Clause 10

Offender Management Bill – in a Public Bill Committee am 2:30 pm ar 18 Ionawr 2007.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Disclosure for offender management purposes

Photo of Mark Hunter Mark Hunter Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

I beg to move amendment No. 32, in clause 10, page 6, line 40, at end insert—

‘(h) representatives of local authorities’.

The amendment seeks to ensure that local authorities are included in the important exercise of data sharing. I would like to explain why I think the amendment is needed and would improve the Bill. All hon. Members would agree that sharing data among relevant organisations is an excellent idea, not least as an essential step towards joined-up service delivery at the local level. I know that joined-up thinking and service delivery is an issue close to the Government’s heart. I also hope that it is not contentious to say that local government plays a vital role in the rehabilitation of offenders, but to perform that vital role effectively it needs to be fully involved in the system.

In 2005, the Local Government Association surveyed local authorities and discovered that only3 per cent. of them were informed when prisoners were released into the community, which is a very worrying statistic. Such information on prisoner release is vital if local authorities are to perform the effective role in offender management that I am sure we all want to see.

Many local authorities provide excellent services that help offenders with housing, advice on benefits, treatment for drug and alcohol addiction, employment advice and training opportunities, and all those services can help to reduce reoffending. The 2005 report by the LGA, “Going straight”, found, not surprisingly, that being in employment reduced the risk of reoffending by between one third and 50 per cent. Having stable accommodation also reduces the risk of reoffending by a fifth. Once ex-prisoners are in stable accommodation, over three times as many find employment as those without an address. However, the report also found that only a third of offenders have stable accommodation on release, and they canface significant difficulties—as we would all acknowledge—in securing it. That figure needs to rise and, without the integration of local authorities into the probation system, that will not happen. I ask the Minister to respond to the point about the value that local authorities offer in the current probation system, and how that value will be preserved.

Education and training are equally important, but half of all prisoners do not have the skills required by 96 per cent. of all jobs. Although the Learning and Skills Council now funds all post-16 education, except for university education, local authorities still contribute considerable amounts to adult education, and most of them deliver a wide spectrum of adult education services under contract to local learning and skills councils.

To establish what education service provision is needed in each local authority area, information about offenders is necessary. Again, the importance of involving local authorities in the sharing of that information is paramount, if rehabilitation is to happen effectively and reoffending rates are to fall.

The situation regarding education is mirrored by that regarding employment. Two thirds of people enter prison without jobs, and two in three of those with a job lose it—again, not surprisingly—when they enter prison. Local authorities need to establish what employment advice they can offer to offenders, for whom such help is most needed. Without being integrated into the probation system, local authorities will struggle to provide that advice to the level thatwe would all desire. Unless the vital sharing of  information that is outlined in clause 10 is extended to local authorities, their services cannot be targeted and effectively planned to include the numbers and needs of offenders.

Local authorities also play an important role in local strategic partnerships, often acting as the central point for other organisations to become involved. Although voluntary groups, where they act as probation providers, and the police, who are often included in these strategic partnerships, are included in the list in clause 10, local authorities are not. There seems to be no reason for their exclusion and I would like the Minister to address that issue, and reassure us that it is not the intention for local councils to be excluded.

If local authority representatives will not included on the list of those organisations that can share information on offenders, as outlined in clause 10, how can the system ensure that information about offenders is passed on to local authorities to ensure that the services that local authorities provide are properly planned to create the provision needed in each local area?

Photo of Gerry Sutcliffe Gerry Sutcliffe The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department 2:45, 18 Ionawr 2007

Once again, I find that I have a lot of sympathy with the hon. Gentleman. As he has said, the amendment would add representatives of local authorities to the list of persons among whom information can be shared for the purposes specified in the Bill. Local authority representatives typically need information about offenders for whom they are providing housing or to carry out social service department responsibilities—as he has said, there are also other reasons. However, that need differs substantially in terms of the quantity and nature of the data required from the needs of those listed in subsection (2), whose core business is the day-to-day management of offenders.

The intention behind clause 10 is to put beyond doubt for the main parties involved in managing offenders with whom and for what purposes data can be shared. The amendment raises the question whether adding representatives of local authorities to the list would be valuable, or whether it would confuse and distort that intention. The clause includes provision to meet any future need by including additional parties such as local authority officers. Subsection (2)(g) allows the Secretary of State to lay regulations before the House specifying additional persons to be included in the list. It would not be sensible to include other organisations at this stage on the basis that they might need to be included in future.

We recognise the unique position of local authorities and their responsibilities in offender management. In particular, they have the established and important role under the multi-agency public protection arrangements of the proper consideration of housing and the safeguarding of vulnerable groups. That role might make it sensible to include local authorities in the Bill. However, we are concerned that a reference to “representatives of local authorities” would be too vague and that the ambiguity would have unintended and unhelpful consequences. I nevertheless believe that the amendment and the hon. Gentleman’s points merit further consideration. I undertake to reconsider the  matter and to return on Report with a considered view. With that offer, I hope that he will withdraw the amendment.

