Vehicles (Crime) Bill

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Mr. Bercow: I beg to move amendment No. 83, in page 20, line 6, leave out

    `such information of a particular description'

and insert `specific aspects contained therein'.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 84, in page 20, line 8, after `the', insert `specific'.

No. 85, in page 20, line 10, after first `the', insert `specific'.

No. 86, in page 20, line 11, after `disclosed', insert `to interested parties'.

Mr. Bercow: The clause empowers the Secretary of State, although it does not require him, to issue regulations that provide the relevant information required to be

    kept by regulations made by virtue of section 160(2)(b) of the Road Traffic Act 1988 to be made available to the Police Information Technology Organisation for use by constables.

My hon. Friends and I are not altogether happy with the wording of the clause. Specifically, we are uncomfortable with the wording of subsection (2)(a), where reference is made to

    such information of a particular description.

That is gloriously vague—that is Sir Humphrey incarnate.

Mr. Bob Russell: What?

Mr. Bercow: Incarnate was the word that I deployed. One can imagine the official dreaming up something so gloriously vague. No one has any idea what

    such information of a particular description

actually is. It beggars belief that it cannot be specified now. Why can draft regulations not be laid in front of the Committee to render the debate meaningful, given that some members of the Committee actually want to engage in debate?

The hon. Member for Eastleigh (Mr. Chidgey) has engaged vigorously in debate, but has trotted off elsewhere for extracurricular activities. The hon. Member for Colchester has contributed intelligently to debates, as have my hon. Friends the Members for Lichfield and for Vale of York. Periodic contributions have been made by the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Mr. Miller); I would not say that they were especially profound, but they have taken place from time to time, and we are grateful to hon. Gentleman for giving us the product of his lucubrations.

Several members of the Committee have simply not contributed at all, however. For example, we have not had a maiden contribution from the hon. Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Thomas), or from one of the brightest bulbs of the new Labour intake, the hon. Member for Warrington, North (Helen Jones). Unfortunately, the hon. Lady is not even here; goodness knows what she is up to. I take seriously my responsibilities to this Committee. I suspect that, whatever the hon. Lady is doing, she is not reflecting on subsection 2(a) of clause 35—but she should be, as should the hon. Member for Harrow, West. He has big problems, as he is about to be comprehensively thrashed by my good friend Mr. Daniel Finkelstein, the prospective Conservative parliamentary candidate for Harrow, West. As the hon. Gentleman has a majority of only 1,240, he will be bundled out of the House, so he probably wants to savour his remaining moments. One way in which he could do that—and earn his spurs—would be to debate the merits, or otherwise, of our proposed amendment.

The clause deals with a provision to allow police access to a driving licence database so as to deter people from driving without a licence. That is an important matter, but serious issues of data protection are involved. There could be problems with human rights legislation, too. The clause is vague. The Minister's mantra is ``flexibility, flexibility, flexibility''. I prefer ``specificity'' and if Ministers introduce Bills, they should have decided what their proposals connote in practical terms. If the Minister wants to argue the cause of flexibility and has given some thought to the detail of the proposals—even if he has not reached a conclusion—he should be willing to issue draft regulations with the caveat, or health warning, that they are draft and open to discussion.

What is bizarre about the process—I have thought this ever since I was elected to the House nearly four years ago—is that we are often invited to debate and approve a shell. It is almost as though we are blindfolded. We are told about the general principles of a Bill, but we are not given the details. We are simply invited to accept from the Minister that because the intentions are good, so will the content be, and asked to rest assured on that basis. However, I am one of those awkward, cussed individuals—a frightful nuisance you might say, Mr. Sayeed, except that you are too polite to do so—who believes in debating matters in some detail.

