Surveillance: Citizens and the State - Constitution Committee Contents

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1060-1076)

Mr Vernon Coaker, Mr Tim Hayward and Mr Stephen Webb

19 NOVEMBER 2008

  Q1060  Lord Peston: Just to clarify, I think what you are talking about in economic terms would be the marginal productivity of being on the DNA database and therefore it would not be 100 per cent because no system works that way. It would be a contributory factor.

  Mr Webb: Yes, and I believe these are cleared-up crimes, but we will write back to confirm.

  Q1061  Lord Morris of Aberavon: Minister, since DNA has been so valuable (and I support that) in clearing up some very important high profile crimes, would it not be logical—you might get an even bigger dividend—if everyone were on the national register, as supported by eminent judges like Lord Justice Sedley and others? Secondly, what is the justification, if you do not go down that road, for innocent people being kept on the register?

  Mr Coaker: The judgment that you make is about where you think the line about what is necessary and proportionate should be drawn. The Government's view at the present time is that a national DNA database, notwithstanding some of the benefits that might accrue, is not a proportionate response and is not something that would necessarily command the support of the population. We do, however, believe that where somebody has been convicted there is no debate about that: their DNA should and would need to be retained in that circumstance. Alongside that the other threshold we have is the issue with respect to somebody who has been arrested and has been through the PACE procedures and the fact that they have been detained in a police station. Obviously their DNA will be retained in those circumstances but it is important to remember that retaining somebody's DNA in those circumstances is not saying that somebody is guilty or innocent of anything. It is just a matter of retaining their DNA because you have regarded that as meeting a reasonable threshold for DNA to be retained.

  Q1062  Lord Morris of Aberavon: Just because he has been in a police station?

  Mr Coaker: Because he has been arrested for an offence which a police officer has to have reasonable suspicion of, because that offence has to be a recordable offence and, of course, because he has been taken to a police station where the custody sergeant believes that he should be detained while further investigations are made. That is the threshold that is met. It is not just a case of everybody having to be on it. There has to be that threshold test met.

  Q1063  Lord Morris of Aberavon: Not charged?

  Mr Coaker: No.

  Q1064  Viscount Bledisloe: I can see the practical force of this but what you are saying amounts really to saying they would not have been arrested and locked up if it had not been that they had probably done it.

  Mr Coaker: No. All I am trying to say is that police officers can only arrest somebody if they act in accordance with the PACE code, and the PACE code requires a police officer to have at least a reasonable suspicion that the person they have arrested has committed an offence. That offence has to be of the standard of a recordable offence. They then have to be taken to the police station and at the police station the custody sergeant or whoever is responsible then has to take the decision that that person should be detained.

  Q1065  Viscount Bledisloe: I follow all that, but what you are saying, after it has been decided that they shall not be prosecuted or their acquittal, is, "Surely it is sensible to keep this data because they probably did it, or at least if they did not do it they probably did something very similar".

  Mr Coaker: It is a proportionate response to the question, is it possible that some of the people who come into contact with the police in the way that I have said may be people who it would be beneficial in terms of the public good for their DNA to be retained.

  Q1066  Viscount Bledisloe: That is the same thing as I said but rather more mealy-mouthed.

  Mr Coaker: Was it? I was not trying to be mealy-mouthed. I was trying to explain. In the end you make a judgment. There will be those, and there may be people in this Committee, who think that there should be a national DNA database. We do not believe that but we think there are certain thresholds that should be met and the debate and discussion that take place on the threshold we have set is where somebody is arrested and then detained at a police station. The debate will no doubt continue on that.

  Q1067  Lord Lyell of Markyate: Moving on, the Government published something called the National Identify Scheme Delivery Plan 2008 in which you say that "[t]here will be the strongest possible oversight of the Scheme", and that this is to be provided by a National Identity Scheme Commissioner under the 2006 Identity Cards Act. What does this really mean? How does a commissioner in millions of cases give the strongest possible oversight? Who is going to do it and how is it going to work?

  Mr Coaker: We will have a National Identity Scheme Commissioner. We hope and expect that person to be in post, as I understand it, by the middle of next year. By the summer of 2009 there will be a commissioner appointed with sole responsibility to oversee the way the National Identity Register database works. The scheme commissioner will have oversight of the entire scheme, will have to report to Parliament at least once a year. If the commissioner uncovers an issue with the way the scheme is functioning or the National Identity Register works he can raise that with the Home Secretary, he can report, for example, inappropriate use or storage of information to the Information Commissioner, and the work between the identity scheme commissioner and the Information Commissioner I think will be essential. They can make a report to Parliament outside of the annual report, and, of course, if they uncover—and we hope that they would act proactively with respect to this—criminal cases they can report those to the police under various sections of the Identity Card Act. All government departments will have a statutory duty to provide whatever the commissioner and his or her staff need in order to carry out their function, so I think this will be a commissioner who will be quite a significant figure in ensuring that the register works in the way it is supposed to.

  Q1068  Lord Lyell of Markyate: How many million people are going to be on this scheme over the next five years and how is this man or woman going to carry out this immense task? Are they going to wait for some mistake to happen and then look into it? What are they going to do?

  Mr Coaker: No. As you know, the identity card scheme will roll out incrementally. It started with foreign nationals and will be moving to airside workers next year and then to students, so there has been an incremental roll-out of the identity card scheme, but, of course, the importance of the work of the commissioner will be not to wait for something to happen. I take your point absolutely. It is for them to be proactive in the work that they do. I cannot put an accurate figure on how many people we expect to be on the register within five years. That would be pure speculation. I do not know what the answer to that will be, but certainly we would expect the commissioner to be proactive, tough and resourceful in the way that they take this work forward.

