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Schedule 2

Volume 76: debated on Wednesday 3 April 1985

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Section Substituted For Section 45 Of 1984 Act

I beg to move amendment No. 126, in page 13, leave out lines 6 to 8.

Without my amendment, the schedule could drive a coach and horses through the Bill. It would permit the official telephone tapper to reveal the content of any intercepted conversation to prevent or detect crime, however minor, and to give evidence at any trial of that content.

The schedule is not restricted to simple metering—that is, information about the destination and duration of calls. The amendment would ensure that the use made of any intercepted material has to be covered by the Bill so that all the safeguards apply.

If an intercepted message is disclosed in a manner not authorised by clause 1, an offence would be committed. The amendment takes out matters which should be covered by warrant in sub-paragraph (b) and permits information about metering to be disclosed on the order of a court.

However, the contents of intercepted conversations can be dealt with only under clause 9. I hope that the Minister will undertake to give some thought to my points.

10.15 pm

The key point is that there is a fundamental difference between the disclosure of the contents of a communication and the disclosure of so-called metering information. That is why metering is dealt with separately from interception. Intercepted material does not, in the natural course of events, come into the hands of the person intercepting, but metering information is information that is properly held by a telecommunications operator in the course of running his business Meter check printers, which record metering information, are used in a wide variety of cirumstances, principally when there is a query about a person's bill.

There is no doubt that the disclosure of metering information other than for the purposes of operating the telephone system gives rise to sensitive issues and that there should be a clear statutory basis for such disclosure which sets out the grounds on which it is permissible. The Bill as drafted does this. Nor is there any doubt that access to such information can be of great assistance in the prevention and detection of crime, or in the interests of national security.

It is important to realise that nothing in these provisions requires a telecommunications operator to disclose metering information. Such operators are simply permitted to do so in circumstances which are defined in a way that closely follows the precedent of the Data Protection Act 1984. The comparison between the disclosure of personal data under that Act and the disclosure of metering information is much closer than the comparison between interception and metering.

British Telecom already has procedures in which disclosures of metering information for the investigation of serious crime must be approved at a senior level in its headquarters. To ensure compliance with the requirements of section 45 of the Telecommunications Act as amended by schedule 2, I have no doubt that BT and other public telecommunications operators will adopt appropriate procedures to ensure that metering information is disclosed only in appropriate circumstances. The Government believe that the procedures in schedule 2 are appropriate in all the circumstances and that this amendment should, therefore, be rejected.

I am grateful to the Minister for that explanation, which I shall study carefully before deciding whether to return to the matter. In the circumstances, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Schedule 2 agreed to.

Bill reported, with amendments; as amended to be considered tomorrow, and to be printed. [Bill 123.]