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Data Protection

Volume 471: debated on Tuesday 29 January 2008

4. What consideration his Department has given to bringing forward proposals to strengthen data protection. (182469)

The Ministry of Justice is considering how to take forward proposals to enable the Information Commissioner to inspect all public sector organisations without prior consent, the introduction of new funding arrangements for his office and new penalties under the Data Protection Act 1998 for the most serious breaches of data protection principles. We will be launching a consultation on those issues soon, and will take whatever action is necessary as a result of the reviews being carried out by Sir Gus O’Donnell, Kieran Poynter, Dr. Mark Walport and Richard Thomas, the Information Commissioner.

I thank the Minister for that answer, but given that in the past eight years about five laptops have disappeared every month from a single Department, the Ministry of Defence, does he agree that the time is now right to consider the Liberal Democrat proposals to make reckless handling of data a criminal offence—proposals that the Government dismissed out of hand at the time?

As I said, we are looking at how to take measures forward, and considering new legislation will be part of that. We are in active discussion with the Information Commissioner about how best to do so.

The Minister will be aware that many schemes for shared services are going forward throughout Whitehall. Given that, in the case of the Department for Transport, that would mean incorporating very large amounts of data, will he bear in mind that that is not always the best way to organise one’s affairs?

Sorry—my hon. Friend. I am extremely grateful to her for reminding me of that fact. She will recognise that there are huge benefits in data sharing to citizens and everyone who uses public services, but of course we must be cautious about everybody’s right to privacy and the security of data. That is precisely why we asked Dr. Mark Walport and Richard Thomas, the Information Commissioner, to conduct a review. They will report within the next few months.

Following on from the previous question, does the Minister agree that the greater the centralisation of data and the more personal data collected, the more valuable they are to criminals and terrorists? Is he looking to the increase that one would expect in hacking and the possibility—it has already happened with records in this country—of huge bribes being paid? Once the data are gone, the horse has bolted from the stable.

As I have just said, there are clearly important issues of principle that predate the recent and very regrettable incidents that have taken place. There is no question but that there is a serious problem with the way that data are kept in both the private and the public sector. That is not specific to the public sector, and it is to do with the changing way that records are kept electronically, which has changed dramatically in the past 10 to 15 years. Both the private and the public sector must change the way that they do business in order to keep up with that. That is precisely what we are doing and why we have had the reviews. To suggest, however, that there is no case for keeping any data at all ever is simply incredible.

I am pleased to hear what the Minister said about some of the things that the Government are thinking of doing, now that they have been proved to be so incompetent in the handling of secure data, but I wonder why the Minister is still dithering. There is a Bill in the House of Lords—the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill—into which amendments could be inserted that would deal with the matter by creating an offence of recklessly mishandling data. The Minister could do that right now, instead of holding more reviews and thinking about it. I am delighted that he said that the Information Commissioner is to have greater powers. I hope that means that the Information Commissioner will be able to undertake spot checks of Government Departments—

Order. The hon. Lady should be asking a supplementary question, not making a speech. Perhaps the Minister can reply.

Speaking personally, I am always happy to listen to the hon. Lady for as long as she wants to talk. However, may I point out to her that we are already introducing legislation to deal with the offence of knowingly and recklessly misusing data. I remind her that it was this Government who brought in the Data Protection Act 1998 and who have continued to make sure that it is updated and meeting the needs of the circumstances. I remind her that her party showed so little interest in the matter that it was not mentioned in their 2001 manifesto or in their 2005 manifesto. I am delighted that the Conservatives are now taking an interest in it and I hope she will support the measures that we are introducing to deal with those issues.