Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mrs. Lait: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her assurance that those who still have concerns about the cost

1 May 2001 : Column 791

of compliance can include them in the discussions. I am somewhat concerned that the Government think that they should not pay for the extra burdens that they have put on business, but that is typical of this Government. One of the main complaints that I receive from businesses in my constituency is about the increase in the burden of red tape and the costs of compliance. However, on the ground that they will have the opportunity to be consulted and, I hope, to negotiate a solution to the problems, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 5

Exchange of information with overseas authorities

6.15 pm

Mrs. Lait: I beg to move amendment No. 17, in page 9, line 9, at end insert--

'(1A) It shall be the duty of the Secretary of State to maintain and publish a list of countries with whom there are arrangements in force for the exchange of relevant information under this section.'.

We decided to table this amendment, under which a list of countries with whom the Government are prepared to exchange information would be published, largely because the Under-Secretary gave us a complicated and unclear answer in Committee, which is most uncharacteristic. She started by saying that the countries with which the Government would wish to exchange information would comply with the

She also said that the Secretary of State would

That all sounds reasonable and sensible, but it represents a blanket acceptance of countries.

The Under-Secretary went on to mention:

We do not argue about that; it is absolutely correct. However, she then went to say:

Finally, towards the end of her contribution, she said:

I am afraid that I became confused at that stage because we had gone from a blanket acceptance provided that everyone had signed up to the ECHR and the EU data protection directive, through the bilateral agreement with Ireland, to each country having a bilateral agreement. I thought that it would be more sensible if the Government were to publish a list of countries with which they were prepared to share information.

I dug out the list of countries that have ratified the ECHR and its consequential protocols. I noticed that, interestingly, countries such as Belgium, Germany, Ireland, the

1 May 2001 : Column 792

Netherlands, Portugal and, indeed, the United Kingdom have not signed protocol 7, so will we share information with them? However, Albania has signed all the protocols. Turkey, which is applying to join the EU, has ratified only the original convention and protocol 1. Russia has signed the convention, but not protocol 6. Macedonia, Romania and Ukraine have signed the entire convention and protocols. Poland has not signed protocol 7.

Czechoslovakia has signed them all, as has Hungary. Czechoslovakia is applying to join the EU and Turkey is on the list of applicants. [Interruption.] I apologise; I mean the Czech Republic. I deliberately did not refer to the Slovak Republic and Slovenia for obvious reasons. However, the Czech Republic has signed the convention and all its protocols and is applying to the EU for membership, as are Poland and Hungary. I hope that if the Under-Secretary is suggesting that we shall automatically exchange information with Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, and, indeed, Turkey, the Secretary of State will carefully investigate the robustness of the information that they supply.

To reduce my confusion, it would be useful if the Minister could agree to our suggestion--she does not have to accept the amendment--that a list of countries with which the Government are prepared to share information is produced. That would reassure us that it is unlikely that private information will get into the hands of people who should not receive it.

Mr. David Wilshire (Spelthorne): I made a very modest contribution in Committee and I have followed these proceedings with care and interest. I notice that we still have three and a half hours in which to debate the Bill and that gives me an opportunity to develop some thoughts on this amendment. As those on the Government Benches showed great enthusiasm about learning which countries signed the European convention on human rights, I would be very happy to go through all 40-plus signatories and give them the full details if that is what they would like. I suspect, however, that you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, would not let me go that far.

Angela Eagle: I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way so early in his contribution. I hope that he will be very reassured by what I shall say in response to the speech of the hon. Member for Beckenham (Mrs. Lait) and to the amendment. A mistake has been made. Signing the European convention on human rights is not the only condition that must be met if we are to share information. Before the hon. Gentleman lists all 40 countries, I hope to reassure him on that point. Clearly, I will go into much more detail when it is my time to reply.

