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House of Lords

Thursday, 15 October 2009.

11 am

Prayers-read by the Lord Bishop of Bradford.

Freedom of Information Act 2000


11.07 am

Asked By Lord Dubs

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Justice (Lord Bach): My Lords, the Government have no plans to amend legislation in this way. Disclosure of the names of individuals or organisations making requests about other individuals would have to be considered on a case-by-case basis under the Data Protection Act, just as personal data falling within the scope of a freedom of information request would be. However, any individual who is the subject of an FoI request can make a subject access request, an SAR, under Section 7 of the Data Protection Act to find out the recipients of his or her personal data.

Lord Dubs: My Lords, I welcome my noble friend's Answer. It is a lot better than I thought it could possibly be. As a supporter of the Freedom of Information Act, I ask my noble friend whether he is aware that many of us want it to work well but believe that it should work fairly. If investigative journalists are going to have a field day at our expense, maybe we should know who they are.

Lord Bach: I am glad to have pleased my noble friend; I have to say, I do not always do that. In fact, the Freedom of Information Act was drafted so that whenever there is an issue relating to personal data, the Data Protection Act regime applies and acts as the single scheme that considers whether personal data can be processed or disclosed. If the part of the Data Protection Act that I referred to in my original Answer was not as well known as it ought to have been, perhaps this Question and Answer will make the headlines today.

Lord Smith of Clifton: My Lords, I support the noble Lord's Question. Like many of your Lordships, I, too, have been stalked. When I requested information, I could not get it, but I had my own methods. I said, "Why am I being stalked by you?", and the cub reporter said, "We're looking at Lords with Northern Ireland interests". I said, "Well, why is Lord Irvine's name on this?", and he said, "Because his first name's Derry". That's the quality of some of the reporting.

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Lord Bach: I remind the noble Lord that requesters, those who request, are required to give their name when making a request. That is a requirement of Section 8 of the Freedom of Information Act. If it is thought that a pseudonym is being used to shield his or her identity, it is possible to avoid the request by considering it vexatious.

Lord Campbell-Savours: My Lords, in the event that an application were to be made under the section that my noble friend referred to, is it still possible for a refusal to be in place-in other words, that the information identifying the person concerned may still not be published?

Lord Bach: Yes, it is possible. The considerations of the Data Protection Act apply, both to finding out who is making a request and to the subject of the request. It is quite possible that the answer would come back, "No, we can't say because of data protection rules", as it is equally possible for those subject to FoI requests to rely on the same defence.

Lord Lawson of Blaby: My Lords, in common, I am sure, with many former Ministers, I frequently get letters from, in my case, the section of the Treasury dealing with this, saying that it has had a freedom of information request about something that occurred during my time as Chancellor and asking whether I have any observations to make. I say, "No, you go ahead, I've nothing to hide". But it will never tell me who has made the request. Will the Minister tell all government departments that they should make it known who has made the request?

Lord Bach: I understand exactly what the noble Lord is saying and, yes, I shall pass that on.

Lord Maxton: My Lords, does my noble friend agree with me that it is now time that we amended the Freedom of Information Act to bring all publicly funded bodies under its remit and that that must include all aspects of the BBC?

Lord Bach: My noble friend will know that in July this year the Government published their response to a public consultation on extending the Freedom of Information Act through a Section 5 order. There is considerable support for extending the Act. Consultation is being undertaken with those bodies that were proposed at this stage for inclusion; namely, academies, the Association of Chief Police Officers; the Financial Ombudsman Service and the Universities and Colleges Admission Service-UCAS. I cannot comment on the BBC.

Baroness Falkner of Margravine: My Lords, we welcome the clarification about the subject access request, but the point of the noble Lord, Lord Lawson, is well made. How extensive is information on the subject access request on government websites and otherwise? I have spent two hours trawling websites and could not find any reference to it whatever.

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Lord Bach: Clearly, it is not extensive enough. I seriously hope that, as a result of my noble friend's Question, it will become rather better known.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes: Can the Minister explain to us the timing of that subject access request? If someone applies for information, is an answer given instantly, or is there time for you to make the application? How long does it take for the subject to get an answer? I am interested in the timing of the sequence.

Lord Bach: I cannot really give an exact figure. The subject of a request is given 20 days to respond, unless there are exceptional reasons for not doing so. I cannot answer the noble Baroness's question, which was how long it would take make a request and get an answer under the Data Protection Act, but I shall write to her.

Lord Clark of Windermere: My Lords, as my noble friend is aware, every government department has a number of designated freedom of information officers. Will he ensure that his Answer to this House today is sent to every one of them?

