Social Security Fraud Bill [Lords]

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Mrs. Lait: I would hate it to be recorded that the Oppn were recommending publication of the names of investigating officers. I am concerned purely about the relationship between the companies and the DSS.

Mr. Rooker: We are dealing with lots of companies, so I am not sure how the 175 divided by 14 will be disseminated. I cannot be precise about the issue because we are still in discussion with businesses about how far we can go in sharing information—whether it is legitimate for us to do that to help business. We are not members of CIFAS, so there cannot be reciprocity.

We currently prosecute and sanction 400 people a week, or 20,000 a year. Those cases must be put together and they must be legitimate, which involves a lot of paperwork and administration. The sanction is not a rap over the knuckles, as we have made clear—it is repayment of the fiddled benefit plus 30 per cent. Where offenders are bang to rights, we sanction them. If the offender does not like the sanction, we prosecute, and we must be ready to do that. An enormous amount of work is involved. I am not saying that we do not want to have to go to court because it will delay us and we want electronic access by the hour and the minute, although the fact is that it would slow us down. We do not believe that there are grounds for third-party supervision of our staff at the level at which they work, simply because checks and balances already exist.

I assure the hon. Member for Beckenham and the Committee that we shall review all the powers and their operation after three years. We are already on record as saying that we will do that. If changes are required in the light of experience, they will be made. It is not a question of saying, ``This is what we are going to do, and off we go.'' These are innovative powers for the Department, which are tightly controlled and intended to provide the bare bones. Their use will be restricted to the cases of a group of people whom we think are not telling the truth when they make a claim for benefit.

Mrs. Lait: I am grateful to the Minister for those answers. I am glad to hear that he and the Department are in discussion with the companies concerned. It will be useful to update ourselves on progress by having a debate on Report, at which point I may return to the amendment. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mrs. Lait: I beg to move amendment No. 17, in page 2, line 25, after ``information'', insert

    ``directly relevant to the claim being investigated''.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to take amendment No. 18, in page 2, line 35, at end insert—

    ``.—( ) It shall not be legitimate to make a person the subject of an inquiry under this section on the basis of a spot check or any automated form of selection.''

Mrs. Lait: We referred in the previous debate to fishing expeditions. The amendments relate to the fact that this part of the Bill contains the potential for an inquiry to go wider than is required by its terms of reference.

Information gathered by investigating officers should be directly relevant to the case that they are attempting to prove. As I understand it, the Bill does not define the information that investigators are allowed to request. The draft code of practice envisages that information requested from a bank will be provided in the form of bank statements. However, Liberty has pointed out that such statements would provide more information than necessary. For instance, in an investigation of someone who is believed to be working while claiming benefit, an investigator would look for evidence of wages paid into a person's bank or building society account. It would not be appropriate to request all the information about the bank account. The investigator should specify, for instance, that he requires information about sums that could be regarded as wages. Although there is a national minimum wage, I suspect that someone who is working while claiming benefit will not necessarily have recourse to the law on the national minimum wage. However, it may be possible to calculate a day's national minimum wage income, which would be a reasonable sum to request information about, rather than the odd tenner here and there. The question is whether the investigator should have sight of the complete bank statement or only of sums that are directly relevant to the claim being investigated.

Amendment No. 18 would outlaw an inquiry under the powers to obtain information powers that was undertaken on the basis of a spot check or automated form of selection. The Bill states that the investigating officer must have reasonable grounds before seeking to use such powers. The amendment would place safeguards within the Bill rather than merely in the code or practice, as it is felt that some of the provisions in the Bill do not protect the interests of benefit claimants. Although I do not want to deal with the issue of the Information Commissioner, at one stage she believed that there was too much investment in the code of practice.

On Second Reading, the Secretary of State and the Minister said that the Information Commissioner was satisfied with the Bill. In the brief time available to me, I said that I hoped that the Minister would explain to the Committee why the commissioner was satisfied with the Bill, having been dissatisfied previously, rather than making the bald statement that she was satisfied. I hope that at some point he will do so, perhaps when we reach clause 3.

The Information Commissioner was unhappy with this part of the Bill. We want the Bill to require that information be specifically related to the purpose of the inquiry. It should not be possible for investigating officers to obtain information that goes wider than that which they require. If the Minister can assure me that we are misinterpreting this part of the Bill and can explain why, I am sure that we shall be satisfied, but we remain worried that the information required could be too broad.

