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Baroness Hollis of Heigham: The amendment now before the Committee would have the effect of removing providers of telecommunications services from the list of organisations required to provide information to help combat fraud. I am delighted to, as it were, read into the record that BT said in the consultation exercise that it would wish,
Perhaps I may begin by outlining why we need this information. I shall then return to the point raised here, and also to the question of utilities in terms of costs. I realise that that point is of obvious concern to the noble Lord.
Why do we need this information? A telecommunications provider would be able to provide a range of information on an individual. For example, it might have information on the level of usage and on the means by which bills are paid. If the usage was exceptionally high, that might suggest that someone could be operating a business from his or her address. Billing information might also show that someone other than the householder was responsible for the account, which might, in turn, suggest that there was an undeclared person in the household.
All that information might help to establish the true circumstances of a benefit claim and thus ensure that the correct amount of benefit was in payment. However, we would not ask for information that does not help us to do this--for example, information about the content of telephone calls, or of electronic mail. We are not seeking information about what we call "traffic data".
In his report entitled The Informal Economy, the noble Lord, Lord Grabiner, mentioned the value of being able to "reverse search" the telephone directory. On Second Reading, I mentioned the scenario of the window cleaner advertising his services in the newsagent's window and giving only a telephone number. A further benefit of billing information in organised fraud cases would be that we might be able to put together a picture of his activity and, if necessary, that of any others with whom he is working on that basis. Therefore, I hope the noble Lord will agree that the information that telecommunications suppliers hold is vital to our fight against fraud.
The noble Lord, perfectly properly, pressed me on the question of costs. If I mislead him, I shall obviously elucidate my response by way of correspondence. My understanding is that we are not proposing to pay telecommunications companies for every piece of information that they may give us. We propose to pay them only for certain types of information that they already provide for payment; for example, directory enquiries. However, if we ask them for details of what address they hold on their records for a customer, or billing information, we shall not pay for that service. So there is some payment but not for the full range of information that they hold. Similarly, in the case of the utilities, we do not expect to pay them for information about individuals. We will obviously reimburse them for bulk information and such reasonable costs as the Secretary of State may determine.
Lord Astor of Hever: I am grateful for that response. Of course I understand all the reasons for requiring the information. The Minister did not respond to my question why telecommunications services should be treated differently from Internet service providers. Perhaps she will reply to me in a letter as the industry takes that point very seriously.
Lord Astor of Hever: With the greatest respect, that was not my question. I asked why the telecommunications services should be treated differently from Internet service providers in relation to cost.
Lord Astor of Hever: I am grateful for that response, as I am sure will be BT. I have had a series of telephone conversations with BT today on this matter. It is an area that concerns them. In the light of that response, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
The noble Lord said: I rise to move Amendment No. 12 and, with the leave of the Committee, to speak to Amendments Nos. 13 and 14. I suppose I should declare an interest as the father of two daughters who are studying, or are meant to be studying, at two separate universities. I understand that they are occasionally there!
We believe that the inclusion of educational establishments in the list of persons who will be bound by law under the Bill to deliver personal information about individuals to the DSS is unnecessary and potentially too intrusive. It will also place an additional workload, and time constraint, on the already pressurised teaching profession and redirect vital educational funds into resources required to meet the demands of inquiries.
It would seem that much of Clause 1 has been designed to allow officials to check whether an individual's expenditure is as they claim when they apply for benefits, or whether, in fact, they are making a fraudulent claim. School and university records, however, have no record of students' income or expenditure and therefore should be exempt from the Bill.
We cannot see how it can be necessary to put an extra burden of responsibility on educational institutions, particularly teachers, to provide the Government with private records on demand, and then refrain from advising that individual that they were under suspicion. Given all the other financial information that will be made available to officials under the Bill, it seems highly intrusive and inappropriate for this particular source of very personal information to be at the Government's fingertips. I beg to move.
Baroness Hollis of Heigham: I hope I may reply before the noble Earl speaks as I may obviate his concerns. There may be a profound misunderstanding here of what we are seeking to do. All we are seeking to establish is whether someone in higher education is a student. If they are a student, they are not eligible to claim benefit. We are not interested in, nor would we be able to seek, nor shall we seek, information about exam grades or tutors' comments, however much the noble Lord, Lord Astor of Hever, as a father might like
Earl Russell: I intervene precisely to the point that the Minister has been concerned about; namely, the question whether people are actually students. The Minister who is learned in both languages I think understands something of the difficulties of communication between universities and government agencies, especially the DSS.
I remember on one occasion being called in for help by my departmental secretary to answer a detailed request for information. I forget where it came from; I think it may well have been the CSA. She said, "These questions do not mean anything in our terms. What shall I do with them?". We went over them for about half an hour and I finally said to her, "All you can do is set out the facts of this person's situation and you have to ask them to decide what answer to the question that adds up to". We could not make head or tail of it.
I shall not go into the matter in detail because the noble Baroness, Lady Amos, will remember the debate on the student social security regulations, and most of the points had been made by the Social Security Advisory Committee far better than I could ever make them. The basic difficulty, especially in the humanities, is that the DSS assumes that being a student means being in full-time attendance sitting in classes. In my field a great deal of it--it ought to be up to three-quarters--means sitting at home seriously reading books. Until that is understood, we cannot give meaningful answers to the questions the DSS sends us. Academics can always think of six or seven meanings to a question. So we shall be sending back a great many detailed, lengthy and learned replies which will take up people's time and not give information which we would have been happy to give if it had been asked in a form in which we could answer it.
There is a further problem of intermission and that is so well dealt with by the Social Security Advisory Committee that I do not need to go into it any further. Because the Minister is learned in both languages, perhaps she is the ideal person to provide a solution to a question which in the past has seemed insoluble. If she is able to do anything about this, the university world as a whole would be profoundly grateful.
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