Lord Bach: Yes, I will. My department has overall responsibility for freedom of information policy, and I shall make sure that what my noble friend asks for happens. The Freedom of Information Act is one of the triumphs of this Government. For a Government who are sometimes described as authoritarian, it is unbelievable how much we have opened up to the general public.

Economy: Balance of Payments


11.14 am

Asked By Lord Sheldon

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, the Government do not publish a quarterly forecast for the balance of payments. The latest forecast for the balance of payments was published in the Budget. The forecast for the balance of payments deficit for 2009 is 3.5 per cent of GDP. The Government forecast the current account to be equal to the same proportion of GDP in 2010, at 3.5 per cent.

Lord Sheldon: I thank my noble friend for that reply, but is it not clear that the balance of payments for the last quarter of 2009 will be very good, because of the 15 per cent sales tax and the expected return of the 17.5 per cent in 2010? Since the figures for last quarter of 2009 will be published in the first months of 2010, there will be some satisfaction at the state of the economy. The question remains about the level of sales early next year. What action are the Government considering there?

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Lord Davies of Oldham: I am grateful to my noble friend for identifying a trend which is very much in the right direction. It will be appreciated that many aspects of the economy, such as the slowing of the rise in unemployment and the rise in the FTSE index, are indications of the successful implementation of government policies in the past 18 months to two years, since the credit crunch occurred and we entered the biggest recession for a very long time. My noble friend is right that we can look forward to some improved figures for the last quarter. The Government have in place a strategy on the economy, which has been predicted from the Budget position up to 2013.

Lord Peston: My Lords, forecasting the balance of payments is incredibly difficult, because it is the difference between two enormous figures, but unless I misheard my noble friend's Answer on this for 2010, it is ludicrously pessimistic. Did he not say that he thought that it would be well over 3 per cent of GDP? On any analysis-certainly my own-the balance of payments is improving very rapidly, as my noble friend Lord Sheldon points out. It is highly likely that the per cent of GDP and the current account deficit will be below even 2 per cent. I hope that someone in the Treasury is taking note of that.

Lord Davies of Oldham: My noble friend is living proof that economics is not the dismal science that is sometimes suggested, as he takes a more optimistic perspective. The Government are rightly cautious, as we are going through very difficult times indeed. He may be right that the Government are being unduly cautious with regard to the forecast. Certainly, the competitiveness of the British economy is ranked highly in international comment and evaluation, and we compare very favourably indeed with the most advanced economies in the world. Of course, we all know that our fellow citizens are paying a very high price for the recession. Nevertheless, it is beginning to show that the Government's strategy is bearing fruit.

Lord Higgins: In making these forecasts, what assumption is made about the exchange rate?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, the noble Lord is right to identify the exchange rate as playing an important part in this overall position. Our export earnings are rising and being compared favourably with those of other advanced countries. I do not underestimate the fact that the exchange rate is a very important dimension of that but the noble Lord will surely accept that, against a background of a colossal drop in world trade which has caused such difficulties for all world economies, the British economy is beginning to show some aspects of recovery.

Lord Newby: Does the Minister accept that the health of the financial services sector is a major contributor to our balance of payments and our exports? Could he comment on stories in today's newspapers that the Government are planning to invest another £5 billion in Lloyds Banking Group?

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Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, that is a pretty detailed question. I am briefed up to the eyes on employment statistics as well as on the broader economy, but I do not have an immediate comment to make on that question, except that the noble Lord will have heard my noble friend Lord Myners talk yesterday about how active he was on the banks. He is spending great time on the critical relationship between the necessary support for the banks that the Government have provided and the importance of the taxpayer getting due reward in due course for the colossal sums that have been invested in support of the financial sector.

Lord Lea of Crondall: My Lords, would my noble friend not agree that the upside of the competitive exchange rate-it is now something like 93p against the euro-is that it is good for exports? Is he aware that some of us view with equanimity the possibility that the pound might eventually settle at near parity with the euro?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My noble friend will not expect me to share such equanimity from the Dispatch Box. Of course, the exchange rate plays a significant part. It will have been noted that the pound rose against the dollar yesterday; against the euro, of course, it did not, as my noble friend has indicated.

However, we must make progress on the balance of payments. We are currently operating at a 3.5 per cent deficit on GDP in the worst recession since the war. The deficit in 1989, under another Administration, was 4.9 per cent.

Police: DNA Database


11.22 am

Asked By Lord Naseby

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord West of Spithead): My Lords, as at 24 April 2009 there were some 4.5 million persons on the National DNA Database, of whom some 986,000 had no current conviction or caution record held on the police national computer. This included those convicted but whose police national computer record has been deleted, cases where proceedings are ongoing and those with no convictions.

We are currently considering DNA retention policy in our response to the European Court judgment.