Sometimes, Labour Back Benchers give the impression and even state that they do not want to take more time to debate matters, but believe that everything should be nodded through. That is not what Parliament is about. My anxiety is that I do not know what the ``information of a particular description'' is. The Minister ought to know that, and if he does, he should be happy to disclose to us what he has in mind. If he does not know, he jolly well ought to, because he is a Minister. Furthermore, he ought to know the details, particularly because he is a rising Minister, a busy Minister, an ambitious Minister and a Minister who is thought to be on the rise. A Minister in that position should protect his own back and be able to tell the Committee exactly what the Government have in mind.

It would helpful if the Minister who has the power to order the disclosure could tell us what would be disclosed. Later amendments refer to that same principle so I shall not adumbrate the arguments further. We are contending that the specific information may be disclosed, meaning that the disclosure of information must be open, transparent and revealing. It should be possible to know in advance precisely which details are to be disclosed to constables. If the affected parties do not know that, it would seem on the face of it that their rights under the Human Rights Act 1998 could be infringed.

Under our new procedures, Ministers are obliged to offer a declaration of compatibility in relation to all Bills. I am aware that the Government are convinced that this Bill is compatible with their obligations under the Human Rights Act. However, the hon. Gentleman will know that that is standard practice and that it accompanies all Bills. Obviously, Ministers are persuaded that their legislation does not conflict with our obligations, but they tend not to explain what the issues relating to human rights law might be or say why they are convinced that the contents of the Bill do not conflict with the requirements of the Act. It would be helpful if the Minister accepted that data protection was involved and that rights of individual citizens were at stake. I hope that he can explain why he is convinced that there is no threat to those rights. I make the point in my characteristically modest and understated fashion that I am not certain that the rights are contradicted, but I am concerned about the matter.

Mr. Miller: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Bercow: I will give way. Who could resist the offer of an intelligent intervention from the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston?

Mr. Miller: Which principle of the Data Protection Act 1998 does the hon. Gentleman believe may be at risk?

Mr. Bercow: The principle at stake concerns people about whom information is kept on a register. They should be aware not only that information is kept about them, but of what that information is. My concern is that as the clause stands, people cannot rest secure on that point, which is precisely why I am arguing for the amendment. I emphasise that it is a probing amendment, as many of our amendments have been, and I look forward to the Minister's response.

Mr. Fabricant: My hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham has already presented a powerful argument explaining why he is concerned with the broad content of clause 35. Clause 35 is 18 lines long, but is summarised well in the explanatory notes in only two lines:

    Clause 35 enables the police to have bulk access to an insurance industry database which will help them to detect people driving without insurance.

The whole Committee will welcome that. However, I believe that the clause is dangerous as it stands, for all the reasons pointed out by my hon. Friend. Earlier, he said that we often debated shell clauses or Bills—in which positions are made in outline and are subsequently enforced in detail through secondary legislation. I would rather use the phrase ``a blank cheque''. I feel that legislators are increasingly being asked to write a blank cheque for the Government to fill in at a later date. That is a dangerous practice that should be curtailed.

Mr. Bercow: Does my hon. Friend agree that, even if it is right for constables to be given access to information, before we give our assent to the clause, the Minister should tell us to whom those constables should be allowed to disclose the information that they have obtained? That is a basic matter of the satisfaction of inquiry and of the principle that human rights have not been offended.

Mr. Fabricant: My hon. Friend is right. It is not only a question of human rights. It also impacts on data protection, as my hon. Friend has already outlined. I wonder whether a high-tech solution is being suggested to a simple problem. In France and other countries where a similar problem exists and the police quite correctly wish to know whether a driver is insured, a system has operated successfully whereby a disc similar to a United Kingdom licence disc is displayed in the window, which shows whether that vehicle is insured. There is an argument against that—that the car, not the driver, is insured—yet the system seems to work adequately in other European countries. I am conscious that the present Government are of a particularly federal hue within the European Union, so I am surprised that they choose not to adopt that more simple solution to what is not a particularly complex question. My fear is the same as that of my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham. [Interruption.]

 
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