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Lord Higgins: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. Is it the case that some four years after the passing of the Data Protection Act, and some five months after she last replied to this Question, companies are still not complying? They have had years to get their computer systems right. Should the data protection authorities impose a tight deadline and, if necessary, impose penalties on companies that have not complied?
On the second point, it is clear that inadequate and inaccurate information is seriously affecting many people: sometimes the wealthy, but more particularly the poor. Should it be possible for the public not only to correct mistakes in their data, as they are able to do, but also to add additional information if it is clear that their credit record is inadequate and having an adverse effect on them?
Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, I understand the anxiety of the noble Lord about this matter. The Act was passed in 1998 and came into force in 2000. However, there is a need to amend business systems, including IT systems, and the proposals cannot be implemented by every organisation overnight. It is not only the credit reference agencies which have to make significant changes, but also the lenders which supply them with information. The commissioner is taking the matter seriously. The agencies have a schedule with which they are complying and the commissioner can take action if he believes that the agencies are not addressing their minds with the appropriate level of vigour to the issue. From what we can gather, it appears that at the moment the commissioner is content with the progress that is being made. It is for the commissioner to act independently of government in relation to this matter if he feels that there is insufficient progress.
There is also an opportunity, as the noble Lord rightly says, under Section 7 of the 1998 Act for anyone to obtain a copy of information held about him or her by a credit reference agency for a fee of £2 and to have incorrect information removed or
Lord Razzall: My Lords, does the Minister accept that there is a much wider problem than the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, has suggested? Does she accept that at what I would describe as the bottom end of the loan finance business there are a significant number of advertisements being shown every day on the television aimed at people at the bottom end of the market, to which they are responding, and they are then being turned down? Their credit reference agency is putting them down as having been ruled out and such people are often not equipped to go through the "middle class" route of writing the kind of letters suggested by the noble Baroness. Does she accept that that is a significant problem?
Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, we can see that that is a problem. People need the right level of information provided to them. The noble Lord will know that there is a task force on over-indebtedness, which was set up in October 2000, to focus on practical ways of achieving more responsible lending and borrowing. Its first report was completed in April 2001 and published in July 2001. Five working groups were then set up to consider the key questions that consumers should ask when taking out a loan, identifying best practice and certain marketing techniques and the provision of key information to consumers. As the noble Lord rightly says, those matters are important. They are, as they should be, being addressed and we are dealing with the matter.
Lord Wedderburn of Charlton: My Lords, does my noble friend accept that, although there is a commissioner who, as she has explained, has an independent role in the matter, the Government have their own responsibility to deal with this market and to clean it up? They should not show as little interest as we have already heard this afternoon they show in the case of scandalous directors' fees in the corporate sector.
Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, I hope that no one in this House will misinterpret what I said to be a lack of interest. The Government acted and acted speedily. The Data Protection Act has greatly improved the position since 2000 when it came into force.
The role of the commissioner is an important role, and the rights of individuals are very much better looked after now than ever before. It is a matter which the Government intend to keep under active review. The commissioner has the right and responsibility to discharge the duties given to him under the Act by Parliament. We expect the commissioner to discharge that duty and to discharge it properly.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health (Lord Hunt of Kings Heath): My Lords, the benefit of the transfer of most PHLS laboratories to the NHS will be a strengthened service to combat infectious diseases.
The remaining PHLS laboratories will provide a regional and national specialist microbiology service alongside those of the microbiology research authority in the proposed new health protection agency.
Lord Clement-Jones: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. Is it not utterly perverse that at a time when the Government are expressing concern about smallpox and biological warfare they propose to break up the expert network of microbiological laboratories that we have in this country? The US is building one, rather than destroying the network as the Government currently propose. Surely, this can only worsen rather than improve public health and safety protection. Will the Minister undertake to review the matter again, to consult more widely and to make sure that the full network of PHLS laboratory services goes into the new health protection agency?
Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: No, my Lords. We have reviewed; we have consulted; and we are basing this decision on the report by the Chief Medical Officer, informed by lessons learned from September 11th. Undeniably there are many strengths in our current system. I pay tribute to those organisations for the work that they have undertaken over the years. But, as the Chief Medical Officer reported, despite those strengths, there is much that needs to be done to modernise these services. There is no integrated approach at the moment to encompass all aspects of health protection, including infectious diseases, chemical and radiation hazards. The new health protection agency will allow us to do that, while the transfer of local PHLS general microbiology services to the NHS will strengthen the public health outputs of the National Health Service.
Lord Turnberg: My Lords, I must express an interest as a former chairman of the Public Health Laboratory Service board. Does my noble friend the Minister agree that the network of laboratories at PHLS have done a marvellous job in rapidly detecting outbreaks of infection and in protecting the nation? Does he not also agree with me and with the board, which has repeatedly brought the matter to the attention of the Secretary of State, on the dangers of dismantling this network and handing it over to individual NHS trusts
So far as concerns the question of speed, we have considered that. We consider that there is a risk that delay in transferring the laboratories would perpetuate a great deal of uncertainty among the staff of those laboratories. It is better to get on with the job.
With regard to funding, the laboratories are being transferred with budgets and resources. Additionally, there will be transitional funding to protect the infrastructures as they are transferred. As to PCT performance and funding in the future, I give the assurance to the House that we shall vigorously performance-manage primary care trusts in this and their other public health functions.
Baroness Knight of Collingtree: My Lords, can the Minister say whether he is considering extra staff for the NHS trusts to deal with the matter? If so, will they not need particular expertise? And how will that problem be tackled?
Lord Chan: My Lords, in view of present national and international concerns about biological weapons and unusual agents that are not routinely investigated by laboratories, does the Minister agree that this is not the time to transfer such important functions? Can he say what arrangements are in place in order to ensure that unusual microbiological agents can be detected rapidly?
Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, that is the very purpose of establishing a new health protection agency, which can provide an integrated service and build on the work of the existing three agencies concerned. So far as concerns the question of the transfer of most PHLS general microbiology services to the NHS, essentially the transfer will allow the proposed new agency to concentrate on public health rather than on general clinical diagnostic services.
It is also worth bearing in mind that the HPA will continue to run nine regional laboratories which can undertake much of the work referred to by the noble Lord.
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