Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Bassam of Brighton: The danger of trying to legislate by example in this way—which is what both noble Lords are seeking to draw me into—is that one does exactly that. It is wrong to declare exactly what kind of examples may or may not be included within the overall term that we are seeking to understand better. Examples do not always necessarily make for a better interpretation.

12 Jun 2000 : Column 1501

As I said, there may be occasions—it has to be termed in that way—where it is right to authorise a warrant for interception to protect the economic well-being of the country. We have to make a judgment when such circumstances arise. In all honesty I said that it might cover events and trends. However, I think that it would be best to leave it at that because I do not think that it would be helpful to pursue these hypothetical examples. I believe that it is right to provide for this power and authority. It is subject to a form of accountability and, of course, the intelligence commissioner will have an interest in these matters.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: Perhaps the noble Lord will give way. We are trying to seek his view on this, in his role as a Government Minister. I accept that my noble friend Lord Astor and I have put forward hypothetical cases here, but they are hypothetical examples that nevertheless reflect two very real situations.

A simple answer could be given in the case of the currency speculation that took place when the pound fell out of the ERM. Does the Minister believe that such a situation would constitute an attack on the country's economic well-being sufficient to merit the issue of a warrant to intercept the telephones or e-mails of certain speculators?

As regards the situation I outlined, does the Minister believe that, if the Bill had been enacted as it stands, the Government should have used the powers conferred to intercept e-mail traffic between BMW and Rover in the days leading up to BMW's decision? Surely the noble Lord can give me a simple "yes" or "no" answer. There is little room for equivocation, given that these were real situations that are now part of our history.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: I can see that the noble Lord is becoming rather excited about this point. However, as the noble Lord well knows, in government these situations are not painted in black and white and do not always respond well to "yes" and "no" decisions. Grey zones apply in such cases.

The question for the Secretary of State to consider in such circumstances would be whether it would amount to a sufficiently serious threat to the economic well-being of this country. In those circumstances, the Secretary of State would then have to consider whether the issue of a warrant was necessary. The matter is simple and turns on a proportionate reaction to a given set of circumstances. The element of proportionality would form an important part of any decision reached by the Secretary of State.

The noble Lord spoke of the kind of warrants he has had to sign as they related to terrorism. In some senses, a parallel can be drawn here. In those situations, the noble Lord would have had to come to a decision whether, in exercising those powers, the decision was right and proportionate to address the seriousness of the threat. Surely he will accept and understand that a black and white, "yes" or "no" response is not always

12 Jun 2000 : Column 1502

appropriate. To try to come to a decision on whether it would be right and proper to issue warrants by responding to examples put across the Dispatch Box would be the wrong way to proceed.

Lord McNally: I am about to withdraw the amendment. Before I do so, perhaps I may say in response to the point made by the noble Viscount, Lord Astor, on the management of the economy at the time the pound came out of the ERM, that there is absolutely no evidence that intelligence of any kind was shown at the time. He should rest assured on that point.

As regards an attempt to break into BMW's communications network, we know that the Americans would have got there first if we had tried to take an action of that kind. I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, has demonstrated the benefit of being well rested and coming late to a debate of this kind. The noble Lord appears to have the energy of a Portuguese substitute tonight. He has been all over the pitch and he is in dazzling form.

Nevertheless, the Minister should take note of the concern expressed in the fax sent to me from the CBI and in other evidence from those at the sharp end, that leaving in the Bill a general catch-all power might have implications for British companies and for our future e-commerce. If nothing else, we shall return to that point later in the proceedings on the Bill. For the moment, however, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 36 to 38 not moved.]

Clause 5 agreed to.

Clause 6 [Application for issue of an interception warrant]:

Lord Cope of Berkeley moved Amendment No. 39:

    Page 9, line 4, at end insert—

("( ) the Chief Executive of the Benefits Agency;").

The noble Lord said: This is another matter that was discussed in another place. The amendment nevertheless makes a valid point, as the answer given by Ministers there was not satisfactory.

The clause specifies who may apply to the Secretary of State or the First Minister for an interception warrant. Most of the people listed are obvious: the Director-General of the Security Service, the senior policeman—a provision which received a certain amount of discussion in the other place—and the Chief of Defence Intelligence. But one notable exception is the Chief Executive of the Benefits Agency.

I am not supposing that the Benefits Agency will wish to use these powers and apply for warrants for individual cases of small benefit fraud. There is quite a large number of such cases and considerable effort is made to try to catch up with them. I do not believe that such cases would be an appropriate use of this provision. However, there is in addition some major fraud involving the Benefits Agency. It involves

12 Jun 2000 : Column 1503

criminal conspiracies on quite a large scale and many millions of pounds, and is large enough to justify an application for a warrant of this character.

Some of the frauds are managed from overseas. I got to know about one in particular—a large fraud that took place some years ago. It was extremely difficult to pursue, partly because much of it was managed from overseas; but it also involved dealing with people in this country. In that case, interception warrants would have been very valuable. I cannot recall whether interception warrants were used in that case, but in some circumstances they would certainly be justified.

