Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Bill

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Angela Eagle: The reason for the provision is merely to provide absolute clarity about the existence of the power. Currently, some local authorities respond well to requests for information, but the response from others can be patchy. That is partly because they are worried about whether they have the power to disclose the information, but in fact they are required to do so. As I said, the provision is about making the existence of the power much clearer, so that authorities do not worry that they are breaking other rules by complying with the requirements.

Simon Hughes: I understand that, but I am not sure whether the Bill is as narrowly drawn as the Minister said in relation to social services. I cannot remember the term that she used about the information.

Angela Eagle: Non-sensitive.

Simon Hughes: Yes, the Minister said that only non-sensitive information was relevant. I do not doubt that that is the intention, but I ask her to reconsider whether that is what the Bill says, because it does not appear to. Someone might say, ''One way of tracking down this family would be to go through the social

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services records, because their children were taken into care.'' I do not question the hon. Lady's good faith, but I should be grateful if she would reconsider that issue later.

Interestingly, this part of the Bill does not contain a provision for similar powers in relation to the police. I assume that that is because there is already a power in statute to request information from the police. The Minister may comment on that. Clause 102, which relates to the police, deals with a power in respect of good character, not whereabouts.

I still disagree on the point about the officer. I understand the argument that was advanced, but I do not accept it. The officer might nominally be the chief executive and have someone else do the work. This is an important matter, because we may create a nonsensical situation in which information goes to different sorts of officers who, because of their authority, would not normally have access to it.

I assume that the Minister accepts the point made by the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle and I through the amendment: that a single named officer is a good idea. I do not think that she expressly said so. I urge her again, between now and Report stage, and after consultation with local government organisations, to reflect on whether it should not be the chief executive. I have one other general point, but I imagine that it should most properly be raised in the clause stand part debate, so I will leave it for now.

Mr. Barker: I fully support the intention behind the clause and I am grateful to the Minister for saying that she wants only to bring clarity to an existing modus operandi. However, in the interests of clarity, the discipline of having a named officer or officers would enhance the existing system and bring discipline to the operations of local government officers, which the Minister is clearly having trouble co-ordinating.

I hope that the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey is right in thinking that the Minister is in favour of a named or several named officers. Unlike the hon. Gentleman, I do not believe that the chief executive is necessarily the most appropriate officer: over-burdening already severely pressed senior officials is the last thing we should do. Nevertheless, it is right for a specifically named officer—or, depending on the work load, officers—to have clear responsibility.

I hope that we can pin down more precisely the way in which the information will be given and transferred. The Minister has said that it should generally be in writing, but I hope for further clarification. I am grateful for the Minister's assurances and beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Question proposed, That the clause, as amended, stand part of the Bill.

Mr. Neil Gerrard (Walthamstow): I understand—the Minister will correct me if I am wrong—that nothing in the provisions changes the current responsibilities of local authorities under the Data Protection Act 1998. That Act makes a clear

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distinction between sensitive personal data—affecting child protection, for example—and other data. Clear rules prescribe how the data can be processed, what can be done with it, by whom and in what circumstances. I want to be absolutely clear that nothing in the clause alters the current responsibilities of the chief executive, or of any officer in a local authority who handles personal data.

Mr. Humfrey Malins (Woking): The clause requires information to be supplied if the Home Secretary ''reasonably suspects''. Will the Minister tell us who judges whether the suspicion is reasonable? Is it the person who makes the request, or the person to whom the request is addressed?

Simon Hughes: It seems unlikely, but occasionally the names of people who have not been granted permanent leave to remain or who have not yet had their claim determined have appeared on the electoral register. Electoral register policy applies to British, Irish and Commonwealth citizens for all elections and to European Union nationals for local and European elections. Is it sufficient to appear on the electoral register—that information is held by local authorities—if a person is in the country irrespective of status, or is it a prerequisite to have an established status? It may seem an esoteric point, but many new people come on to the register every year in constituencies such as mine. We all believe that entitlement to vote should be a consequence of a person's lawful position in this country, so the electoral register should accurately reflect that. However difficult it is to monitor, what the law says is important.

