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I have some difficulty with the issue of intent. Let us assume that the department has some evidence that a particular individual intends to commit an offence. As a result, it argues that it should get more information. There is then a problem. The department may approach the individual and say, "We think you are going to commit an offence", in which case we hope that the department will prevent him from doing so, but he may be rather surprised. The alternative is that the department does nothing and waits until he does it, in which case the department is probably an accessory. The noble Lord, Lord Grabiner, shakes his head. Whatever the right technical expression is for condoning an offence someone is about to commit, I merely throw that into the general argument for the noble Baroness to consider between now and Report.
I am very pleased with what the Minister said on Amendment No. 32. We look forward to seeing what she can produce between now and Report. In the light of what she has said, I shall not move my amendment when we come to it.
The noble Lord said: I shall speak also to Amendments Nos. 47 and 48. The term "authorised officer" makes no suggestion of any qualification, training or guidance as to conduct. In view of the sensitivity of the issues to be dealt with, anyone conducting an investigation under the Bill ought to be qualified in all those respects. The Government have
There is also some concern that officers who are put in that position will have no duty to put right any damage caused by the suspicions that they may have created with third parties. We referred to that point earlier with regard to credit agencies.
Concern has also been expressed--we have received representations from outside organisations--about whether any other area exists--for example, under the Financial Services Act--in which people who are as unqualified as that are entitled to act as this legislation would enable them to act.
A further point arises. As I understand it, the authorised persons will either be in the department or in local government. Given the incidence of housing and other benefit fraud and the number of reports of fraudulent operations elsewhere, I believe that we should be clear as to exactly what type of person will be authorised under the legislation. That is particularly the case with regard to some local authorities where recent reports suggest that they are not behaving as we would wish. In essence, we are saying that we should be clear as to what we intend.
Finally, can the Minister tell us at what level, either in local government or in the Civil Service, the group of people who implement the Act will be? One always has difficulty with Civil Service grades. They tend to change and it is not always possible to be certain what the grades mean. If the noble Baroness can give an indication of the levels of qualification and payment, for want of a better way of putting it, which are likely to apply to those people, that would help to reassure us.
Baroness Hollis of Heigham: Before the noble Lord sits down, perhaps I may ask him a question. One of his amendments refers to a code of conduct; the other to a code of practice. Is that simply a drafting slip or are there different intentions behind the two amendments?
Again, for the most part, we are talking about people who have already developed skills in fraud investigation in exactly the same way as an experienced police fraud squad might include constables and sergeants as well as detective chief inspectors. Therefore, we are discussing people who are very experienced but who, none the less, would be under careful management by even more senior officials.
I believe that the general point behind the amendment is the importance of the code of practice. We have always intended that the information- gathering provisions in Clauses 1 and 2 would be subject to the code. The code would cover such issues as what would and would not be reasonable under the powers, who would be able to make inquiries, the time allowed for organisations to answer inquiries, what action should be taken if organisations were having difficulty in answering questions, and the types of information that each organisation could provide.
A code of practice would provide a clear guide to authorised officers, setting out the limitations of their powers and the standards of behaviour expected of them when conducting their inquiries. We also believe that the code would be helpful to data providers. In addition, it would help data subjects to understand what would become of their information.
When my right honourable friend in the other place, Mr Rooker, and I briefed Peers on the provisions in the Bill a few days ago, we gave an undertaking that the department would produce a draft code of practice for the consideration of noble Lords before the Bill reaches its Report stage. That code is under discussion with the relevant businesses, and I hope to honour that commitment.
Lord Higgins: I am grateful to the noble Baroness. She quite rightly said that this matter is one aspect of our debate on the code of practice. If it is the Government's intention to deal with it in the code of practice, we need not discuss it in this debate. I hope that that is the Government's intention.
Baroness Noakes: Before my noble friend concludes his remarks, I want to ask a question about authorised officers, whom the noble Baroness said would be executive officers. They constitute a large band of people in the Civil Service, and they are accustomed to taking a large number of administrative decisions. I think I also heard her say that they would be subject to supervision. Will that supervision be covered by the code of practice? She talked about standards of behaviour and conduct in the code of practice, but she did not say how those relatively junior people--they are not senior in the general scheme of things--would be supervised before they carried out their responsibilities under the legislation.
Baroness Hollis of Heigham: I am sure the noble Baroness will recall that I said that in the 13 local areas of the Benefits Agency there would be only a limited number of executive officers--I do not want to specify an exact number or to say whether we are concerned with five, 15 or 25--who will be specially trained to do the work. As I said earlier, that is why we have put such emphasis on training. Those officers will be supervised but the way in which an executive officer is supervised is not normally part of a code of practice. The code is a document that is available for those who seek information, those who receive information and those who are the subject of that information. It does not deal with the internal management practices of the DSS.
Baroness Noakes: I accept what the noble Baroness says, but the executive officer level is not very senior and those who are on the receiving end of the requests for information need some assurance that they are getting a considered and mature reflection of the requirements of the DSS in fighting fraud. That is why I seek from her an assurance that those trained executive officers--I am sure that they will be trained--will have some form of more senior supervision before they issue what may be onerous requests under the legislation.
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