Social Security Fraud Bill [Lords]

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Mrs. Lait: We come to another important clause. The amendments follow some of the worries that we raised about clause 1. We want to try as far as possible to limit the famous fishing expeditions. Amendment No. 22 would insert the word ``specific'' into the clause, because ``information'' is too broad a word. Amendments Nos. 24 and 29 would substitute the word ``specified'' for the word ``particular''. Amendment No. 25, two groups down on the selection list, is based on a similar philosophy. It would narrow the opportunities for fishing expeditions. I shall refer to it now, if I may, and not speak to it later. Amendments Nos. 31 and 32 will encourage a similar debate to the one that we had earlier about the code of practice and magistrates. Amendments Nos. 33 and 34 would narrow the investigation.

The clause deals with electronic information, which is why some of our debates will be familiar. It needs tightening up. It may seem odd to those members of the Committee who know me to hear me sounding as though I know the first thing about computers and electronic information. [Hon. Members: ``Hear, hear.''] I heard that mutter.

Equally, it may seem an oddity that, before I was privileged to become our pensions spokesman, one of the aspects with which I dealt was information warfare and the use of computers to disable systems. I do not suggest that the Bill falls into that category, but I learned a fair amount about electronic systems in theory, if not in practice, and that stood me in good stead in considering the clause.

We are conscious of how electronic systems can be used and how easy it is to find information, even given the safeguards in clause 1 and the code of practice and legal constraints on investigating officers. Navigation around computer systems is relatively easy, even with firewalls and all the other security that can be built in, and people may be tempted to look for information about a specific individual or a particular individual—indeed, some of the amendments would replace the word ``particular'' with the word ``specific''.

As I anticipated semantic arguments about the difference between ``particular'' and ``specific'', I dug out my dictionary and found the definitions. According to my ``Chambers Twentieth Century Dictionary'', ``particular'' means

    ``relating to a part: predicating of part of the class denoted by the subject . . . pertaining to a single person or thing: individual: special'',

and ``specific'', or ``specified'', means

    ``constituting or determining a species: pertaining to a species: peculiar to a species: of special application or origin: specifying: precise''.

I am not sure whether reading out those definitions leads to clarity on the issue, but I can just hear lawyers in a court of law, spending a large part of the time defining the difference between ``particular'' and ``specific''. In my view, ``particular'' is wider than ``specific''. To limit as far as possible the opportunities to provide information about an individual that is wider than the DSS or the Benefits Agency requires, we need—because easier, electronic access gives such freedoms—to tie down as far as possible the opportunities for investigations. That is why we tabled the amendments.

Angela Eagle: The issues raised by the amendments are similar to those raised by the previous group, of which the lead amendment was No. 14. I shall try not to go over the same ground in dealing with the issues raised. The clause pertains to electronic access to information, which is one of the major differences.

Amendment No. 22 would limit authorised officers to obtaining only specific, rather than particular, information when making requests. I shall not follow the hon. Lady by quoting from dictionaries, as I am not sure whether doing so illustrated her point or ours. I shall deal with some of the safeguards that surround the power.

I ask the hon. Lady to remember that fraud occurs when people lie about their circumstances, the work that they do, who they are, the money that they have, where they live and who they live with. In discovering those lies, we and our authorised officers must be concerned to protect the huge social security budget from fraud and abuse. That is the aim of the Committee.

Authorised officers will obtain information to discover the truth on a case-by-case basis; there will be suspicions, tip-offs or information about a particular sort of fraud that has been, is being or is about to be perpetrated by a particular individual. In each case, authorised officers will know what information they need to obtain to check that a fraud is not taking place. However, in discussing the matter generally, we can only outline those categories and leave the decision about accessing the relevant information in the circumstances to the authorised officer. That can be done only on a case-by-case basis.

12.45 pm

Authorised officers will not ask for anything that they do not need and can ask only for what it is reasonable to ask for. Those are the protections that are in the Bill and the principles that will guide officers when making requests in writing. We seek to apply the same principles in clause 2 when the information is made available electronically rather than in writing, as dealt with in clause 1.

