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6.30 pm

It would also be helpful to have on the record an assurance that the provisions comply with the directive. I am not aware that that has been confirmed publicly, but I am sure that the Minister will put me right if I missed something. I look forward to her spelling out, beyond all doubt, that they have been checked against the European directive and that she is satisfied that they comply fully with it.

The Government also want us to accept that it is sensible to make subjective judgments to determine whether other countries are suitable. In Committee, the Minister said:

Again, I suspect that hon. Members would say "Amen" to all of that. It is a laudable comment. However, subjective terms need clarification. What is a stable Government? What would happen if a general election in this country produced a hung Parliament with a majority of one or two and we faced another election? [Interruption.] My hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson) mutters "Austria", and I am grateful for that example. Is the Government of the Former Yugoslav

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Republic of Macedonia considered to be stable in its current state? We must have tests and definitions of a stable Government; a bland assertion is not enough.

What is a democratic Government? That is another subjective test. [Interruption.] I am getting an enormous amount of help as my hon. Friends explain that this Government is not democratic. I shall let that pass because the debate has been friendly and I do not want to agitate hordes of Labour Members when they read about that in the morning.

There are questions about democracy, even among members of the Council of Europe. Would we want to exchange information with Romania and Albania, both of which would pass the other tests? Would we define their Governments as democratic? That is debatable. I do not want to pass slurs on those countries without knowing a great deal about them, but I am sure that we could question whether Romania has a democratic Government as we understand it in this part of Europe. Subjective judgments are not necessarily a good idea.

The Minister also said that we would not want to swap information with a police state. I have a huge admiration for the Metropolitan police, but tomorrow morning we will be able to get pictures from the television and photographs from the newspapers on what has taken place in London this afternoon that portray, even us, as operating a police state. Before I get a lot of letters about that, let me make it clear that I am not criticising the actions of the police or suggesting that that assertion is true, but if people want to make mischief, they can use a subjective test, such as a police state. We must make that definition clear so that someone does not drag in the actions of a police force, such as those seen today. It is not enough to say "a police state"; we want to know what that means.

The other test is a country with a bad human rights record. We would need to go beyond 10 o'clock to get to the bottom of what on earth that might be. However, the first test is that a country should be a signatory to the European convention on human rights. Turkey's position--

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman, but I need to remind him that this is not a stand part debate on clause 5. We are discussing an amendment that deals purely with whether the Secretary of State should maintain a list. The hon. Gentleman's remarks fall well outside the scope of that narrow amendment.

Mr. Wilshire: I am grateful for your forbearance, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and I understand your ruling.

I have a final concern, which is highly relevant to the amendment. The implication in Committee was that the Government should publish a list of independent sovereign foreign countries. If the Minister accepts the suggestion of my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham, she might want to reflect on whether the list should contain at least one organisation--Europol--in addition to the countries. Will the Government consider transferring information to Europol, which was established as the European Union's law enforcement organisation with a mission to help to combat organised crime? We need to transfer information because fraud is often serious organised crime.

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Europol facilitates the exchange of information between member states. That is one of its jobs. We have a ready-made tool to help the Minister to achieve her aims. Have the Government considered using Europol and, if so, how? If the Minister accepts the amendment and agrees to publish a list, will she be prepared to put Europol on it? It should include not only those countries that are deemed to be suitable for the exchange of information, but the tests that were applied to them. That would allow us to know what decisions were made and to which countries the tests were applied. We would also know why it is considered safe and sensible to transfer information to them.

Angela Eagle: I am glad to be able to respond to the debate. It appears that by giving examples to assist the Committee, I gave the wrong impression and sent the Opposition off on a tangent that does not have much to do with how we intend to operate the powers in clause 5. I hope that I can make amends by explaining how they will work and the process by which we will reach individual bilateral agreements with countries.

The hon. Member for Beckenham (Mrs. Lait) was mistaken--it was probably my fault--when she assumed that being a signatory to the European convention on human rights would allow us to exchange bulk information with a particular country. Had that assumption been right, she and the hon. Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire) would have pertinent points to make. However, the powers will not be used in that way. I hope that I can reassure Opposition Members about that.

We will facilitate bulk exchange of information on a bilateral basis. We will not do that in secret; there will be a list of the countries with which we have reached bilateral arrangements. As I take hon. Members through the process, I hope that I will cast more light on the powers and put their minds at rest. The list will be public knowledge, but I do not intend to accept the amendment because that does not need to be stated on the face of the Bill. However, I hope that hon. Members understand that we do not want to keep secret the countries involved in bilateral exchanges. That would not be appropriate.

Clause 5 is not an "open sesame" that will allow us immediately to start sharing a wide range of information with any overseas social security administration that takes our fancy. I said that in Committee. It is a three-stage process, and this is an enabling provision that begins that process. The clause says clearly that information sharing can take place only where

Those arrangements are the second stage of the process. They mean that we would have a bilateral arrangement with any country with whom we were considering information sharing before any data changed hands, other than data that can already be exchanged under existing law. For example, we can exchange data for the administration of contributory benefits such as pensions. Indeed, this country exports nearly 1 million pensions overseas every year. However, that is wholly different from a bulk exchange.

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That arrangement would take the form of a memorandum of understanding, and it would be detailed and specific about what information could be exchanged, when, for what purposes and with what safeguards. One bilateral arrangement may differ slightly from another. As I said in Committee, we have only one in place at the moment, and it is a specific memorandum of understanding with the Republic of Ireland signed by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and his opposite number. To exchange any information under clause 5, therefore, a bilateral memorandum of understanding with the other country would be required. It should be obvious that the overseas Government and the UK would not go to the lengths of negotiating any such bilateral agreement unless there was value in it for both parties.

The aim of exchanging information in that manner is to combat transnational benefit fraud, so there would have to be cogent evidence, based on intelligence and research, that a problem existed between the two countries before we would set out on that road. Hon. Members may well conclude that any list of countries affected by the powers in clause 5 would be reasonably short.

In Committee, we were asked what we planned to do with countries that do not have satisfactory arrangements to protect human rights and to safeguard exchanged data. Clearly, we would not enter into a bilateral arrangement for a free and full exchange of information with such a country. However, there would be no impediment to our co-operation with the authorities in that country to obtain information on a case-specific basis. No new legislation is needed for that; it already happens. We would certainly not entertain the prospect of bulk exchange of information with such a country, and nor would clause 5 allow it.

Transnational benefit fraud is a problem that we need to take seriously. On 22 April 1999, the representatives of the Governments of the European Union member states, meeting in the European Council, passed a resolution on a code of conduct for improving co-operation between authorities of the member states in combating transnational social security benefit and contribution fraud, undeclared work and the transnational hiring out of workers. The problem is not peculiar to the United Kingdom. The German and Dutch authorities recently detected 30,000 offences of transnational working and claiming as a result of one data-matching exercise. There are gains to be made if we can come to the appropriate arrangements.

We issued a press release on the memorandum of understanding with the Government of Ireland last October when it was signed. When the list extends beyond one, we will maintain it and publish the details. I hope that I have reassured the hon. Member for Beckenham that this is a deliberate, staged process with proper safeguards.

The hon. Member for Spelthorne asked whether the provisions comply with the EU directive on data protection, and I take great delight in telling him that they do.

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