This and subsequent clauses give considerable cause for concern, even with the data protection restrictions to which the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard) referred. My natural starting point is a concern that clause 100 and the subsequent clauses relating to the Inland Revenue, the police, medical inspectors, employers and financial institutions create additional powers for the Home Office to seek information on people from other agencies.

It is important that Parliament takes the view that obtaining and passing information between agencies and organisations should be the exception rather than the rule. It should be permitted only when there is justified good cause, and in such a way that the person to whom the information relates is able to track what it is, where it is and to whom it is passed, and is able to access it at any time, even if it is something he is not keen to know about.

If the local authority passes information to the Secretary of State under this provision, it is a basic prerequisite that the individual should be entitled to know what information was passed, as a safeguard to ensure the preservation of confidentiality. Only those qualified to give and receive information should do so to ensure that the information given and sought is only that which is necessary for the purpose. As the Minister rightly said, there should not be a fishing expedition.

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More and more powers are being given to Government by Home Office legislation—including the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 and the data protection and freedom of information legislation—to obtain information, which may be used for good causes such as crime prevention and deterring terrorism. The supplying of such information needs to be carefully regulated and scrutinised, and should always be justified and accountable. Subject to the data protection legislation, what are the mechanisms for individuals to make sure that the information transferred is only the minimum necessary and only that which is sought? What guarantees are there that the individual knows what is being done with information held on him?

Angela Eagle: I understand the hon. Gentleman's fears, but he is making heavy weather of the issue. The power is specific and limited. I confirm that the powers conferred in subsequent clauses do not change responsibilities under the Data Protection Act for local authorities or the authorities that we will be discussing later, or compromise them in any way. The Data Protection Act continues to govern the type of information that can be held and the way in which it can be handed over.

My hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow is right to say that the Act deals differently with non-sensitive and sensitive information. The clause deals with non-sensitive information that can confirm the whereabouts of a person whom the Secretary of State has reasonable grounds to believe is an immigration offender, who would be subject to deportation if he were discovered, and who may be working illegally and involved in other nefarious activities that it would be in the public interest to stop.

The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey worries about the disclosure of such information. Within the narrow limits set by the clauses, its sharing and disclosure is in the public interest, with all the qualifications that I have set out. The hon. Gentleman should remember that such disclosures are legitimate if they comply with section 29 of the Data Protection Act, which facilitates disclosures for the prevention and detection of crime. That is what we are talking about. These are not sweeping powers that enable the immigration authorities to go on fishing expeditions. There has to be a reasonable suspicion that a named individual is an immigration offender before information about him can be sought from any of the authorities that we will be discussing in the next few clauses.

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The hon. Member for Woking (Mr. Malins) asked about reasonableness. The reasonable belief has to be in the mind of the Secretary of State or those working in his stead--in this instance, the immigration authorities. It is not for local authorities or any of the other authorities to second-guess the reasonableness argument. They already have a duty, which these

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clauses qualify, to disclose information in those circumstances if asked to do so. The clauses clarify that they have that requirement.

I was not certain what the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey was getting at when he talked about the electoral register. It would certainly be an offence for immigration offenders to be on the electoral register. The immigration service already has access to the electoral register when making inquiries: that is the first place it would go. It does not have to go to local authorities or any of those other organisations to check the electoral register. As far as I know it is a public document. We can all check it. The hon. Gentleman can get a CD-ROM of it and do all sorts of clever things with the information that he gets from it. We do not have to legislate to require that information to be shared, as it is in the public domain already.

I hope that the Committee will realise that nothing in the clause compromises the protections under the Data Protection Act. It is a necessary but focused power. A similar power has already been extended to deal with social security fraud, and it qualifies under section 29 of the Data Protection Act, because it is sought for the prevention and detection of crime. I hope that the Committee will be happy to allow that clarification, which will improve the effectiveness of the work that the immigration authorities do to combat overstaying, illegal working and immigration crime.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 100, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

 
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