It was said in another place that the police tend to become involved if the fraud is large enough. However, it is the Benefits Agency that has ultimate responsibility for stopping fraud in the benefits system and for combating such crimes. Of course, the agency receives assistance from the police from time to time, and some of the powers which only the police have can be necessary in the course of such investigations. But such frauds are complex and involve details of the benefits system which the Benefits Agency knows much better than the police do. It is right that the agency should be in charge of the investigation of such frauds, just as it is right that Customs and Excise should be in charge of investigational matters that come within its purview and which can involve large criminal conspiracies, as I know from my experience in the department. Therefore, given the scale of some benefit fraud, it seems odd that the Chief Executive of the Benefits Agency is not included in the list.

The one practical benefit of the discussions on the matter in another place was to narrow down the fact that the Chief Executive of the Benefits Agency did appear to be the right official to include, rather than others who were suggested at an earlier stage, such as the Permanent Secretary. I believe that to be the case. It would be right to include this official among those listed in this part of the Bill. I beg to move.

The Earl of Northesk: I support my noble friends in this amendment. We all know why the Government have resisted this modest addition to the list of those empowered to make an application for an interception warrant. It is because there is a presumption that instances of benefit fraud will be subject to criminal investigation, and the fact that the police are already listed in Clause 6(2) obviates the need for the Chief Executive of the Benefits Agency to be added to the list. I am bound to say that I find that a singularly lacklustre defence.

I am sure that the noble Lord the Minister, in preparing for scrutiny of the Bill, will have delved into our proceedings on the Data Protection Act 1998. One of the salient features that emerged from our debates on that measure was that there should always be a presumption against making the exceedingly powerful analytical tools of the new technology, such as data matching, available to government departments without statutory authority. Indeed, that premise has its roots in consideration of the Social Security Administration (Fraud) Act 1996—my noble friend Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish may remember it—

12 Jun 2000 : Column 1504

when the previous administration accepted the arguments of the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis of Heigham, and the noble Baroness, Lady Gould of Potternewtown. I shall quote from each.

The noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, said:

    "In principle we welcome data matching so that local authorities and DSS managed benefits share a common IT architecture along the lines of project accord. But we shall want to take great care that it does not unreasonably invade the privacy of tenants and, of course, the national and international rules about data protection".—[Official Report, 17/2/97; col. 465.]

The noble Baroness, Lady Gould, said:

    "the sharing of personal information and data matching between two or more organisations, crucial as it is, raises fundamental principles of data protection, including the principle that personal information should only be used for the purpose for which it is collected ... There must be a balance between the use of data matching to detect fraud in order to protect public funds and the individual's right to privacy".—[Official Report, 17/2/97; col. 490.]

The difficulty with the Government's response to the amendment is that it runs against the grain of those views. It implies that data matching and other analytical tools should be freely available to the investigative authorities across departments, but without being rooted in statutory sanction. My interpretation is that it is important that the Benefits Agency be given specific statutory authority to be able to make use of its databases for the detection of fraud, rather than relying on the conferment of an inferential grant to the police.

In effect, not only is the amendment of my noble friends important and significant in terms of its contribution to the needs of law enforcement, but, as important, it affords the individual citizen an additional check and balance against possible arbitrary and inappropriate use of the analytical tools of the new technology.

11.15 p.m.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: I am intrigued by the noble Earl's comments. They seemed somewhat adjacent, rather than directly related, to the area that we are considering. I shall study Hansard with great interest.

We take the view that the amendment is entirely unnecessary, although I understand and sympathise with its intention. We all want to see an appropriate and proper measure to combat benefit fraud, but providing the Benefits Agency with the power to apply for an interception warrant seems to us neither appropriate nor necessary.

I should like to take the police as a comparable example. If the police wish to intercept a communication when the cases they are investigating are serious enough, they must approach the National Criminal Intelligence Service to apply for a warrant. Individual forces are not able to apply in their own right. Similarly, if the DSS is working on a serious fraud inquiry with the police, it can either apply through the police or via NCIS for an interception warrant, or it can apply to NCIS directly itself.

Therefore, we see no need for the Benefits Agency, as a body in its own right, to be added to the list. It does not in any event possess the technical capability to

12 Jun 2000 : Column 1505

intercept communications, nor have we received any formal request or pressure, or interest, from the DSS or the Benefits Agency to be considered as an intercepting agency.

We have to take steps and measures which are proportionate, appropriate and necessary. This proposed addition to the list is entirely unnecessary. If it were made it would not add any extra weight or strength to the investigatory effect of the Benefits Agency. Not having it there in no way hampers the agency's work in detecting fraud nor its important fraud detection work with the police service. As with other agencies, all it has to do is to apply through the police, via NCIS, or make a direct application. We do not believe that the amendment is necessary.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page