1980s >> 1987 >> no-992-april-1987

Filing a Complaint

The Access to Personal Files Bill which is going through Parliament at the moment, is intended to give individuals the right of access to files which contain personal information about them. However, the extreme reluctance of the state to loosen its grip on information has meant that the Bill has been steadily diluted as it has gone through Parliament. It is not a government Bill and so cannot command the automatic support of a majority in the House of Commons as a result of MPs being told how to vote by the Party Whips. So although the Bill is supported by back-bench MPs from all parties, its sponsor. Liberal MP Archie Kirkwood, has had to do a deal with the government to ensure Tory support and the Bill’s safe passage. As a result, the legislation will only provide right of access to housing, education and social work files and not medical, employment and immigration files or credit records, as was originally intended. It is proposed to establish, in addition to access to paper records, the right to amend files where information is shown to be incorrect and to provide payment in compensation for any hardship which might have been caused by the holding of the inaccurate information.

For anyone concerned about the use and abuse of information this must represent a (very small) step forward. However there are good reasons for believing that the impact of the new legislation will be even less than is commonly thought. Firstly, in order to gain access to information about yourself you must be aware that a particular agency has a file on you. This is by no means always the case. For example, some employers pay money to a right wing organisation called the Economic League which provides information about prospective employees. In particular they will inform the employer of a worker’s trade union activities and political views. If an applicant for a job. whose name is passed to the Economic League for vetting, is thought to be “subversive” or an active trade unionist, then the League will recommend to the employer that that person should not be employed.

Where does the Economic League get its information from? Some of it is passed to them by police in the Special Branch; some is rumour and hearsay; much of it is inaccurate, defamatory and highly damaging. In most cases people will be completely unaware that an organisation like the Economic League has a file on them. They might simply be mystified at their continual failure to get jobs that they apply for. But even if they did know such a file was being held they would have no right of access to see that file, since the Economic League is not covered by the new legislation.

Some computerised files containing personal information are already covered by the Data Protection Act which comes into operation later this year. This Act. passed under duress in order to comply with European standards on data protection, provides minimal access to computer files on payment of a fee. (The Access to Personal Files Bill also requires individuals seeking access to files to pay a fee to the local authority holding the information). It was partly to plug the gaps left by the Data Protection Act that the new legislation was introduced. If not. the absurd situation would have existed where, if a housing authority had computerised its filing system then individuals would have a right to see their files (under the Data Protection Act) whereas, if records were kept on paper they would have no right of access. However, because of the limited categories of files covered by the Access to Personal Files Bill, such anomalies will continue to exist especially in relation to medical records.

Why should this be of any concern to workers? Why does it matter that the state and various private agencies collect information on us which they put into files? After all much of the information collected is intended to benefit us: by enabling the NHS to give us better health care; to enable a local authority to assess our housing needs; to allow a social security officer to assess our entitlement to benefit. It may be true that much of the information which we pass on about ourselves is collated by agencies whose main purpose is apparently benign — providing welfare, education. health care and so on. But this is not the only reason it’s collected. After all, just think for a moment how much information about yourself you are obliged to provide simply in order to claim housing benefit for example: how many rooms there are in your home; who lives with you and what the relationship is between you. details of your income and employment; what kind of heating you have and so on. Why is it all necessary?

It’s necessary because housing benefit, like many other benefits, is means-tested. This means that you have no right to benefit but instead you’ve got to prove that you are a genuinely ‘ deserving” case —that you fall within a certain category of claimant. It’s not enough for you to say that you don’t earn enough to pay the rent; you’ve got to prove it. So that’s one reason why state agencies collect so much information — so that they can ration benefits in such a way that only certain groups get it. In other words giving all this information about yourself might help you to get benefit, but on the other hand, if you give the “wrong” answers then you will get nothing.

What is more worrying than the use of information to ration scarce resources is the fact that in many cases you may think you are supplying information for one purpose — getting a driving licence for example — when in fact that information is also being passed on to other agencies without your knowledge. So the information which you supply to the DVLC to get your driving licence may well find its way back on to the Police National Computer or Special Branch files and then on to the files of organisations like the Economic League. Similarly information given to the NHS or a housing authority might be passed to immigration officials looking for people who they believe have stayed in the country longer than for the period stipulated on their entry visa. So, while it is extremely difficult for us to gain access to information about ourselves held on official files, there may be few qualms on the part of state agencies about passing on personal information to others without our knowledge.

More information could lead to better provision of services designed to meet our needs. As anyone who has tried to claim housing benefit will know, this is very far from the case at the moment since the aim of the system is not meeting people’s needs but rationing resources. The fact that countless officials collect information about us to which we have no right of access is worrying because we know that it can be used in such a way as to enable the state at least to control us and at worst to coerce, threaten or punish us. This is not surprising. In capitalism much of this information is collected by the state, and the main function of the state is to protect the interests of the capitalist class. One way of doing this is to exercise social control through apparently benign state agencies — schools, social services, social security. . .  A necessary precondition for the exercise of social control is information — knowing what the working class is up to, especially those labelled as “deviant ” or “subversive”. If effective control cannot be exercised through these “soft” control methods then there are still the more punitive methods of the police, prisons and security services. There is nothing new about these forms of state coercion. What is new is the effectiveness of information technology and surveillance methods which permit more people to be controlled in more areas of their lives. Neither the Access to Personal Files Bill, nor the Data Protection Act will do anything to alter the fundamental inequality of power that exists between individuals and the state in capitalism.

Janie Percy-Smith