Manoeuvres in the dark

Wilf_4x3.jpgWilf Stevenson on the government’s back tracking on its original plans for data protection

Today, we begin Report stage of the government’s Data Protection Bill, with two days of debates this week and a final day in January. In normal circumstances, we would have used the gap since Committee to hone our amendments, build alliances with crossbench peers and others and plan, strategically, to win votes on key issues where we believe Ministers should think again.

But we live in interesting times – as revealed recently during the latter stages of Lords consideration of the Financial Guidance and Claims Bill. Following a fairly normal Committee stage, with no hint of concessions, the government changed gear before Report and delivered a raft of amendments on all our key issues. In the end, we hardly needed to vote at all. And the legislation, having started at our end of Parliament and now with the Commons, has changed out of all recognition – nearly doubling in size. Indeed, to our delight, it has become not so much the framework Bill it set out to be but one with a ‘Financial Inclusion’ mission at its heart.

We now seem to be in much the same situation on the Data Protection Bill. As made clear at Second Reading, Labour supports this Bill and want to make sure it passes – albeit after due scrutiny. But we are also driven by the needs of business to have certainty about the rules that will be applied in this key component of our economy, both in the medium and long term; as well as the need for consumers – especially vulnerable people and children – to be protected in the digital world.

Since Committee stage, Ministers have been at pains to highlight a willingness to find common ground, and to offer meetings and discussions on proposed amendments – many of which we have been able to sign up to. Two of these key issues come up for debate today, on issues that in other times we would have been preparing to push to a vote.

The first deals with the widely held view that the Bill should set out clearly that citizens have enduring and important rights to privacy and the protection of their personal data, as set out in the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights. The government were initially dead set against this approach. But they appear to have modified their position and it is clear that the key question left to be determined is the form of words to be used to amend the Bill rather than the principle itself. Looking at the two related amendments to be debated today – one from ourselves, the other from government – there is more that unites us on the issue than divides. With a bit more discussion, we could arrive at an agreed wording before Third Reading and I hope Ministers will consider that approach.

The second big issue today is over whether or not the government should introduce a statutory code, enforced by the Information Commissioner to set out the standards by which online services protect children’s data. This ‘age appropriate design’ approach was contained in an amendment proposed by crossbencher Baroness Kidron and received all party support at Committee – including major contributions from Conservative backbenchers Baroness Harding and ex-minister Baroness Shields. Again, following discussion and debate, Ministers have shifted their position significantly. There is now an amendment so comprehensive in scope it has been signed by Baronesses Kidron and Harding and the Labour front bench, and it will go into the Bill without a vote.

I would like to think that the reason for the unusual generosity towards our initial amendments to these Bills in the Lords is the force of the arguments we have presented, and the wide level of support we have garnered around the House. But that is clearly only part of the story: I sense that Ministers are at least as concerned about the difficulties that would stem from trying to reverse Lords amendments when the Bill reaches the Commons. Tenuous ‘majorities’, Brexit negotiating headaches and all that…  It is not how peers usually go about our scrutiny and revision role nor how the government normally responds. But if such orchestrated manoeuvring in the dark leads to an Act that gets us to a better place on important legislation, I for one will not be complaining.

Lord Stevenson of Balmacara is a member of Labour’s frontbench in the House of Lords and its spokesperson on the Data Protection Bill. He tweets @Missenden50

Published 11 December 2017

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