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Lord Filkin: My Lords, I agree explicitly and exactly with that point; the Information Commissioner is also well aware of it. The Act posits no such conflict in the way that that has been articulated. It is perfectly possible to fulfil what common sense would tell us one should do; that is, to disclose personal information when there is a wider interest in doing so. In the specific example of the Bates case it is not right that I go into great detail but, relying on the coroner's report, it is clear from what that said and from what British Gas said that British Gas was of the view that those persons were not vulnerable, and therefore there was not a need or requirement to disclose to social services. Had it judged otherwise, it was aware that it could have disclosed the information to social services.
Lord Henley: My Lords, while accepting that we have to wait as the noble Baroness, Lady Greengross, said, for the Sir Michael Bichard reportand I agree with thatwould the noble Lord also agree that there is a duty on the Government to offer further advice on the workings of the Data Protection Act 1998?
Lord Filkin: My Lords, again in a word, yes. We are certainly looking at whether there is more that could sensibly be done, which is why we are looking with ACPO and the Home Office to see if there is further advice and guidance that might be useful to police forces. It was clearly no lack of clear advice on the Humberside case that led to the issue, in that the ACPO guidance is explicit that unproven allegations of sexual crimes can be retained on file and divulged in the circumstances of Soham. It spells that out in words of one syllable.
Lord Phillips of Sudbury: My Lords, I suggest to the Minister that in fact the law relating to the Data Protection Act 1998 is extraordinarily complicated. The application of the fairness principles might have allowed the authority to release information in the Bates case, but interpreting that is way beyond the capacity of the sort of individuals in the utilities who must do that. Would the Government consider reintroducing into the Data Protection Act 1998 an exemption that was in the Data Protection Act 1984, which allowed urgent disclosure where there was a risk of real harm, that disclosure being in the interests of the person likely to be harmed? That would be extraordinarily helpful in a practical way.
Lord Filkin: My Lords, I am pretty confident that the existing law allows exactly what the noble Lord, Lord Phillips of Sudbury, has advocated. He is right that the Act is not the simplest to understand, but of course practitioners and administrators in either public or private sector organisations do not work their way through the Act. They look at the guidance that is produced by a wide range of bodiesthe Information Commissioner, trade organisations and the likewho have worked from the Act to provide practical advice. I am clear that it is the quality of advice that matters, but perhaps even more so it is organisations giving very clear signals that the Data Protection Act 1998 matters, and in two respects. It matters to protect personal privacy when it is right and proper to do so; it also matters to make sensible decisions about when information should be released, because there is a wider interest either in terms of the safety of the individual concerned, or the wider public interest in terms of the prevention of crime.
Baroness Hayman: My Lords, is my noble friend aware that the tone of his responses today will be welcome? Would he agree that a culture of over-formulaic adherence to process in matters of data protection, which loses sight of the fundamental objectives of the policy, can have grave, adverse
Lord Filkin: My Lords, yes, in general I agree that it is important for people at whatever level in organisations exercising judgments as they must on the Act almost to apply tests of common sense and to check whether those tests of common sense comply with the law. I wish to emphasise that perhaps these are calls to all organisations, including central Government, not to say that the Act needs changingalbeit that it may not be the clearestbut to see whether there is more that we need to do to try to get the double objectives of the Act lived in practice throughout our organisations. That is what we should all do, including the DCA.
Lord Laming: My Lords, would the Minister agree that perhaps the Government could be clearer in the guidance that they give? There is now a widespread belief among professionals across the services that they cannot exchange concerns about the well-being of a child unless there is clear evidence of child abuse. That is a serious inhibition to good practice.
Lord Filkin: My Lords, coming from the noble Lord, Lord Laming, I will take that question very seriously indeed. I will undertake to look with officials and the Department of Health at the charge that he has posited that there is confusion in social services in these matters. It is critical that we minimise any confusion and that people do not hide behind a convenient excuse that they cannot do things, when common sense tells them they ought to be doing them. That is the thrust of what I have learned from many of these issues. One then has to see if one can test whether the law, as we believe it does, allows them to do so. I will undertake such an informal review in the way that I have indicated.
The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean): My Lords, my right honourable friend the Prime Minister has written to President Elect Saakashvili to say that the United Kingdom stands ready to help Georgia to tackle the many political and economic challenges ahead. We support the efforts of the European Union to provide targeted assistance to help to meet Georgia's needs. Our special representative to the South Caucasus, Sir Brian Fall, continues to play a full part in the international community's efforts on questions
Lord Wallace of Saltaire: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that helpful reply. Does she agree that it has been unfortunate that the conflict in Georgia has pulled that country apart over the past few years and that it has lost control of much of its territory, and that the slow diminution of EU influence since the early 1990s, as people like me will have observed, has left US and Russia competition as one of the problems for Georgia? Does she accept that this is a tremendous opportunity to help the development of a stronger democracy and the restoration of territorial integrity, and that the European Union, as well as the United Kingdom, could do more in assisting with retraining of forces in adding Georgia to EU neighbourhood policy and in providing the political as well as the economic support needed?
Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, the noble Lord should not underestimate the considerable support that the European Union is devoting to Georgia already. The Commission said that it is accelerating a 5 million euros payment for food support and a 2 million euros payment for election preparation. This year, Georgia should receive about 12 million euro support for the reform process and 4 million euros' for rehabilitation. If agreement is reached with the IMF, Georgia could also apply for a further 12 million euros for food security and 40 million euros for exceptional financial assistance. An EU humanitarian assessment mission will be visiting shortly. Sir Brian Fall, who I mentioned in my initial Answer, is in Georgia at the moment looking at the question of territorial integrity. Considerable assistance is going to Georgia both from the EU and the United Kingdom.
Baroness Hooper: My Lords, does the Minister agree that in this situation, as in so many, education is the key? Can she assure the House that any British efforts to help Georgia will focus on education at all levels and in support of the excellent work of the British Council in Tbilisi? As a Council of Europe observer in the recent presidential elections in Georgia, I saw the dire need in the educational field, if only in that the schools, which were in use as polling stations, were absolutely freezing cold. That was bad enough on polling day; for children going there on a day-to-day basis it must be awful.
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