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Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede moved Amendment No. 30:


Page 9, line 36, at end insert ("or
(b) other information which would assist with the making of a grant under this Act in respect of a child about whose parent or guardian information falling within sub-paragraph (a) is not available, and information falling within this sub-paragraph shall for the purposes of this Schedule be treated as though it fell within that sub-paragraph").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, the purpose of this amendment is to broaden the information available to enable those not on the DSS database to be eligible to receive a voucher. The declared purpose of this Bill is to provide nursery education for all four year-olds. This amendment is intended to highlight the fact that there are some families who are not on the Child Benefit Agency register and they will not receive a letter asking them to apply for a voucher. They will, therefore, be excluded from the scheme unless other information can be made available to include them.

These families include those who are in temporary accommodation, those who have no permanent home, travellers, refugees and asylum seekers. Their children are often vulnerable and most in need of a nursery place. I believe it is discriminatory not to include them in the scheme. Parents who have moved house who may not have informed the Child Benefit Agency of their new address will also lose out. Four year-olds whose parents have split up are often living with other relatives or foster parents; they will not have the opportunity for a nursery place if the information does not go to the right address.

If, as has happened in Phase 1, the onus is on the provider to find these families and to provide them with forms, as well as to help them fill them in, then this requires considerable additional time, which will be costly. Some providers, who may currently have a high percentage of families not on the Child Benefit Agency register, may be forced to close because of insufficient funding. The vouchers should be produced at the beginning of the term if grants are to be received in time to pay staff, so any delays are crucial.

Some parents who did not get a letter in Phase 1 had to ring several times before Capita, the private company administering the vouchers, would believe that they were eligible. Some parents are not able to do this.

There have been discrepancies in the figures being produced by the DfEE and the LEAs in Phase 1. This is likely to reflect the fact that the DfEE does not have figures about children not on the Child Benefit Agency register.

In the introduction to the DfEE document The Next Steps, explaining the voucher scheme, it says:


9 Jul 1996 : Column 282

For some parents it may provide nothing unless this amendment is passed. I beg to move.

Lord Henley: My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lord for explaining what he saw as the purpose of this amendment. It also has an effect that I suspect might be unintended. The effect would be to extend the power of the Secretary of State to supply relevant information beyond that prescribed by regulations made under sub-paragraph (2) of paragraph 1. I would regard that extension of powers, which I am sure is no doubt unintended, as undesirable.

As regards the protection afforded to confidential information which, I am sure, is the prime concern of the noble Lord, clearly we are all concerned to protect personal information. We must ensure that proper controls are in place. However, the unauthorised disclosure of information supplied by parents, rather than by the Child Benefit Centre, will, in practice, be prohibited by the Data Protection Act once it constitutes computer data. It is unnecessary to extend Schedule 2 in the way proposed. As I noted before, the amendment as tabled has some undesirable effects.

I should also tell the noble Lord that there is no restriction on the information that anyone can provide to the voucher agency. That information would then be protected by the Data Protection Act. I hope that I have understood the noble Lord. I also hope that he will take care to read what I have said in Hansard and that he will recognise that the amendment contains--I am sure that it was unintentional--an attempt to extend the powers which, as I made clear, is undesirable.

Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede: My Lords, I thank the Minister for his response to my amendment. He is right to say that it was not the intention of the amendment to extend the power of regulations. As I believe I said, it was merely a vehicle to raise an issue; namely, that some families--and I gave examples of them--who are not currently on the lists of the Child Benefit Agency may not be contacted. I also went on to say that I believe that the onus should be on the provider, as in Phase 1, to contact those families.

However, I am happy to withdraw the amendment and look at the drafting issues raised by the Minister. Nevertheless, I should just like to comment on the fact that the noble Lord constantly refers to what he cites as excellent figures in the London Borough of Wandsworth, which has a 95 per cent. take-up ratio. That means that one child in 20 is completely unaccounted for and, so far as I know, no one in Wandsworth or the DfEE, or, indeed, the Child Benefit Agency, knows what has happened to that child. In my view, that is simply not good enough. The purpose of the amendment was to raise the issue of that small minority of children who may slip through the gap through no fault of their own. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

9 Jul 1996 : Column 283

Lord Morris of Castle Morris moved Amendment No. 31:


Page 10, line 30, at end insert--
(" . The Secretary of State shall within three months of the coming into effect of this Schedule and annually thereafter lay before Parliament a report setting out the extent and manner of operation of safeguards as to the unauthorised disclosure of information mentioned in this Schedule together with his assessment of the effectiveness of those safeguards.").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, there are major concerns about the use of public money to fund a private company to administer the scheme. The total costs have not been disclosed yet. More serious still are concerns about how the company will use, and who else will see, the information provided by the Child Benefit Agency. I am not properly reassured in that respect. Indeed, we already have reports indicating that some parents have been asked a number of personal questions and have been told to provide a rent book, a birth certificate or other evidence about who they are and where they live.

I gather that the company itself is essentially a debt collecting agency. I should like to quote briefly from its 1992 annual report, which says:


    "Capita has included its innovative telephone based 'collection management' system which has been developed to provide organisations with an efficient means of reaching people who owe them money ... Once connected, Capita's callers are guided by a carefully planned script ... on line data entry is available to log the results of each call. From each call Capita is able to determine the reason for non-payment ... pass on up to date information back to the authority for further action. Capita has contacted households without a valid TV licence".
That extract comes from the 1992 report of Capita Group plc. I find it a little disturbing. I should like the Minister to explain briefly and succinctly what safeguards will be in place to protect parents whose information will be lodged with Capita. I beg to move.

Lord Henley: My Lords, I reject the implied criticism of Capita made by the noble Lord. We are very satisfied with the work that the company has done. As one might expect, a few minor teething problems which arose in the pilot have been quickly dealt with. Indeed, providers, parents and the Phase 1 LEAs have all commented favourably on the quality of the service offered to them by Capita.

But having said that, we, like the noble Lord, are concerned to maintain the confidentiality of social security information. It is essential that we exercise a great deal of care over how this information is used and who has access to it. That is why Schedule 2 to the Bill makes it an offence to breach that confidentiality--and sets out the penalties that would be incurred by anyone who did so.

Similar restrictions apply to a wider range of information under social security legislation, but that makes no provision for annual reports about safeguards employed to ensure confidentiality. And I am not aware of any perceived need for a similar parliamentary report in that context. In my view it would be inconsistent and--dare I say it?--unnecessary to introduce such a provision here.

9 Jul 1996 : Column 284

We will require the contractor appointed for phase two of the scheme to take effective measures to ensure the confidentiality of personal information just as we have in phase one. These measures will be set out in the contract for phase two and we shall ensure that a copy is placed in the Library and in the Library of another place. I am sure that the noble Lord will read it and take appropriate comfort from it. Therefore, I hope that I can persuade the noble Lord that the amendment is unnecessary.

10.15 p.m.

Lord Morris of Castle Morris: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for his reassurances. He need not find it necessary to apologise for his use of the word "unnecessary", his apology for which I find quite unnecessary.

I am not wholly persuaded by his arguments about this. I hope that he will watch Capita most carefully in the coming weeks. I shall certainly try to learn more about that interesting plc and I may well wish to return to this matter on Third Reading. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Schedule 3 [Consequential amendments]:


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