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5.45 pm

I do not want to be accused of nit-picking, as my intention is to do more than that. As drafted, the Bill does not make much sense. The test of reasonableness cannot be applied to something that happened in the past, but I am worried that that poor drafting leaves open a possibility that the Government say that they did not intend. The Government say that the fact that a person did something in the past does not give an authorised officer an automatic right to seek that information. However, the fact that the Bill uses the word "or" rather than "and" means that it will be sufficient for a person to have done something in the past.

If the Government agree that that is not what they intend, they should accept the amendment. An authorised officer could take the phrase "has committed" as one of the considerations for deciding whether a person was likely to commit a fraud, but the distinction that I want to make, through the amendment, is that that would not be a sufficient consideration.

The amendment would help the Government achieve what the Under-Secretary assured me in Committee was their intention. The present wording of the Bill would not achieve that.

Mrs. Lait: Amendments Nos. 13 and 14 are very different from the amendment moved by the hon. Member for Northavon (Mr. Webb).

Amendment No. 13 would ensure the efficient transmission of data between the Government and local authorities. Both have authorised officers, and clause 1(2)(d) enables them to detect more types of fraud. However, there is a limitation on the exchange of information between the Government and local authorities. The Local Government Association has said that it has

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However, the Bill maintains the Government's ability to obtain bulk information from utilities, and that has given rise to continuing concern about trawling. The LGA states that it would be

However, if the Government's express aim is to use the transfer of information to aid the fight against fraud associated with property addresses, it would be most beneficial if that information were readily available to those at the heart of the system--after all, it is local authorities that deal with housing benefit. Although the extent of housing benefit fraud may be the subject of debate, there is agreement across the House that there is a lot of it. Part of the Bill's purpose is to tackle that problem. Amendment No. 13 would allow authorised officers in local authorities to source the information direct.

Amendment No. 14 is also related to trawling. It would ensure that any information sourced from the utilities related to a specific address or location. The amendment would tighten the provisions in the Bill, whereas amendment No. 13 would widen them somewhat. The purpose of both amendments is to tease out from the Government their thinking on these matters.

We are still concerned that access to bulk data from utilities will be based on addresses rather than individuals.

The Under-Secretary said in Committee that the intention was to look for evidence such as high or lower use of utility services. The search is on not individual names but addresses. We accept that. However, the Minister of State focused our concern by pointing out that there are 27 million dwellings in the country. The thought of trawling through 27 million addresses just in case one might find someone committing fraud gives everyone cause for concern. We want to hear from the Government that that is not how they envisage their requirement of "reasonable grounds" as specified in clause 1, subsection (2C). I seek reassurance.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security (Angela Eagle): I am somewhat perplexed by the reading of the hon. Member for Northavon (Mr. Webb) of the wording in the Bill. We had an interesting exchange in Committee on that very matter. However, what he thinks of as a modest change--to take out "has committed" from section (2C) as part of the definition of those people on whom we will be allowed to check up--would blow a gaping hole in current powers to check on those who commit benefit fraud. It would make the powers that we seek the permission of the House to take in the Bill useless. What would seem to be a pernickety, or even nit-picking amendment, as he called it, would have serious practical consequences if it were agreed. I hope that our exchanges will reassure him and leave him satisfied that the present wording of the Bill does not do as he fears.

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The hon. Gentleman fears that the Bill would allow any authorised officer to look at the record of any benefit claimant and, if they had ever committed fraud, to use that as the grounds to search for information on an individual basis. Whatever his interpretation of the Bill, I can assure him that it would not allow that to happen without further tests that would protect the individual.

The best way to explain it is to describe the consequences of the hon. Gentleman's amendment for present powers. He is concerned that the words "has committed" mean that we would be able to make those inquiries and that we would need no further justification. I hope that I can reassure him.

First, I will explain why the words "has committed" are crucial. It is not necessarily the case that the frauds that we investigate are current. For example, at the first sign of interest from the Department--even if it is only a routine review of a claim--a fraudster may sign off benefit. He then goes from committing a fraud to being someone who has committed a fraud, which means that we would not be entitled to continue to investigate the unsolved fraud that we had suspected. That is why the phrase "has committed" is in the Bill.

For example, with jobseeker's allowance, it is a requirement to sign every two weeks to say that one is available for and actively seeking work. If one is not in that situation, one is committing a fraud when one signs to say that. As soon as someone has finished signing, the offence is in the past.

The words "has committed" ensure that we can pick up people who are in the process of committing a fraud and who may realise that we are interested and so allow the benefit claim to lapse or who make other arrangements to put what they have done into the past tense. If the hon. Gentleman's version of the Bill became law, it would stop us investigating any individual who went from committing to having committed an offence by signing off.

I shall attempt to explain why the powers about which he is concerned cannot be interpreted as he suggests. The test of reasonableness that he said did not apply, does apply because we are talking about the same claim--it is not necessarily a claim that is way in the past, as the individual may have let it lapse because he has realised that we are on to him. An authorised officer must be satisfied before using the powers in section (2C) that the tests apply. It must appear to him that he has reasonable grounds for believing that the person about whom he is inquiring has committed--perhaps only a day ago--is committing or intends to commit a benefits offence or is a family member of such a person.

Secondly--this is where the Social Security Administration Act 1992 powers come in--he must be satisfied that his inquiry is reasonable for explicitly set-out purposes. I will not go into those as they have been an obvious part of benefit-related powers for some time.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will accept that the amendment would damage our present powers and that the powers that we are considering allow us only to make inquiries about individuals whom we suspect--not any individual in the country who may have committed benefit fraud 20 years ago, but someone whom we suspect of being involved in something in the two areas that the authorised officer has to consider. That has to be done reasonably.

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If the hon. Gentleman needs further assurances, he should reflect on the fact that the terminology used in the Bill is not new. The words "has committed" appear in all the legislation and have always been interpreted as I have outlined rather than in the way he suggested. I hope that he will accept that the law has tended to support my interpretation rather than his worries. In other words, the words simply refer to the fact that there is an unresolved crime that is under investigation. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman would check out section 20C of the Taxes Management Act 1970, which states that there must be reasonable grounds for suspecting that an offence involving serious fraud

The same considerations apply. Obviously, the offence is the one that is under investigation. With those assurances, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will withdraw the amendment.

The hon. Member for Beckenham (Mrs. Lait) mentioned two issues when speaking to amendments Nos. 13 and 14. I hope that I can reassure her about those. First, I suspect that there has been some misunderstanding--she mentioned this--on the part of the local authorities about whether they would be allowed access to the data matching work that may be done for housing benefit purposes. I repeat my assurance that the way in which that works is that we do the matching and pass the information on to them, free of charge.

Amendment No.13 would bring about a less efficient method. We would not pass the information to local authorities--they would have to make their own arrangements to do their own data matching for housing benefit, which would be costly and less efficient. We have records of all those claiming social security benefits and that includes housing benefits. We will do the bulk utility data matching against housing benefit records as well as our social security records and we will pass details of inconsistencies to officers in the Benefits Agency and to authorised officers in local authorities for further investigation.

That means that local authorities do not need a power to obtain the bulk data themselves because we shall do it on their behalf. It explains the drafting of the provision, which limits those powers to officers from Departments. However, I reassure the hon. Lady that we shall not keep to ourselves the results of such data matching in respect of housing benefit. We shall pass it to the appropriate local authorities and--I am happy to confirm--it will be free of charge. I hope that disposes of the need for further action on amendment No. 13.

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