12 noon

Mr. Webb: I wish to speak briefly in support of amendment No. 17. To pre-empt the Minister's response, I assume that the answer will be that of course we shall only ask for information that is directly relevant, and that it is in the code of practice that we would do so. I accept his point that we cannot make the code of practice superior to the statute. However, given that we could include in the Bill something that is so central to what we would want in the code of practice by adding just a few words, and that it would provide the required further check and balance, I hope that the Minister will regard the amendment as in the spirit of the code of practice and will be willing to add those words. Doing so would cost the Government nothing. If the amendment is in the spirit of what is intended anyway, why not add the proposed words?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security (Angela Eagle): The hon. Member for Beckenham tabled the two amendments because she is worried about the potential for ``fishing'', as it has universally come to be known in our debates. Before I speak to the amendments in detail, I reiterate our view that there are no grounds or desire in the Bill to go fishing for information. The powers that the Bill grants do not allow our fraud investigators to fish in any way.

I refer Opposition Members to the relevant part of the Bill, proposed new subsection (2C), which encompasses what an authorised officer should be able to do in exercising his or her powers, and includes the phrase ``reasonable grounds''. It refers to requiring

    ``information from any person by virtue of his falling within subsection (2A) above unless it appears to that officer that there are reasonable grounds for believing that the identified person to whom it relates is—

    (a) a person who has committed, is committing or intends to commit a benefit offence; or

    (b) a person who (within the meaning of Part 7 of the Contributions and Benefits Act) is a member of the family of a person falling within paragraph (a) above.''

The provision is deliberately tightly drawn to prevent ``fishing''. In considering what is relevant and reasonable, my right hon. Friend the Minister has spent a lot of time giving assurances in response to detailed questions about the previous group of amendments on how the powers will be used and how they do not allow for general fishing expeditions.

Amendments Nos. 17 and 18 are unnecessary. The Bill and existing legislation already provide sufficient safeguards to ensure that only information that is relevant and reasonable can be requested. Proposed new subsection (2C) provides that authorised officers may not make inquiries about a person unless it appears to them that reasonable grounds exist for suspecting that a benefit offence is either occurring or will soon be occurring.

The measures are to be included in existing legislation, and provide that authorised officers may obtain information only when it is reasonable for their purposes—so it must be relevant to the inquiry about the benefit offence. If authorised officers do not think that a piece of information is relevant, they may not ask for it. If we received irrelevant information, under the Data Protection Act 1998 we would be obliged to destroy it as soon as possible. I hope that, taken together, those two pieces of legislation provide reassurance.

Amendment No. 18 would prevent us from making inquiries about people selected

    ``on the basis of a spot check or any automated form of selection.''

The amendment is unnecessary because the provisions that I have just outlined provide a protection against automated selection or spot checks. An authorised officer must also have ``reasonable grounds for believing'' under proposed new subsection (2C). That does not include the capacity to make spot checks or to instigate any automated form of selection that will randomly throw up people who would not come under that subsection. The amendment offers reassurances that are already in the Bill.

The amendment would have some unfortunate effects because it would prevent us from making inquiries except in the cases in which proposed new subsection (2C) applies. Any other suspicions of fraud would arise from evidence such as tip-offs, faulty identity documents, suspicious behaviour and so on. None of that is automated; we do not have automated tip-off mechanisms. The fraud hotline produces most of our tip-offs.

Proposed new subsection (2C) states that we need reasonable grounds for making inquiries, but reasonable grounds do not include random checks or spot checks. If the hon. Member for Beckenham wants that to be put on the record, I am more than happy to do so. Random checks or spot checks are not included in the definitions in proposed new subsection (2C). Our decisions must be based on objective evidence, which means that there must be reasonable grounds—that is, a well-founded belief that benefit fraud is occurring or about to occur.

I hope that those assurances will be taken in the spirit intended. We do not believe that there are any spaces or holes in the drafting of proposed new subsection (2C) that will allow for the trawling or fishing about which hon. Members have expressed concern. I hope that the hon. Lady and the hon. Member for Northavon will take those assurances at face value, because they are the strongest that I can give.

 
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