When we negotiate with information providers over electronic access, we will tell them the information is needed and that which is not needed, to which we will not be seeking access. If we came by information that was irrelevant to the inquiry, it would be disposed of in accordance with the Data Protection Act. That is spelled out in more detail in paragraph 5.5 of the draft code of practice. I suspect that that is in both versions of that document—the one with the red cover and the one with the green cover. We will also ensure that records are kept of all access to electronic information using the powers of the legislation.

One should bear in mind that electronic information leaves an audit trail that can be checked by the monitoring organisations to ensure that there has not been unauthorised access. That means that management know who has accessed the information, on whose behalf and for what reason. We also ask organisations used to provide on-line access to information to keep records of all access for audit trail purposes. If it appears that authorised officers have obtained or disclosed information unlawfully, or attempted to do so, they will be investigated and dealt with. As my right hon. Friend the Minister said, that can lead to dismissal or even prosecution and jail sentences.

I do not want to deal in great detail with the other amendments, unless the hon. Lady insists, because we have had a long debate about the general principles of clause 1. I hope that she will accept the reassurances that I have given on the safeguards to the electronic access with which we are dealing.

Mrs. Lait: I am grateful for the reassurances, and I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Peter Atkinson: I beg to move amendment No. 23, in page 5, line 4, leave out

    `or is capable of being provided'.

We should be able to deal with the amendment speedily. When the matter was discussed in the other place, considerable concern was expressed that companies could be made to set up complicated and expensive electronic systems to deal with the matters. The noble Baroness Hollis stated that she was happy

    ``to put on the record . . . that the Secretary of State will not require any business to provide electronic access to its records unless it is already doing so, or plans to do so for another organisation.''—[Official Report, House of Lords, 6 February 2001; Vol. 621, c. 1053.]

That was reassuring. Her comments referred to the House of Lords code of conduct, but I understand that there may be a similar assurance in the House of Commons code of conduct. Given that those comments are so reassuring, why must such draconian powers be put in the Bill?

Mr. Rooker: I think that I can give the hon. Member for Hexham a satisfactory answer to his legitimate question. We intend to require access to electronic records when such access is already provided to another organisation. For example, credit reference agencies and British Telecom already provide electronic access to information to other organisations.

Alternatively, we would use the power when an organisation wished to provide the Department of Social Security with electronic access to records, even though it did not provide such access to others. That would occur if an information provider decided that it was the most cost-effective way of working. That is the reason for the inclusion of the words, ``capable of being provided''.

It would not be reasonable to require an organisation to provide electronic access to information when the organisation was unwilling to provide such information, and when it gave access only to individuals. For example, it would be unreasonable to require electronic access to bank records simply because a bank provided electronic banking to its customers. It would also be unreasonable for the Department to require an organisation to provide electronic access to records because it allowed such access to its employees. Such examples would not be a reasonable use of the power.

An organisation may wish to provide, and be capable of providing access, but may not provide information to other organisations. It should be able to provide access, where to do so would be cheaper. The House of Commons version of the code of practice deals with that matter in paragraph 4.16. I shall not read it to the Committee because it is unambiguous. However, the final sentence states:

    ``The Secretary of State and local authorities will not require organisations to update their computer software in order to provide electronic access.''

Therefore, we are placing minimal burdens on business.

We need the words in the Bill because, without them, an organisation that did not provide electronic access to others could not provide access to the Department of Social Security, if it wished to. I hope that I have put the matter in as gold-plated and copper-bottomed a way as in the other place, and I hope that I have satisfied the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Peter Atkinson: I am grateful to the Minister for his reassuring comments. I am sure that people who were concerned about the matter will be reassured when they read his words, and I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

        Further consideration adjourned.—[Mr. Pearson.]

        Adjourned accordingly at eight minutes to One o'clock till Thursday 5 April at five minutes to Ten o'clock.

The following Members attended the Committee:
Maxton, Mr. John (Chairman)
Atkinson, Mr. Peter
Burden, Mr.
Davidson, Mr.
Eagle, Angela
Hepburn, Mr.
Humble, Mrs.
Lait, Mrs.
Mountford, Kali
Pearson, Mr.
Prentice, Mr. Gordon
Rooker, Mr.
Watts, Mr.
Webb, Mr.
Wilshire, Mr.

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