Previous SectionIndexHome Page

4.15 pm

Mrs. Jacqui Lait (Beckenham): It gives me great pleasure to support new clause 2, tabled by the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field). I also thank the Minister of State for his fulsome apology, which was much appreciated.

In previous debates on the Bill in both Houses, an issue that arose time and again was the need to reduce fraud while ensuring that people's privacy is protected as much as possible. In fact, Conservatives regularly cited the concern of organisations such as Liberty, which many people would not expect from us. We did not raise CIFAS in Committee, partly because it had been raised in the other place. We were also told that one of the problems that the Government had with CIFAS was the potential for footprints to be left in the private sector's records. That appeared to be a good reason not to pursue the issue, and there were other fears, which may be further expressed later, that the broad nature of the inquiries that the public sector would need to make of the private sector would be invidious for the individual.

1 May 2001 : Column 763

The right hon. Member for Birkenhead explained the work of CIFAS so effectively that I need only say that I agree wholeheartedly with his comments. It is a most effective organisation. It was the first in the world to be set up to try to eliminate private sector fraud in the financial sector in its broadest definition. From information supplied to me by CIFAS, it appears that in February the number of cases with which it had dealt had increased by 50 per cent. over the year before, so it is clearly gaining force as an effective organisation.

The right hon. Gentleman also mentioned that CIFAS had its annual general meeting last week at which a question was put to the Data Protection Commissioner, Mrs. France, that made me feel able to support the new clause. Mr. Peter Hurst, the executive director of CIFAS, told me that at the AGM, in response to a question from a senior executive in the insurance industry about why the Department of Social Security could not share information about identified frauds with members of CIFAS, Mrs. France said that she considered that to be possible, provided that it was approached in the right way--possibly making use of section 29 of the Data Protection Act 1998. That section exempts crime prevention and prosecution of offenders. She went on to offer CIFAS members the assistance and involvement of her staff in any discussions about sharing such information to prevent fraud. I went so far as to track down section 29 of the 1998 Act and, as a non-lawyer, I would not challenge Mrs. France's conclusions.

There seems to be a good case for the Government to join CIFAS, having dealt with the concerns about footprints. We certainly support the right hon. Gentleman's new clause. As we did not debate it in Committee because of our concerns about footprints, we wish to have a vote so that it is on record that the official Opposition support the proposal for the Government to join CIFAS.

Mr. Steve Webb (Northavon): This is one of those rare occasions when one listens with an open mind to the reasons for accepting a new clause. However, so far, I am not convinced about adding new clause 2 to the Bill. Perhaps I can describe my reactions to the new clause, and if I have misunderstood its purpose, I would be grateful for clarification.

My understanding is that under new clause 2, the Secretary of State could change all benefit forms and require, as a condition of payment of benefit, the person applying to give permission in writing. The permission would say that henceforth, whatever information had gone on that form--which could be very personal, such as income, who was living in the household and how many children they had--could be passed to anyone falling within section 109B(2A) of the Social Security Administration Act 1992. That, as we know from the Bill, applies to a range of private sector organisations such as banks, the student loan company, the gas board, the water board, and so on. Do we want information that people put on their benefit forms--some of it sensitive--to be passed to those organisations?

Mr. Field: As I am anxious that no one in the coming general election campaign accuses the Liberal Democrats of being soft on fraud and soft on the causes of fraud, I should like to answer the question. One would have to have grounds to suspect that there was fraud. Names

1 May 2001 : Column 764

would not necessarily be checked, because of false identities, but there would be a check on whether the address was being used.

If the hon. Gentleman has not yet had a chance to visit any of the organisations that are part of CIFAS, I hope that he will do so after the election. They would not have time to exchange all the information to which he refers. They want to know whether they have to be careful with a customer and whether they have to ask more questions. They merely check whether other organisations have also marked out that person. They have to think that there is something fishy about a claim and then check on the name and address. It is not a case of sharing all personal information. The system would collapse if all that information were transferred.

Mr. Webb: I am grateful for that intervention, although I am not entirely reassured by it. However, I shall pursue my point and will happily give way later.

The amendment refers to an authorised officer providing information to external organisations. In general, in the Bill, the authorised officers come from the Department of Social Security or the Benefits Agency. That is what I assumed was meant in this case.

I am puzzled about the sequence of events that would give rise to the exercise of the new clause. It says that the authorised officer--the person in the DSS--can give information to the third party provided, for example, that the benefit recipient has a conviction for fraud or the officer thinks that they might be intending to commit fraud.

Let us suppose that a bank is considering a loan application from someone. It would not know that that person was the subject, for example, of a fraud investigation by the DSS. Are we to assume that the authorised officer would initiate contact with these third parties? The bank could not make fishing telephone calls, to use our analogy, and would not know that there was a question mark over that person. Is the right hon. Member for Birkenhead proposing that when a bank has vague misgivings about a person applying for a loan it should ring DSS offices to ascertain whether an authorised officer has a concern about the person? If so, I am not clear how that process would work in practice.

If there is a reasonable suspicion that a person claiming benefit is committing fraud, what that person has put on the claim form can, in principle, be passed to external organisations. The right hon. Gentleman says that there is no need for information on the benefit form to be passed on, but that would happen the second that there were reasonable grounds for suspicion that a person had committed fraud. The information would cease to be confidential in the Department, and would be available to all the external organisations with which an applicant might have dealings. Even if an applicant were proven to be completely innocent, his or her personal details would already have been passed to the external organisations.

In the event that an applicant were convicted of fraud--and conviction is only one of the three categories specified in the new clause--it is perhaps arguable that other organisations would have a right to know details of a person's circumstances, as they would need to prevent any possibility of fraud against themselves. However, I do not see why suspicion of fraud should be a sufficient reason for people to lose their right to privacy. My worry

1 May 2001 : Column 765

is that such provisions risk breaching the principle that people are innocent until proven guilty. People suffer when privacy and confidentiality are lost. Passing on personal information is almost a punishment in itself, even if people are eventually found to be innocent.

Mr. Field: Part of me wishes that officers in the DSS had time to undertake such activities. I fear that life is much more pressured than that. I give the hon. Gentleman the example of a benefits applicant who puts on the benefits claim form a false national insurance number. In such circumstances, it is reasonable to check into that person a little more to ascertain whether there is a history of wrongdoing in other areas. The question is whether it is worth pursuing such matters with the private sector to eliminate possible frauds.

Mr. Webb: I apologise for being slightly dense, but the right hon. Gentleman gave the example of a person who puts a dodgy national insurance number on a benefits claim form. Is he saying that that would alert the authorities to the possibility that the person could not be trusted, and that the Benefits Agency should be proactive in contacting all the categories of people or organisation with whom the person might have had dealings? I presume that the agency would tell those people and organisations, "We've got a dodgy one here, keep an eye out," or, "If you've had any dealings with this applicant you might be about to get stitched up."

Mr. Field: Liberal Democrat Members may vote against the new clause, but the wish of the House is that the Government should have the power to get that information from the private sector. The new clause proposes that, to some extent, relevant information might move in the opposite direction.

Next Section

IndexHome Page