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Lord Goodhart: I do not think that the Minister has met the force of the argument, which is not just mine but that of the president of the tribunals, that the present

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arrangements lack an adequate independent element of monitoring. However, in the circumstances, perhaps the best thing that I can do is to wait and see the form of the amendments which the Minister will be tabling later on the subject of the reporting obligations of the Secretary of State and other persons. Therefore, on this occasion, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 4 and 5 not moved.]

Clause 2 [Use of computers]:

Baroness Anelay of St. Johns moved Amendment No. 6:


Page 1, line 21, leave out from ("made") to end of line 4 on page 2 and insert--
("(a) by an officer of his acting under his authority employing for the purposes of relevant calculations a computer for the operation of which such an officer is responsible; and
(b) in the case of a decision, determination or assessment that may be made or a certificate that may be issued by a person providing services to the Secretary of State, by such a person employing for the purposes of relevant calculations a computer for the operation of which such a person is responsible.").

The noble Baroness said: Clause 2 introduces new powers about how decisions on social security benefits and other business areas are to be made. It allows decisions to be taken not only by officers acting on behalf of the Secretary of State, but also by computers for which such officers are responsible. It also allows for decisions made by a private sector service provider to be similarly made by computers.

The amendment seeks to remove from the clause the phrase that relates to the making of a decision by a computer and introduces a phrase which allows a computer to be used by persons who are themselves responsible for the decisions taken.

Clause 2, as currently drafted, raises questions of both practice and principle with regard to the use of computers. I am decidedly not trying to be a stick-in-the-mud; nor am I afraid of technical innovation--far from it, I am most glad to exploit all the advantages offered by IT at every turn. Particularly now that we are in opposition, for however short a time that may be, one is very much aware of the need to be able to get at all sources of information. I am one of those Members of this House whose first job when they arrive here is to turn to the Internet, particularly to "Farmers' Weekly Interactive", and to discover, in my guise as spokesman on agriculture, what I ought to know on any particular day. I have no fears about using IT and, as I have said, I am most glad to exploit it.

I believe that we can use information technology effectively in streamlining the welfare system, but that we must do so with caution. If the use of computers can release staff to concentrate their efforts on improving the service to the public, that should be encouraged, but only if we then fully understand--perhaps one should say "compute"--the risks we may be taking along the way.

When I served as a member of the Social Security Advisory Committee, I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to visit local offices during the years

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in which information technology was introduced to the service on a rolling programme, benefit by benefit. I pay tribute to the staff who made so many adjustments over such a relatively short period. There was much training and heartache because of problems with both hardware and software. They moved from the paper processing of every single change made by the stroke of a pen to the use of screens. My visit to the local office in Toxteth took place on the very day that it went live on the Social Fund computation and the whole system crashed. I hope that it had nothing to do with my visit! We were lucky that the staff were able to cope by reverting to pens and making their own calculations.

I am reminded of a recent visit to Northern Ireland when one of those whose responsibility it was to manage the system commented that to manage it was difficult because the staff simply would not be able to perform the tasks now performed by officers using the screens. Such is the advance that staff in the local DSS offices and benefit agencies have had to achieve in a short time.

I am aware that today the Prime Minister makes speeches about the problems that we may face here and around the world with the arrival of the millennium bug. Press reports have said that he will be referring to potential problems about the payment of benefit in the year 2000 and that that may be disrupted. All of us have read predictions about what may happen at that stage.

Can the noble Baroness provide an assurance that the provisions of Clause 2 will not be enacted until all DSS, and the relevant agency, computers, including all those with which they may be networked--for example, on housing benefit interchange of information--are guaranteed to be millennium compliant and will not fall sick of the millennium bug at the appropriate time?

Clause 2 also raises serious questions of principle. Should a wedge be driven between the concepts of decision and responsibility? One of the achievements of English law is to find means of dealing with decision and responsibility in such a way as always to be able to identify one with the other. Where a decision is made, there the responsibility lies.

The computer can in some extended sense make a decision. We are all aware of that from the number of leaflets that pour through the door reminding us that we may wish to renew a subscription to a particular newspaper or magazine. Certainly, decisions can be made as to when to trip in reminders, but it is only when the computer is correctly programmed that it can carry out a series of calculations or issue forms or reminders at pre-programmed points. A computer cannot be held responsible in layman's terms in a legal sense.

Have the Government fully taken into account the impact that the divorce of decision from responsibility could have on English law? I was interested to read the comments of Mr. Tony Lynes in his paper The End of Independent Adjudication. He says that it may appear unreasonable to object to computer-made decisions. He goes on to ask:


    "after all, what could be more independent than a computer?".

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I notice that the Minister laughs. I agree with her scepticism on this matter. I am glad to see that she exhibits such scepticism. He goes on to say:


    "But, of course, someone has to give the computer its instructions".
If I give my computer instructions, when it goes wrong I know that it is my mistake. Who is responsible for programming the computer, and what redress does anyone have if the programme itself is wrong?

