord is concerned as to what will happen to the information and for what purpose it will be used. There is strict control of access to the computer and the purpose for which the information will be used is only in pursuit of particularly serious crime.
Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, is it not the case that in addition to the Data Protection Act, to which the Minister referred in her original Answer, there are also extensive controls on the retention of such information in Part IX of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act? Does not the fact that there are such controls point up the need for comparable controls over the retention of material obtained through intrusive surveillance under the Police Bill currently before the House?
Baroness Blatch: My Lords, that was a nice try! I shall not be drawn on intrusive surveillance because the noble Lord knows that we shall discuss the question in some detail at the next stage of the Police Bill. He is absolutely right to say that data protection is a good safeguard in the system. Not only does the noble Lord, Lord Cornwallis, have subject access to the material kept on the computer about him but there are strict limitations on the use to which the police can put that information. I believe that that is an important safeguard.
Baroness Blatch: My Lords, I cannot account for the attitude that people take. The noble Lord, Lord Cornwallis, knows the police and their methods very well. He is merely concerned about this particular investigation.
Perhaps I may say to the noble Lord, Lord Marsh, that in crimes such as serial killings, inconsequential and seemingly inoffensive or extremely trivial information gathered on to the computer with a facility for searching and matching information can result in interception more quickly. That may help to save lives. That is the rationale for the activity.
Lord Mackie of Benshie: My Lords, is it not true that successive governments have destroyed the bobby on the beat and the local information available? Therefore, the more information about respectable citizens the police have, the more chance they have of catching the bad citizens.
Baroness Blatch: My Lords, information and intelligence are a key part of what the police are about. I take exception to what the noble Lord said about destroying the bobby on the beat, there are many more bobbies on the beat. The marvellous service given to the Specials by the noble Lord, Lord Cornwallis, is responsible for putting many pairs of feet on the beat in the local communities, towns and villages in this country. They are important links in the chain for providing information to uncover crime.
Lord Hylton: My Lords, is there not a wider point about information reaching police stations? Is the noble Baroness aware that the possibility of that information getting to the local press is sometimes a deterrent to the full reporting of crimes, particularly theft?
Baroness Blatch: My Lords, the noble Lord raises an important point. It can be worrying. Information gratuitously given to the press is wrong and the police are as subject to the force of law as any other citizen. If information is gathered and improperly used, it is subject to the Data Protection Act, as I have said it is, so passing it gratuitously to the press would be in breach of the law.
Baroness Blatch: My Lords, I agree with that. It is part of the normal investigation of the police and HOLMES is one of the methods that they use. However, I believe that the noble Lord should have been told by the policeman not only why he required the information but also that he did not have to complete the form and that he was not compelled to give the information.
Baroness Blatch: My Lords, the Church of Scientology may follow its own doctrines and practices provided that it remains within the law. But the Government recognise that serious allegations have been made about some of its activities.
Baroness Sharples: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that reply. Is she aware that entrants to the church have to undergo a so-called "purification" process? Is it under qualified medical supervision? Is my noble friend further aware that a number of those who have left the cult have been both threatened and harassed and many have been made bankrupt by the church?
Baroness Blatch: My Lords, I am not in a position to help my noble friend or to comment on the detailed practices of the Church of Scientology. It is something which she may care to raise with the scientologists themselves because it must be for them to respond. Any evidence of the unethical or unlawful practice of medicine would be a matter of serious concern and could be in breach of the law. Therefore, it would require action.
As to my noble friend's second point, I know that serious allegations have been made and it is right that people should be warned of the potential dangers of becoming involved in organisations of that kind. Any evidence of harassment or threats which could amount to criminal activity should be reported to the police.
Lord McNair: My Lords, in asking this question I have to tell the House that I have an interest in it. I am a member of the Church of Scientology. If the noble Baroness has any problems or questions about scientology, I should be happy for her to come and ask me.
Will the Minister accept that I am pleased that the Government's policy remains as laid down by the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, at the CESNUR Conference in 1993? Does she also agree that those who fail to meet and talk to members of such organisations are liable to form a biased or incomplete picture of the organisation?
Baroness Blatch: My Lords, I know how seriously the noble Lord feels on the issue. But if someone comes to me as a Minister, or to anyone else, and makes allegations and we simply refer the matter to a member of the Church of Scientology, or any other cult, it is unlikely that they will say: "Yes, of course we harass people and extort money from them", or whatever it is. Their natural reaction will simply be denial. I am not in a position to answer for that. But it seems to me to be important to persuade people so far as possible to produce evidence so that it can be properly responded to by the scientology movement. In the meantime, I can say that sometimes it is fear that prevents people from doing that and sometimes it is sheer distress, not only on the part of the individual but on the part of the individual's family.
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