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Session 2001- 02
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Delegated Legislation Committee Debates

Draft Social Security (Electronic Communications) (Child Benefit) Order 2002

First Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation

Monday 1 July 2002

[Mr. Edward O'Hara in the Chair]

Draft Social Security (Electronic Communications) (Child Benefit) Order 2002

4.30 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Malcolm Wicks): I beg to move,

    That the Committee has considered the draft Social Security (Electronic Communications) (Child Benefit) Order 2002.

First, on behalf of the Committee, I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. O'Hara. We are going to have an interesting debate on an increasingly important subject in the modern welfare state.

I am pleased to be able to present proposals for the new electronic service.

I should explain that the order uses the affirmative procedure required by section 9(4) of the Electronic Communications Act 2000, and that section 9(3) of the Act does not apply to it. The order uses the powers contained in section 8(4)(g)—by the way, this speech will get better—of the Act. In March 2000, Lord Sainsbury said that affirmative procedure should be adopted for new issues on important subjects, which is the main reason why this order is significant and is before the Committee today.

The draft order will remove obstacles to electronic communications for the purposes of claims and awards of child benefit contained in various regulations that provide for claims, the supply of information, reports of customers' changes of circumstances, making elections and nominations and giving notice for the purpose of priority provisions being made in writing.

I should like to take this opportunity to thank those members of the Committee who came along to our demonstration of the IT earlier this afternoon. Most helpfully, they included the spokespersons for the Conservative party and the Liberal Democratic party. I hope that the demonstration will have helped them to visualise what we are talking about, and to see how much simpler and efficient the new method of contact will be. I am grateful to you, Mr. O'Hara, for allowing that demonstration to take place.

I should add that when our Whip, my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon (Angela Smith), heard that a demonstration was taking place before the Committee, she misunderstood what was going on and became anxious about the controversial nature of what she had assumed was a technical, non-contentious matter.

By virtue of the order, authorised customers will be able to use this electronic service or continue to use the paper or telephone-based services. Once the order comes into force on 28 October, my right hon. Friend

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the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions may approve the detailed method of making electronic claims and authorise people to use it. However, he will obviously want to be satisfied that the new system is robust, secure and reliable, and that it has been thoroughly and successfully tested. If there is any doubt about those matters, he will, as the House would expect, take a cautious approach towards introducing the electronic service until he is satisfied.

Responsibility for the administration of the child benefit centre will transfer to the Inland Revenue in April 2003, and development of the new channel has taken place in close consultation with colleagues in the Inland Revenue.

I should like to set the initiative in the context of wider developments. As we are all aware, electronic communication is becoming more common every day. Over the internet, today's busy mother can obtain advice about ante-natal classes, buy maternity clothes and nappies and secure a celebratory bottle of champagne once her child has been born. The Department for Work and Pensions will soon give her the choice whether or not to claim her child benefit on-line, too.

Already a number of major public services, such as income tax self-assessment are available on-line, and there is ever-widening access to Government information via websites such as UK Online and my Department's website, Worktrain, which allows jobseekers to search for job opportunities on-line. Worktrain is widely used and has received awards for innovation.

Research shows that people have concerns about the security of their personal information on the internet. Fraud, security and data protection experts in my Department have been fully involved in the development of this service from its inception and are content that it satisfies security and privacy requirements.

An independent analysis of the recent difficulties with the Inland Revenue's self-assessment site will provide valuable lessons for developing the security of my Department's new service. A number of measures will be put in place to protect both customers and the Department from misuse of the service. Legislative measures will be introduced through the order, whereas others will be operational.

For example, we will use the Government gateway developed by the Office of the E-envoy, which is already being used by other Departments and offers an encrypted, and therefore private and secure means, of authenticating and sending personal data over the internet. In addition, internal departmental authentication procedures will be used when appropriate to provide security. For example, an actual or certified copy of the birth certificate is currently required as evidence for all new and repeat claims. Until it is possible to obtain certified electronic copies, they will have to be sent by post. Retaining this requirement will provide another layer of security for customers and the Department alike.

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Our customers' propensity to use the internet has already been demonstrated by the numbers of customers accessing simpler electronic versions of benefit claim forms, which are already available on the Department for Work and Pensions website. Of those, child benefit forms are the most widely accessed. Research commissioned by the Department during 2001 demonstrated that 51 per cent. of citizens would be willing to use the internet to make benefit claims.

The electronic service will be made as simple and easy to use as possible. On-screen help, and intelligent ''route-ing'' will ensure that a customer will be required to provide only information that is relevant to their individual circumstances. A number of existing paper forms will be combined into one, which will help reduce delays. Help desks will provide advice and support to customers over the telephone, by e-mail and by fax. I am sure that Committee members will see the potential for a significant improvement to services for child benefit customers.

I shall turn now to explain the more significant provisions under the order, which make possible those service improvements. The preamble to the order provides the statutory assurance that the availability of any records created for the use of electronic communications or storage for any purpose provided for in the order will be no less satisfactory in cases where those communications are used than in other cases. My Department has for some years collected and managed in electronic form data about customers and has done so in accordance with data protection legislation and appropriate security standards. Records created as a result of that new channel will be subject to the same rigorous standards and will be equally available.

Regulations 3 and 4 of the Social Security (Claims and Payments) Regulations 1987 provide a legal framework for customers to claim child benefit, provide information and report changes of circumstances electronically. Paragraph 2 of schedule 9C of the order sets out conditions to be met to complete a valid transaction; for example, the identity of customers must be authenticated in an approved manner. Paragraphs 3 and 4 enable the Secretary of State to use intermediaries and to determine the day of delivery. Paragraphs 5 to 7 create a presumption, for proof in legal proceedings, that the identity of the sender, the fact of, and time of delivery and the content of the electronic communication will be that recorded on an official computer system.

The order is the first step towards a legislative framework for all DWP services to be accessed via the internet, and an important step towards achieving the Government's overall objectives for modernisation. I am satisfied that the provisions are compatible with the European convention on human rights and I commend the order to the Committee.

4.39 pm

Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere): First, I join the Minister in saying what a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. O'Hara. I thank you for permitting the demonstration that took place earlier

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this afternoon and I record my thanks to the Under-Secretary and his officials for putting on that demonstration. Committee members who attended will agree that it was helpful.

The Under-Secretary has made it clear that this electronic method of communication will be in addition to the existing methods. I note that 51 per cent. of users have indicated that they may use the new system, an interesting figure that suggests that the system will be widely used. I ask the Under-Secretary for an assurance—I think that this was implicit in his remarks, but I would like it absolutely clarified—that the methods for validating claims in the new system will be at least as rigorous as those in the existing system for validating claims made under the other ways of claiming child benefit.

Will there be any monitoring of claims once the new system is up and running to ensure that claims are being made properly and that the new system is not being used in any fraudulent or improper way? The Under-Secretary said that, before that stage, there would be testing of the system and that only when that testing satisfied the Secretary of State will it come into operation. Will he consider organising the Department to write to members of the Committee as and when that testing has taken place to tell us its outcome, so that we can be assured that the Secretary of State is satisfied that the system is robust and ready? That would be helpful.

Other than that, and to record my thanks to the Under-Secretary for the demonstration, which has enabled me to distil my remarks, I have no other questions at this stage.

4.41 pm

 
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