Clause 2 does not answer that question but merely provides that an officer of the Secretary of State must be responsible for the operation of the computer, whatever that may mean. How far will the computer's responsibilities extend? Under Clause 10 the Secretary of State may revise her own decisions. Does this mean that one computer will be able to revise the decision of another or even of the same computer? What are the implications of allowing a computer to revise a decision on its own initiative? Where is all of this leading us? Could a future social security Bill provide for appeals to be heard by computer? All of these questions deserve serious consideration in the course of this Bill and will need to be resolved at some stage.

My amendment would not militate against the greater use of computers; far from it. I do not wish it to do so. It specifically permits and encourages such use but seeks to do so in such a way that we do not have to lose either the concept or the reality of having a person involved in the decision who can be held to be responsible for that decision. I beg to move.

5.45 p.m.

Lord Goodhart: I intend to be brief. We fully support the amendment which raises an important matter of principle. We agree with the noble Baroness that computers should be treated as a tool of decision-making and not as the decision-maker itself. I also read and was persuaded by the article written by Tony Lynes to which the noble Baroness has referred. I am very happy to support the amendment.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: Clause 2 introduces new provisions for how decisions on social security benefits and other business areas may be made. It allows decisions to be made not only by officers acting on behalf of the Secretary of State but also by computers for which such officers are responsible. Furthermore, where decisions are to be made by a private sector service provider, these may similarly be made by computers.

It is important to consider the provision in this clause in context. Currently, automated decision-making in the private sector is not unlawful; indeed, it is commonplace in the financial sector where it was pioneered by credit reference agencies. However, in relation to this department the law requires that social security and child support decisions are made by particular officers or by the Secretary of State or by officers acting on her behalf. This has the practical effect of excluding automated decision-making by computer unless the decisions are approved by officials. Hence the need for this clause which removes the anomaly by stating explicitly that decisions may be made by computer.

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The question is: which decisions? Clearly, there are some kinds of decisions which are not suitable to be made by a computer process. I can reassure the Committee that decisions which require the exercise of discretion or judgment will continue to be made by the department's trained staff. Examples of decisions requiring the exercise of discretion may be where there is a question whether for benefit purposes a couple are living together as husband and wife, or whether a claimant has deprived himself or herself of capital, or whether a 16 or 17 year-old would suffer hardship if refused benefit.

However, there are significant benefits to be gained for customers and staff from greater automation where computers can be programmed to apply a series of tests to factual data in order to produce a consistent result; in other words, the clause enables us to make the best use of new technology. At present staff working in the various agencies have access to central computer systems via terminals on their desks. Staff make decisions and input information to the computer. However, modern computer systems are capable of using information already held and once programmed with the rules are capable of applying those rules automatically without the need for human intervention. They cannot make discretionary decisions: they will be made by staff.

I give some examples where computers will appropriately make a decision. I take the field of child benefit. At present, for most child benefit and one-parent benefit applications, information is input to the computer. The system calculates awards and generates payments. The computer produces a schedule listing all of the awards that have been calculated over a given period of time and the adjudication officer signs to authorise all the awards on the schedule. While in theory the adjudication officer is deemed to be making a decision on each individual case, the reality is that there is no individual consideration in the vast majority of cases, of which there are nearly 1 million every year. The computer system calculates and awards benefit without any human consideration.

Making provision in the Bill for automated decision-making will legitimise what happens at present. They will be able to calculate and award benefit in such straightforward cases without the need for human intervention.

Clearly the initial factual data need to be accurately complete, and checks will be made to ensure that. With greater support from IT, agency staff will be able to concentrate on ensuring that all the necessary information and evidence which the claimant has supplied is collated and checked. That will lead to improvements in speed and quality, and should allow staff to refocus their efforts on overall customer services.

Where decisions are made by an automated decision-making process, they will still be made in accordance with the facts and the law, and the customer's appeal rights will not be affected. The Secretary of State and departmental accounting officers will continue to be accountable to Parliament for all

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decisions made on their behalf, including those made by a computer. It is people, not machines or processes, which have responsibility and accountability for outputs and outcomes. Neither agency staff nor Ministers will hide behind any excuse which suggests that it was the computer's fault, and has nothing to do with them.

I understand the concerns that lie behind the amendment and that it is novel for this Committee to be asked to endorse the specific use of technical equipment which we all take for granted in many other spheres of activity. However, I am sure that, on reflection, the Committee will appreciate the extent to which the amendment would inhibit the agencies in their objective of improving service delivery. It would substantially hinder our programme to modernise social security by retaining unnecessary breaks in our business processes.

The amendment would mean a missed opportunity. It would prevent us from taking the organisation forward to a new level of efficiency and customer service. I can assure the noble Baroness that the system will not be brought into use until it is millennium compliant. For those reasons, I ask the noble Baroness to withdraw the amendment.


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