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Session 2000-01
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Standing Committee Debates
Social Security Fraud Bill [Lords]

Social Security Fraud Bill [Lords]

Standing Committee A

Thursday 5 April 2001

[Mr. John Maxton in the Chair]

Social Security Fraud Bill [Lords]

9.55 am

Clause 2

Electronic access to information

Mr. Peter Atkinson (Hexham): I beg to move amendment No. 26, in page 5, line 18, leave out

    `that a person is required to enter into'

and insert

    `entered into with a person'.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to take the following amendments: No. 28, in page 5, line 46, leave out from `may' to end of line 48 and insert

    `enter into arrangements with that person under which authorised officers may obtain by electronic access to those records the information which they could have requested by a notice issued in accordance with section 109B(1)'.

No. 30, in page 6, line 12, leave out

    `that a person is required to enter into'

and insert

    `entered into with a person'.

Mr. Atkinson: We need not greatly trouble you or the Committee with the amendments, Mr. Maxton, as we covered their flavour in a previous sitting. They relate to a point that we made about the language in the Bill and whether people will be forced to provide information in ways that might be difficult or costly. The Minister of State gave us considerable assurances on Tuesday.

The amendments, especially Nos. 26 and 30, would moderate the language of the Bill. The clause ``requires'', and we want to soften that to introduce more of a joint agreement between the provider of the information and the Department of Social Security, rather than a forcing or requiring. We are asking for more gentle language—``enter into'' rather than ``required''.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security (Angela Eagle): The hon. Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson) is right to point out the similarities between the debate that would in normal circumstances be triggered by the amendments and the debate that we had earlier in the week. He suggests that he was reassured by the undertaking and clarifications that my right hon. Friend the Minister of State gave the Committee when we considered the equivalent amendments to clause 1. The same applies to the amendments to clause 2, which also deals with providing information, but electronically.

The hon. Gentleman is attempting to introduce gentler language, as he describes it. Although the effect of the amendments, taken together, would be gentler, they would also make the provision of electronic information voluntary for organisations holding it, rather than a requirement, as the Bill provides.

As my right hon. Friend the Minister of State said, we shall not make unreasonable requests or put unreasonable requirements on organisations. Nor shall we expect them to provide electronic information to us if they do not provide it to others or require them to set up electronic databases for our convenience. That is outwith the scope of our intention.

Electronic information gathering is quicker, cheaper and often more efficient for those who provide the information, as well as for us. It is cheaper by a factor of 10 to one, and it is often less burdensome for providers, too. I hope that the hon. Gentleman accepts the assurances that my right hon. Friend the Minister of State gave and, despite having raised the matter, appreciates the point of our requiring electronic information, if it is available, to be given. As we have explained to the Committee, we shall not make unreasonable or overly costly requirements of electronic providers. With those assurances, I hope that he will withdraw the amendment.

Mr. Peter Atkinson: We were pleased to receive assurances on Tuesday, and those who expressed anxiety will be able to read the record and the Under-Secretary's comments. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Atkinson: I beg to move amendment No. 27, in page 5, line 28, at end insert `; and

    (e) such arrangements as are necessary to provide that person with a report upon the investigation should they either be incidental to the investigation in process or, if the subject of that investigation, found to be innocent of any wrongdoing'.

The amendment pursues a similar line to amendment No. 26. We are trying to change the balance in the Bill in favour of the information provider. As drafted, the Secretary of State can demand access to information under a system established by the Bill that may not suit the provider of that information. The amendment seeks to place a safeguard in the Bill to ensure that all investigations are policed properly and can be held up to scrutiny by those who find themselves subject to the information-obtaining powers. It provides a safety net for investigating officers and benefit claimants.

10 am

Liberty picked up on the problem during the consultation process, and is anxious that complete records should be kept on the use of the information-obtaining powers, by the investigators and the people and organisations from which information is required. We are seeking assurance on that matter.

Angela Eagle: I hope that I will be able to reassure the hon. Gentleman about the safeguards that are in place to ensure that there is a proper audit trail, monitoring and effective policing of the investigatory powers in the Bill. As my right hon. Friend the Minister rightly said, the powers are modest in nature and, although new, are bound by strict rules. We examined proposed new subsection (2C) in clause 1 and discussed it in detail in our previous sitting.

The amendment seeks to ensure that innocent parties about whom information is required as part of an investigation receive a report of that investigation, and know that information about them has been obtained. The amendment is unnecessary because, as we said in our previous sitting, we will ensure that benefit claimants know that they may be subject to investigatory powers—benefit claim forms will make it clear to claimants that information that they provide may be checked with third parties. We will not use the powers before we have tabled a code of practice, a draft of which has been produced. Once the legislation has reached the statute book, the code of practice will be available to anyone who wishes to know more about our ability to obtain information.

I am arguing that the safeguards sought in the amendment already exist in law, and do not need to be replicated by a specific amendment to the Bill. First, the knowledge will be included on all claim forms. Secondly, the Data Protection Act 1998 already provides for individuals to find out about the information held on them, regardless of whether they are guilty, innocent, or however the hon. Gentleman wishes to categorise them. Individuals are free at any time to ask organisations—including the DSS—what data are held on them, and the organisation must provide that information unless that would jeopardise an investigation.

We also believe that the hon. Gentleman should consider the number of investigations—DSS and local authority investigators conduct more than 1 million each year. The amendment would make it incumbent upon us to provide information to anyone who may have been an innocent bystander in an investigation, which is a cumbersome way of achieving what is already a protection under the Data Protection Act. It would also be a hugely expensive and impractical way of providing the reassurances that we are already expected in law to provide.

I hope that, with those reassurances about our duties under existing statutes and our willingness to provide information to people who request it, the hon. Gentleman will withdraw his amendment.

Mr. Peter Atkinson: I am grateful to the Minister for explaining our amendment, which is always helpful. I am reassured by the Minister's comments and I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mrs. Jacqui Lait (Beckenham): I beg to move amendment No. 35, in page 7, line 2, after `refuses', insert `without reasonable grounds'.

The amendment is yet another attempt to ensure that protection is given—this time to the external agencies that may be required to provide information during an investigation that is carried out according to the Bill's provisions. We would like the Government to include the words ``without reasonable grounds'' in reference to an organisation's refusal to comply with a requirement to provide information because many organisations, as the Minister knows, have expressed worries about some demands that the Bill may place on them. We have discussed the number of inquiries, and implications on staffing and resources.

British Telecom has commented:

    ``It is . . . difficult to estimate the potential operational, cost and resource impact on any organisation asked to supply information under this proposed legislation, although it could well be significant, particularly if the organisation in question has a large and diverse national customer base.''

Most organisations that will be required to provide information have such a base and will have to put a mechanism in place to manage the supply of information to ensure appropriate validation, and that quality, compliance and management checks are in place. That would have direct monetary and resource implications.

Orange made the same point in an e-mail to me.

Mr. Steve Webb (Northavon): A text message?

Mrs. Lait: No, an e-mail. Orange does not send text messages to me. I would probably not be able to read them, so I am glad that it uses proper English.

Orange pointed out that information would be required within 10 days, which is a tight time constraint, and envisages that it would cost between £205,000 and £300,000 to upgrade a remote system to deal with information requests. Therefore, significant costs would be incurred in complying with demands and, although I plan to raise the matter of costs in a later amendment, I ask the Minister of State to reassure us that no demands will be made without reasonable grounds. Does he not think that an amendment such as this would be helpful to safeguard the Benefits Agency, local authorities and the DSS, as well as helping outside organisations that may face extensive costs and large demands on their time and management energy?


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