  Q1069  Baroness Quin: I want to raise the issue of CCTV where again the UK seems to be in strong contrast to many other countries in terms of the scale of cameras that we have. Obviously, the Committee recognises that often these schemes can be popular and also that the cameras themselves are not owned by one authority; there is a mixture of public and private cameras. Nonetheless, what is the Government's current thinking about CCTV? In particular, given that the National CCTV Strategy of October 2007 recommended a national body responsible for the governance use of CCTV, what has been the follow-up to that recommendation?

  Mr Coaker: Can I say to Baroness Quin, my Lord Chairman, that the Government agrees with the recommendation in the National CCTV Strategy, that there should be a national body for the governance and use of CCTV in this country, and we will be looking to establish one. I cannot give a timeframe for that but when I say I cannot give a timeframe I am not saying it will be in five years' time. I am saying there will be a national body that we will establish to oversee CCTV. I think CCTV is very popular, and I take Lord Smith's point about polling evidence for that, but if I look at my own constituency where people come to see me the demand is not for less CCTV; it is always for more. Also, and I am sure this is true for members of the Committee in their own communities, people see it as a very effective safety measure. I have seen all the various debates that there are about it. All I can say is that everywhere I go and for nearly everybody that I speak to CCTV has been something which promotes public safety, helps tackle crime and is fantastically reassuring. Having said that, there are issues that arise from it and certainly I think a national body overseeing all of the work and the roll-out of the strategy and some of the issues will be extremely helpful. I think you asked about the statutory regulation. Our view is that we want to see how the national body works and how effectively it puts in place some of the various things that are supposed to be happening already with respect to data protection and registration. It is not something that we would necessarily dismiss but in the first instance we want to establish the national body and see how that works with respect to voluntary regulation, keeping in our back pocket the need, if necessary, to do more.

  Q1070  Baroness Quin: I think you said that you envisaged the national body overseeing new schemes. Would the national body also have a role, or do you think it should have a role, in terms of reviewing the utility of existing schemes?

  Mr Coaker: Yes.

  Q1071  Lord Peston: There are two ways of interpreting the surveillance problem. One is to say that we live in exceptional times and must accept a sacrifice of civil liberties but all that will end in due course. The other is that terrorist and serious crimes are permanent and thus the sacrifice of civil liberties must be expected. Which of those views is the correct one or is the question completely unanswerable?

  Mr Coaker: I think different times require the appropriate response to that particular time. It is difficult always to say that in 50 years' time this will be the circumstance and therefore it will be completely different from now—worse, better or whatever. Times change, technology changes. There are difficulties, there are threats to us, as we know only too well, which we have seen on our streets, and that requires us to take action against them. An important point is to say this: society should respond in the appropriate way to the threat that it faces at that particular time, always having regard to the need to balance national security with human rights, and the judgment of where that line should be drawn will vary from one age to the next.

  Q1072  Lord Peston: So if one tried to draw an analogy with the war when we had our identity cards, limits on travel and all that but then we won the war and we got rid of it fairly rapidly, that would be a wrong analogy to the present day?

  Mr Coaker: In a time of outright war there is a more dramatic change perhaps between being at war and being at peace. What we are trying to ensure at the present time is that at a time of peace, at a time of prosperity in a democracy those who threaten us, and those threats have changed over time and may change in the future, we take action against in a way which is proportionate but does not threaten our own democratic traditions and institutions in a way which people would regard as unacceptable. As always, that is a balance and the debate takes place as to where you draw the line.

  Q1073  Lord Morris of Aberavon: Minister, I am grateful for the help you have given to us in your answers. May I oversimplify it? This is a constitutional committee and although we have dwelt on the merits we are not really concerned with the merits; we are concerned with constitutional propriety. Are you content that it is not a misuse of powers for a terrorist act to be used as a tool to catch fraudulent roof tilers? Would it not be better perhaps, if there is a lacuna in the machinery to catch roof tilers, and I suspect there is not in my knowledge and experience, for what it is worth, to have primary legislation, The Catching of Fraudulent Roof Tilers Act?

  Mr Coaker: I think the first thing to say is that although RIPA obviously can be used with respect to very serious matters—terrorism and so on—we do not see RIPA as primarily a terrorist piece of legislation. RIPA is a piece of legislation which brings together all of the various techniques with respect to surveillance, with respect to human intelligence, with respect to the collection of communications data, that are appropriate in a whole range of circumstances. I think it is important for us to say loudly and clearly that although aspects of it may be used to tackle terrorists it is not a terrorist piece of legislation.

  Q1074  Viscount Bledisloe: Mr Webb suggested in relation to my questions about DNA that one of the reasons why our database is larger than anybody else's is that we started earlier than anybody else. Could you write to us setting out the way in which that works?

  Mr Webb: I am told the US's is now bigger than ours in numbers.

  Mr Coaker: We can again write to the Committee if that is helpful.

  Q1075  Viscount Bledisloe: Yes. If the answer is that America's will be the same proportionate size as ours when they catch up that would be very useful to know.

  Mr Coaker: My Lord, we will write to you again if that is helpful to you and the rest of the Committee.

  Q1076  Chairman: Thank you, Minister. The final question is perhaps you could give the Committee an indication of when to expect a response to the Thomas report on data sharing which was, I understand, expected earlier this month.

  Mr Coaker: I thought that was soon. My Lord Chairman, can I apologise? I do not want to finish on a sour note. I will have to write to you on that one as well. I thought it was by the end of this year but I may be misleading you by saying that. I shall write to you.

  Chairman: Minister, may I, on behalf of the Committee, thank you and Mr Webb and Mr Hayward very much indeed for your attendance and for the evidence which you have given, which we shall deliberate on with immense interest.

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