Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Baroness Turner of Camden): I have to tell Members of the Committee that, if the following amendment, Amendment No. 81, is agreed to, I shall not be able to call Amendments Nos. 82 to 91 inclusive.

10 p.m.

Lord Campbell of Alloway moved Amendment No. 81:

(""10. Provisions requiring that the register prepared by virtue of this Act which shall be open to further inspection shall not be used without the consent of the person registered for any commercial purpose other than by a registered charity.
11. Provisions making it an offence punishable on summary conviction by a fine not exceeding level 5 on the standard scale to contravene regulations made in pursuance of paragraph 10 above."").

The noble Lord said: Many noble Lords--indeed, many people throughout this country--think that the commercial use of the register designed for other purposes without the consent of each person registered is not only an inexcusable invasion of personal privacy but also an unwelcome and virtually uncontrolled nuisance.

As noble Lords probably know, there is no substantive domestic law that protects privacy as such. Members of the Committee may not wish to hear from any lawyer talking about law at this hour of night, but

14 Feb 2000 : Column 1033

I am afraid that we cannot ignore Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which is now assimilated as part of our law.

The prediction of the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor in the course of the debate on the Human Rights Act was that Article 8 of the convention would be the ideal vehicle to develop the right of privacy and remedies for its invasion. I shall not go into detail, but, broadly, in the case against Sweden--I can give references if any noble Lord wishes me to do so--it was held that personal data, albeit in another context, was of fundamental importance to the right of respect for private life.

In another case against Spain it was held, again in another context, that the state had not struck a fair balance between the interests of the state and those of the rights of respect for privacy and family life. I make no personal criticism at all of the noble Lord, Lord Bassam of Brighton, in this regard--I hope that he will accept that--as the noble Lord relies on the advice of his department. However, it is not understood how on that advice he could have certified that the provisions of Clause 9 of this Bill were assuredly compatible with Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights. I do not suppose that the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, knew much more about the matter than I before I started looking into it a few days ago.

However, when one looks into the matter, it is formidable. As an interim step it is suggested that at the conclusion of this debate on Clause 9 the clause should be recommitted so that this matter may be referred to the committee which advises the Chamber on these matters. I do not know whether that committee has been set up yet; it should have been. At the moment, lawyers such as myself have to look things up and seek to advise the Chamber. That is not, frankly, satisfactory; certainly in my case.

As I say, this is a serious matter. A certificate has been given. I tell the Committee in all seriousness and quite objectively, in a purely professional and not political capacity, that I reckon that the certificate should not have been given. Where do we go from there? Without effective advice it seems unreasonable that the Committee should say that the clause should not stand part of the Bill. In my respectful submission, it would be preferable that this clause should be recommitted.

The Committee is dealing with a difficult question. We do not sit as if we were an appellate committee of the Chamber, with its evolving system of jurisprudence to resolve judicially whether, as a matter of construction, Clause 9 is, or could well be, in contravention of Article 8. I must point out to the Committee that--as was said in the Netherlands case, which is the final authority I have consulted--there may be positive obligations on the state to adopt measures designed to secure respect for privacy and family life, albeit, again, in another context.

I have read the CBI brief, the DMA brief--I have them all here--and the WWAB Collins Group brief, all of which stoutly defend their commercial interests, as one would reasonably and fairly expect. But in none

14 Feb 2000 : Column 1034

of those briefs, in none of those papers, in none of the Notes on Clauses--and that is far more important--is there any reference to the incidence of Article 8 of this convention which, under the Human Rights Act, is assimilated as part of our domestic law. The arguments in these briefing papers are understood but, with respect to them, not accepted.

But let me for a moment consider the arguments on the assumption that they are accepted--but, most assuredly, that cannot be so without the consent of all persons on the register. A single tick in a box by someone who wishes to receive all the material cannot be appropriate to bind him to, not surrender, but invasion of his privacy.

I shall say no more other than to ask the Government to take this matter back, to take further advice--if possible, from across departments: from the Lord Chancellor's Department, from the Attorney-General's Department, from any other independent source, even from the Bar--and to give it serious consideration; otherwise the clause should not stand part of the Bill.

Lord Goodhart: I can go some of the way, but not the whole way, with the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway. I hope that the Committee will forgive me if I use the occasion of this amendment to speak rather broadly on the whole subject of Clause 9. That will save me from having to raise the issues again when we come to later amendments, including those tabled in my name.

These are difficult and contentious issues which have given rise to differences of opinion within my own party as well as within other parties. It is a case where disclosure of names and addresses is required by law. It is required for clearly legitimate purposes connected with elections. That information is needed in order that polling cards can be sent out, and staff in polling stations can issue ballots and check off the names of voters. It is also needed so that candidates can communicate with the voters.

In recent years, the register has been used for other purposes, particularly commercial ones. This is a relatively recent development which has arisen since the register was published in electronic form. Previously, the copying of printed registers was something which was clearly not worth the effort. Commercial purposes for which registers have been used include credit checking, the identifying of targets for junk mail and the cleaning and up-dating of commercial data bases. Also, there are a number of non-commercial uses, such as use by private detectives, police checks on whether the names and addresses given by suspects are accurate, and charity fund raising.

Anyone can buy a complete United Kingdom register on CD ROM and there is no control over the purpose for which that can be used. It could be used, for example, by a racist organisation to identify everyone on the register who had one of a number of common Asian surnames. The basic principle of data protection is that information collected for one

14 Feb 2000 : Column 1035

purpose should not be used for another purpose without the consent of the data's subject. Furthermore, I agree in part with the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway, that there is a serious problem under Article 8 of the European Convention on the respect for private life. The provision is clearly in breach of Article 8(1), unless it can be justified under Article 8(2). Unless there is an edited register, there may be serious problems. Unrestricted publication of the register is not in accordance with those basic principles.

The restrictions proposed by the Government have been subject to intensive lobbying campaigns. The lobbyists put forward a number of effective points: access to the edited register alone makes it much more difficult to carry out credit checks; it is more difficult for commercial organisations to keep their databases up to date--which it is in the general public interest to do; and it is more difficult for charities to send out appeals. The Government have accepted the argument for credit check access to the full register. On other issues, the Government, rightly, have not given way.

It is true that it is in the interests of mail-order companies to keep their databases up to date. That reduces the number of misdirected mailshots, which is in a sense in the public interest. But modern technology increases the amount that other people may know about us to an enormous extent--something unimaginable a generation ago. The economic benefits of organisations having access to the full register are not sufficient to outweigh the right of anyone to say, "I don't want my name and address to go on a CD-ROM or on the Internet and to be accessible to anyone, simply because my name is on the electoral register".

We accept that the edited register should be opt-out rather than opt-in. We have tabled amendments to ensure that the attention of anyone thinking of signing an opt-out form is drawn to the possible adverse consequences. We have tabled an amendment to try to ensure that other members of a household consent to an opt-out given in their name. We want to ensure that those who opt out may opt back in as easily as possible. But the case which is made for allowing the full register to be used for non-electoral purposes, even for charities, must be a strong one. If I do not want to be on a charity mailing list, I believe that it is my right not to be on a charity mailing list.

A case has been made out for credit checking. A further case has made out for some police purposes. There may be other limited cases where controlled access to a full register is desirable. But there should be no general widening of access to the full register. On that issue, the Government have broadly got it right.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page