Photo of Mark Hunter Mark Hunter Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

I am grateful to the Minister forhis considered response to my argument. He has graciously undertaken to consider the sentiment behind the amendment and said that he understands my point and has sympathy with it. I look forward to the Government’s proposals. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Photo of Edward Garnier Edward Garnier Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

I beg to move amendment No. 19, in clause 10, page 6, line 41, after ‘information’, insert

‘of a nature that the Secretary of State shall by regulation define’.

By means of this amendment, I intend to extract from the Government more clarity on the sort of information that they intend to be shared by the persons listed in subsection (2). Subsection (3)(b) states that disclosure of information to those listed can take place only if it is

“necessary or expedient for any of the purposes mentioned in subsection (4).”

We are familiar with those purposes, except that subsection (4)(c) adds information for

“any other purposes connected with the management of offenders (including the development or assessment of policies relating to matters connected with the management of offenders).”

That is delightfully vague and suggests that greater explanation than can be gained by reading the Bill is appropriate. Until we see the model contract, which I mentioned in the previous discussion but one, and the various as yet undrafted regulations behind the Bill, with which the Home Secretary is going to come forward, the public and those who take an interest in this aspect of public policy are in something of a difficult area.

If the provision of information is, on the Minister’s say-so, going to be reasonably clear and to a purpose, what will happen with the unlawful or unauthorised disclosure of information? Will that be a matter of contractual discipline, administrative discipline or criminal penalties? If, for example, a private operator or charitable body which can hold information—such a body would come under the heading

“any other person specified or described in regulations made by the Secretary of State”— were guilty of disclosing information, whether wittingly or not, to an unauthorised person, what would happen? We are dealing with sensitive information, which concerns not only the offenders themselves, but possibly their victims.

If information about the victims of serious sexual offenders were to get into the wrong hands—I hope that the probation service rather than a non-state operator will look after serious sexual offenders, particularly post-custody—it could have the most appalling consequences for the victim and their family. We need to be reassured that the Secretary of Statewill have the machinery to deter and deal with  unauthorised disclosure. I do not think—the National Association of Probation Officers has made this point—that the private sector is incapable of respecting people’s confidence, and I do not think that the private sector is bound to release information improperly to people outside the list in subsection (2). However, we need to be reassured that in the event that something goes wrong, or is likely to go wrong, the Government have thought through what needs to be done.

It is not strictly germane to the Bill, but over the past few days we have heard remarks made by the Home Secretary about pulling together various Government databases in the context of the future of the national identity register. I will not have an argument now about whether it is a good or bad thing to have a national identity register—my views are pretty clear—but there seems to be some doubt about how the register will be constructed. Will it involve one great Government computer, or will it be lots of little computers with bridges between them so that information about subject A can be moved from computer B, and so on? I need to know whether the information that we are talking about, which will presumably be accumulated for offender management purposes, will go on to the national identity register, where it will be accessible by all sorts of other people, and whether penalties of one sort or another will be imposed if such information is misused or improperly disclosed.

On subsection (3)(b), we also need to know who will decide when and whether the disclosure of information is “necessary or expedient”. Will it be the Secretary of State, the non-state operator or a combination of their various officers and employees, or will a decision emerge in some haphazard way? Who will decide what “any other purposes” are in relation to the disclosure of information connected with the management of offenders?

I appreciate that subsection (6) says that the existing restrictions on the unlawful or improper disclosure of information are not affected by the Bill. However, as we have seen in the case of amendment No. 34, which was tabled by the hon. Member for Walthamstow, all sorts of things happened which were not contemplated by the drafters of the Private Security Industry Act 2001. Just as that Act did not contemplate private managers of bail hostels, in constructing this Bill, we must think forward to see whether there are areas of concern that could slip through undiscussed or unconsidered.

I am somewhat concerned to notice that under subsection (7)

“the Secretary of State may by order amend or repeal any provision mentioned in subsection (6)(b) which is contained in an enactment”.

An enactment is a piece of secondary legislation. We are allowing an accumulation of deeply sensitive information about individuals, be they offenders, victims or, possibly, witnesses. Under the Bill, the information can be disclosed to authorised recipients only, but we are providing within that permission vague descriptions of what is necessary or expedient and vague descriptions of “any other purposes”. We are giving the Secretary of State the power to amend protective legislation, albeit secondary legislation, without any of us at this moment knowing what is envisaged. While I do not suggest that this discussion  should lead to a vote, I am interested in achieving clarity in legislation, particularly in a Bill of this nature.

Photo of Gerry Sutcliffe Gerry Sutcliffe The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

I do not accept the hon. and learned Gentleman’s charge that the Government have been vague. The situation is quite the reverse, and I shall try to reassure him, although that is sometimes difficult. I do not dismiss what he has said about looking at this in terms of what the future may hold. This is not an attempt to create wide-ranging, dramatic new powers on sharing offender information. We hope that the provision will put beyond doubt how criminal justice organisations should share information with each other about offenders in order to ensure their effective management and to inform research into improving policies and outcomes for offender management.