Lord Naseby: My Lords, are we to understand that close on a million innocent citizens have their data on this database? Do the Government not understand that this is unacceptable in terms of civil liberties, privacy and general good management of society? What time span are the Government working to on

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the European ruling to ensure that innocent people are taken off this database within, say, at least six months?

Lord West of Spithead: My Lords, as I said in my initial response, not all of those people are necessarily innocent; a large number are people whose convictions have been removed from the police national computer. This happened because, prior to 2006, things were weeded out from that computer. The number is therefore less, but I take the overall point.

We must clearly strike a sensible balance between the huge value of DNA and what it has done in protecting our society, and the interests of the individual. There is no doubt whatever that the results of holding DNA have been amazing. Over four and a half years, about 200,000 profiles were retained. Of those, 8,500 matched crime scenes involving 14,000 offences including 114 murders, 55 attempted murders, 116 rapes, 68 other sexual offences, 119 aggravated burglaries and 127 offences involving controlled drugs.

We clearly have a responsibility to protect society and we must have a balance. We have therefore gone out with a consultation and 503 people have responded. We are looking at the results, and will then make a decision on how we should move forward.

Lord Mackenzie of Framwellgate: My Lords, could my noble friend, a simple sailor, explain to a simple police officer exactly what a totally innocent person has to fear from the retention of their DNA on the database? Also, how many people, having been arrested but not convicted of an offence, have subsequently been proved to be guilty of very serious crimes committed either before or after that arrest as a direct result of the retention of their DNA?

Lord West of Spithead: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for his interjection. It is a very interesting point. I quote the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, who is not here, when he said in a previous debate:

"However, if the police keep a person's DNA, what does that matter unless they subsequently commit a crime? If they commit a crime, whether it is a terrorist crime or whatever, the DNA is available to help to find them. If they have not committed a crime, they have nothing to worry about. The idea of the police hanging on to those samples sounds terribly intrusive, but, unless a person commits a crime, the samples will not be of any use".-[Official Report, 9/10/08; cols. 394-95.]

That is, no one will ever know. I have a certain sympathy with what the noble Earl said on that occasion, but there is a responsibility to the individual. That is why we are looking at this more closely. There is no doubt at all, as my noble friend has said, that there are a very large number of people who have been released and not charged. I do not know the exact number but I can give example after example. One person was arrested for suspected illegal entry because he jumped from the back of a van at a motorway service station. He was released without charge, his DNA was taken and put on the National DNA Database. Some two and a half or three years later it was matched against the crime scene of a gang rape where a woman was held down by a group of people. The victim could not recognise

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any of them. This man was caught and convicted through his DNA. This has real relevance and we have to take all those factors into account.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: My Lords, at the moment an innocent person has a complete right to ask a chief constable to take them off the DNA database, but at the same time that chief constable has discretion whether or not to do so and when to do so. In light of the European Court judgment, will the Government issue new guidance to chief constables to instruct them to do so rapidly?

Lord West of Spithead: My Lords, Keeping the Right People on the DNA Database, the paper that we put out for consultation, lists our plans. One of the issues is to do with the destruction of profiles. That has been rather complex and difficult, and we will have to lay out very clearly the criteria for destruction and exactly how it is to be done. In the past that has not been as clear and good as it should be; it is something that we will have to rectify.

Lord Wright of Richmond: My Lords, I declare what is probably the view of a very small minority: I would have no objection whatever to having my DNA details on the database for ever, in the hope that it might, in certain circumstances, clear me of a totally false charge.

Lord West of Spithead: My Lords, the noble Lord raises a very good point, which I should probably have mentioned. There are a number of cases where people have, I am afraid, been wrongfully imprisoned and the fact that we have their DNA has finally allowed them to be released. That is a very important point.

Lord Dholakia: My Lords, why is it that a disproportionate number of black and Asian minority people are on the DNA list?

Lord West of Spithead: My Lords, that is a very interesting point. Looking at those on the DNA database, 77.7 per cent are white, 7 per cent are black, 5.4 per cent are Asian and 3.2 per cent are from other ethnic-appearance groups. We have looked at this in some detail because it is worrying. Our initial look at this makes us feel that this is to do with the fact that in the criminal justice system as a whole there is overrepresentation of black people. It is not because of a problem with the DNA database itself.

Baroness Neville-Jones: My Lords, in December the European Court of Human Rights declared that the retention of innocent people's profiles was illegal. It is outside the law now to do that. Since then 300,000 profiles have been added to the list. How many of those people are innocent and how many of them have been added since July? We are running at a rate of roughly 40,000 a month. Does the Minister not accept that it is now time to change the system and that the time for consultation should come to an end?

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