Mr. Wilshire: I am grateful to the Minister, and I assure her that I will allow her a few moments before 10 o'clock in which to respond to some of the points that I will make.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Mrs. Lait) said, the amendment seeks to clarify an issue that was left vague in Committee. We also need to examine the subjective judgments that were outlined in Committee, because I worry greatly when subjective tests are applied to who should or who should not receive sensitive information.

The Government and the Opposition accept that sensitive information can be passed only to those foreign countries that have adequate safeguards. There is no

1 May 2001 : Column 793

dispute between us on the need to have such safeguards to prevent the misuse of information. Although the Minister will be helpful in her reply--she has been in the past--she will find it difficult to provide an exhaustive list of the safeguards and to list the countries that possess them. I accept her point that there is more than one safeguard and, in Committee, the Government offered two factual tests that could apply. However, they then added some subjective views on issues such as stable government.

The first test with which the Government appear to be happy--I do not object to it in principle--relates to the European Court of Human Rights. In the Committee's third sitting, the Minister said:

Although the Minister said that that is not the only safeguard, she made it clear that it would be a fundamental test of what is an adequate safeguard.

We need to consider closely the ECHR and I think that I am able to do so because I serve on the parliamentary delegation to the Council of Europe. We meet representatives of the countries that have signed the convention and, at the last count, I believe that 41 had signed it and that two were in the process of doing so. However, the target is moveable and the numbers may have changed.

It is not just the convention itself that matters. Although 40-plus countries have signed the convention, as my hon. Friend said, it has been found necessary over time to create additional protocols. It seems to me that protocols 1, 4, 6 and 7 are relevant to providing the adequate safeguards that we need. Therefore, we must know not only whether a country has signed the convention itself, but which protocols it has signed.

If we use the protocols and the convention as criteria, we must be careful. If we say that a country must sign the convention and the relevant protocols, I am sorry to tell the House that that would rule out the United Kingdom. We have not signed all the protocols, so such an arrangement would put us in an awkward position. I am sure that the Government agree that the convention is not sufficient and that the protocols are necessary to provide an adequate safeguard. Therefore, we have to consider the matter country by country, as my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham did.

Let me explain why the convention is not adequate in itself. Just before Christmas, I was an election observer in Azerbaijan and it will not be long before Azerbaijan passes one of the Government's tests. In the past few weeks, it has been formally admitted to full membership of the Council of Europe, having ratified the convention. As an election observer, I saw at close quarters Azerbaijan's administrative system. I call it a "system" to be polite, but it would be better to call it an administrative shambles. I saw how it used computers to doctor election results, so heaven help us if we were to use the convention as a safeguard in the case of Azerbaijan and its administrative system and computer safeguards. All that we shall have is a leaky sieve and information will go all over the place. Therefore, we cannot use just the convention.

1 May 2001 : Column 794

As the Government rightly say, we must go at least one step further. In Committee, they made it quite clear that one of the tests would have to be compliance with the European data protection directive. That is sensible, provided that we know what the directive will do. When it was introduced in 1995--as is often the case with that thing over there in Brussels, which puts out paperwork saying how grand something will be--a press release said that the directive's purpose was:

It went on in that vein saying how marvellous the directive would be.

I have done what I can to check whether the directive is being enforced in every country. I am something of a cynic when it comes to the European Union, its directives and how well they are enforced and, more often than not, I get the impression that this is the only country that enforces them properly. I will not digress but, if one examines the agricultural sector or any other issue that captures the headlines, one will discover that some members of the European Union look at directives, smile sweetly and put them in the wastepaper basket.

If that is what is happening to other directives, how can we be sure that this directive--which has been trumpeted as something that will protect British citizens from the misuse of information--will provide a proper safeguard? If it is enforced like the other directives, it will not be much good at all. I am certainly happy to support the Government in using the directive as one of the tests, but it would be helpful to know who checks that it has been enforced in this country and elsewhere. We need to know how rigorous the checks are, but how are we to do that? Is information on checking published anywhere? When my hon. Friend's list appears, information on whether the other countries of the European Union comply with the directive should perhaps be attached to it.

Next Section

IndexHome Page