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Information (Sale And Access)

Volume 129: debated on Wednesday 9 March 1988

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To ask the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster if he will introduce legislation to regulate the sale of or access to information held on magnetic tape by the telecommunications industry.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Industry and Consumer Affairs
(Mr. John Butcher)

I have no plans to do so. The Director General of Telecommunications would consider representations on this issue in the light of his general duty to consider these where they relate to telecommunications services or apparatus.

Does the Minister realise that those magnetic tapes hold far more information than is available on telephone directories and that British Telecom in particular holds a substantial body of information on each and every one of us? My information is that that may be against the guidelines on the data protection principles. Does he realise that unless he acts now we may face a national scandal in two years' time if fanatics or purveyors of junk mail manage to get hold of that information?

The hon. Gentleman's question raises a number of issues, some of which are a matter for the Director General of Oftel. I hope the hon. Gentleman agrees, because he and I have pursued the matter with the Director General, that he can act vigorously and is a fast-moving regulator.

The other aspect of the hon. Gentleman's question relates to data protection. Clear guidelines and requirements are placed on the holders of data to preserve the interests of data subjects. I shall examine very carefully what the hon. Gentleman has said, but in the first instance I feel that I should refer it to the Data Protection Registrar to see that nothing untoward is at risk.

As I understand it, my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, Central (Mr. Darling) has contacted the Director General of Oftel, who, I understand, feels that he has no power in this regard.

This is a serious matter. British Telecom is not merely selling a telephone directory. What is contained on the magnetic tapes could be used for credit reference agencies, debt collecting and tracing agencies and other agencies wishing to examine the socio-economic groupings of certain individuals. There is much more on the tapes than is contained in the telephone directory, and, if it got into the wrong hands, it could cause distress and concern to many people. If, having looked at the matter, the Minister feels that the Director General can do nothing about the problem, will he consider bringing in legislation to protect these people?

The Government discharged a major part of their duties during the passage of the Telecommunications Act 1984. The hon. Gentleman, who was a member of the Standing Committee, will remember the long debates on whether we should have a statutory body, which might be rigid and might constantly require updating through legislation, or a fast-moving freer body with appropriate powers, like the Director General of Oftel.

When matters have arisen that are legitimately for him, he has moved fast. He has not said that he has no remit to intervene. My understanding of his communication to the hon. Member for Edinburgh, Central (Mr. Darling) is that he accepts that two or three live issues have been raised which deserve consideration. However, I shall not second guess today precisely which body may take action to deal with the complaints that the hon. Gentleman has made.