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Lord Astor of Hever: Am I right to assume that the door is not closed on this point?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: That is absolutely correct. The fact that we are continuing to hold discussions and that we will be producing a draft code of practice will allow such areas to be explored further. However, I would not wish to raise the noble Lord's hopes too high We certainly seek to be helpful here, but also we are mindful of our duty to protect information.

For example, someone may have a child from another relationship who may not be known to the partner in their current relationship. If a full exchange of information were in place, the circumstances might then be made known to the insurance company and thus might be circulated back. We, too, have a duty to maintain confidentiality. As I have said, we wish to be helpful. It is not in our interest to see people defrauding the insurance system or the DSS.

In the light of the explanations in relation to a whole array of benefits that I have sought to establish, I hope that the noble Lord will feel able to withdraw his amendment.

Lord Astor of Hever: I am grateful to the noble Baroness for her response, in particular for addressing head on the two questions I put to her. I understand the need for the DSS to check with the insurance industry. Indeed, I made that clear in my opening remarks. The industry accepts this and will co-operate with the DSS.

I was surprised at the figure of 30 per hour quoted by the noble Baroness, with which I believe the insurance would probably disagree. However, in the light of her comments, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Higgins moved Amendment No. 5:


The noble Lord said: In moving Amendment No. 5, I believe that it would be appropriate to consider at the same time to Amendment No. 6. This amendment addresses the position of credit agencies and those concerned with fraud detection. We discussed this matter at Second Reading and had an interesting exchange during which I suggested that the fact that a credit agency had received an inquiry from a DSS inspector, presumably convinced that someone was engaged in fraud--they would not otherwise make the inquiry--might not do any good to the credit rating of the individual concerned if he were guilty or, more particularly, if he were innocent.

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In subsequent discussions, the noble Baroness was kind enough to say that it was her understanding that this would not arise because the fact that an inquiry had been made would not leave a footprint on the record of the credit rating agency. Quite by chance I came across an individual who, under the terms of the relevant legislation, had recently asked to see what a credit rating agency had been saying about him. He discovered not so much that the odd footprint remained of bodies which had made inquiries, but that the record had been positively trampled to death; in other words, a vast mass of footprints appeared on the information submitted to him by the credit rating agency. Presumably, among the various footprints would be the footprint of the Department for Social Security.

I may have been misinformed on this matter, but I do not believe that to be the case. Perhaps the noble Baroness can confirm whether there is any risk that an individual could be penalised as a result of the department making an inquiry of a credit rating agency.

Given that I am not familiar with this area--possibly that is the case also for other noble Lords--will the noble Baroness put in the Library a copy of a typical response which the department receives in answer to a query regarding a credit rating?

Perhaps I may put one further question to the Minister. If someone has either a bad or a good credit rating, is that supposed to be in some way an indication of fraud? If they are in receipt of income support and they have a magnificent credit rating, at some point a slight suspicion might be aroused about it. However, I am not clear exactly how such inquiries are likely to produce information which the Government believe that inspectors would find helpful.

Another point should be raised here, although perhaps it is not wholly relevant to the amendment. If an individual is entitled to see what a credit rating agency has said about their status, which I understand is the case, will the individual be entitled to see the more comprehensive data which may be obtained by a government department as a result of its inquiries? A further problem that we should consider--we discussed this earlier--is that someone who has engaged in fraud may well provide incorrect information to the credit rating agency. Indeed, that is likely to be the case. Given that, the information then received by the Government would not be as accurate as one might hope. I should be grateful if the noble Baroness could clarify these points. I beg to move.

Earl Russell: Amendment No. 6 directs our attention to the words in the Bill entitling the Government to get information from,


    "any body the principal activity of which is to facilitate the exchange of information for the purpose of preventing or detecting fraud".

I have two queries about this, not altogether unrelated to each other. First, I am not entirely clear what it means. Secondly, I wonder whether its application is

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rather too wide. If we know exactly what is intended, it might be rather easier to achieve drafting which clearly expresses the Government's meaning.

6 p.m.

Lord Grabiner: Perhaps I may deal with a point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Higgins. When conducting inquiries which led to the production of my report, I also considered footprints. This is a point we discussed briefly on Second Reading. In the course of preparing the report, I interviewed a senior official from Experian, which is a major provider of the information we are discussing. The point that concerned me--exactly the point mentioned by the noble Lord a moment ago--was whether a subsequent inquiry of, say, Experian would reveal the fact that the DSS had left its heavy footprint. That would obviously have a profound impact upon the decision of the subsequent potential credit provider as to whether or not he gives credit to the individual. It was explained to me--I am sure it can be independently verified, if necessary--that it need not leave a footprint.

I agree that this is an important consideration. If the noble Lord were to view the information that is held by such companies--he should be under no misapprehension as to the quality and quantity of this information; it is fabulous--he would be horrified at how much information is available on a credit card when presented in a simple credit card transaction. For example, I recently presented a credit card to a garage proprietor. He was able to tell me my personal address from the information available on the face of his screen. That rather scared me. This kind of information is vast and is freely available outside. I say "freely"; you have to pay for it.

But, to return to the point, the information held by companies of this kind is like, so to speak, the contents of a black box. The providers of the information have to satisfy the information commissioner that they are behaving in relation to the contents of that black box in a fashion which is entirely consistent with the requirements of the data protection legislation. The commissioner supervises in a very strict way the providers' behaviour and the way that they run their daily business.

One of the things that I was told could be provided was a tailored-made package to meet your requirements. You decide what you want to purchase and you go along to the provider and buy a tailored-made package. Here we are talking about a fairly low level of information--for example, verifying the existence of a bank account, or the name or address of a person. It is possible to negotiate a package which will ensure that a subsequent intruder into the information available in the black box will not be told that on a previous occasion a footfall has been left by the DSS.

This point needs to be absolutely confirmed, but my understanding from inquiries is that such a package is obtainable; that it is possible to preserve the integrity,

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privacy and confidentiality of the individual by ensuring that that knowledge cannot be transmitted, so to speak, outside the black box to a third party.

Lord Higgins: Perhaps I may respond on the two points made by the noble Lord before the Minister replies. She can then cover them.

As to the position of the credit card in a petrol station, the noble Baroness, in somewhat exotic terms, said at Second Reading that you would be appalled at the information which people can get if you put up on the screen what is available on the card. I did not mention this during our discussions on the last amendment--it did not seem relevant--but the banks have written back to me, in almost furious terms, pointing out that this is totally wrong. The noble Lord seems to be in the same position. If you put a credit card in at a petrol station, all that should come up is whether the payment is authorised or not. I have it in black and white from the British Banking Association that that is the position.

Lord Grabiner: The BP garage proprietor--I suspect that he was not the proprietor but a mere employee--simply said to me, as I presented him the card and he put it through the machine, "Is your address..."--I do not need to repeat it for the benefit of Hansard--and he gave me my address; it was absolutely correct. That came up on the face of his screen.


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