The aim of the clause is to provide a clear structure in which effective information sharing can take place on a flexible but principled basis, subject to equally clear limitations on who can share the data and for what purpose. The sort of data that we envisage will be disclosed under this power can already legally be shared in accordance with the Data Protection Act 1998 and other safeguards, such as article 8 of the European convention on human rights. The clause does not disapply or in any way modify those safeguards.

It was precisely because of our desire to be absolutely transparent about what data can be shared and to ensure that this information is shared as it should be in practice that we think it desirable to create a power to share data on the face of the Bill. By doing so, we hope to provide the most effective service to the offender, to services to facilitate the rehabilitation of offenders and to the public for their protection. We hope to do so by sharing the data for both operational and research purposes.

On an operational level, clause 10 clarifies that different prison operators can inform one another of the security information when a prisoner is transferred from one company’s jail to another. A provider of probation services can pass on a risk assessment to a local authority housing provider, where that is appropriate. The clause also enables data to be matched for the purposes of research, thereby enabling the Government to evaluate the effectiveness of various interventions with offenders to see whether they are successful and whether they represent value for money for the taxpayer.

For example, clause 10 makes it clear that the constituent elements of NOMS can exchange their data with other Departments, subject to the need to comply with other statutory limitations that might apply to the specific type of data that is proposed to be exchanged.

In respect of the operational and research aims, the limitation in the clause on exchanging data only for offender management purposes will operate in practice as a limitation on the type of data that can be exchanged. If data cannot be disclosed for an offender management purpose, they cannot be disclosed under the clause. The amendment seeks to address anxiety  about unnecessarily widespread and permissive data sharing, but that is dealt with by the clause as drafted. Although I understand the concern that underscores the hon. and learned Gentleman’s amendment, accepting it would undermine the purpose of clause 10, which is to provide absolute clarity about the information that may be shared within the close circle of organisations managing offenders.

For the reasons I have given, amendment No. 19, which requires the Secretary of State to define the nature of information to be shared in discrete regulations, would add little, if anything, to the safeguard established by clause 10(4), which sets out the purposes for which information can be shared. The amendment would make the clause far less useful than it is intended to be, and it would create unnecessary work for Departments, the House of Commons and the other place, because it would require potentially frequent additions to a list.

The definition of the purpose for which information can be shared, and hence its nature in subsection (4), is necessarily broad. It covers existing information-sharing powers and puts beyond peradventure the ability of criminal justice agencies to share information with each other when appropriate and only when appropriate.

To require the Secretary of State to include in secondary legislation every piece of information thathe might wish to share would mean anticipating, identifying and defining all types of information, which is a near impossible task. It would render the clause unnecessarily unwieldy and would create unintended new restrictions in data sharing by failing to state every conceivable purpose and type of information that organisations already share or that complies with existing legal permissions. Furthermore, it would risk overlooking unforeseen or unusual types of information that it might be necessary to disclose in cases in which public protection might otherwise be undermined if disclosures were not to take place. In such a case, if the type of data in question were not included in secondary legislation, it would not be possible to disclose it. Such inflexibility is not acceptable and would undermine the purposes that NOMS was established to achieve and with which the clause is intended to assist. The hon. and learned Gentleman’s amendment is in direct contrast to what we want to achieve and the purpose of the clause and the Bill, which is to enable the more effective management of offenders and the removal of doubt about what information can be legally shared and with whom.

I may not have completely satisfied the hon. and learned Gentleman, as he has asked who will be responsible for making decisions. That responsibility rests with the party that may want to exchange information. Obviously, if the Secretary of State can be helpful in those circumstances, he will want to assist, although he will not be directly involved. The remedies for unlawful disclosure will be regulated by the Data Protection Act 1998 and the European convention on human rights, and it is not a criminal offence.

The safeguards are in place. We are trying to be transparent in respect of this clause—the information is there, and the provision is not vague and sets out clearly what we want to achieve. I think that the hon.  and learned Gentleman has accepted that his amendment may not necessarily be the route to take, although he may want to return to the subject. I hope that he will ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Photo of Edward Garnier Edward Garnier Shadow Minister (Home Affairs) 3:00, 18 Ionawr 2007

So much legislation pours out of the Home Office that Ministers must have their responses written for them before debates. It is a pleasure to listen to the Minister, but the points that I made were not taken on board by the anticipatory speech that was drafted for him, which is a function of life in the Home Office. The Minister said that on the one hand my amendment is too vague, and on the other it is too prescriptive. That was clever of me.

As I said in my opening remarks, I will not press the amendment to a Division, but we should not lightly pass over the way in which information is exchanged in such delicate matters. If, between now and Report, the Minister and his officials can come up with some ideas after meetings with the Information Commissioner and others—the Minister has mentioned the Data Protection Act 1998—the House will benefit from his further research. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 10 ordered to stand part of the Bill.