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Lord Grabiner moved Amendment No. 38:

The noble Lord said: We have already debated the amendment in the context of Amendments Nos. 20 and 22. I beg to move.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

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Lord Grabiner moved Amendment No. 39:

    Page 2, line 46, leave out from ("officer") to ("whose").

The noble Lord said: I tabled the amendment in order to raise a question. As presently drafted, the power which would be granted by the Bill in new subsection (2D) is concerned with information to be obtained from utility providers. The intention is to give that power only to an authorised officer who is an official of a government department.

My amendment would not limit the power to the government department official. It would enable an authorised officer appointed by a local authority to have these powers.

My concern is that both housing benefit and council tax benefit are administered by local authorities and I do not understand why this power should not be provided to local authorities as well. The relevant safeguards are already in the Bill. First, the power could be exercised only by an authorised officer; and, secondly, the limited subject matter of the power--namely, whether or not gas, water or electricity is consumed at identified premises--is hardly earth shattering in data protection terms. It is low grade information. I beg to move.

Earl Russell: I like the policy intention underlying the amendment. I wonder whether the amendment is the best way to achieve it. If we have the amendment in this form, we do not only authorise local government--I think that there is quite a strong case for that--we shall also allow authorisation of a wide variety of people who might be acting on the Government's behalf, those possibly in the private security industry. That could raise questions about which we might be less happy. If that is an unnecessary worry, I shall be happy to be told so.

Lord Grabiner: I understand that the expression "authorised officer" is elsewhere defined in the master legislation into which these provisions would go. I do not think that it would extend as far as the noble Earl suggests. I should have to be advised about that, but I believe that to be the position.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My noble friend is right in his reply but it does not make me like his amendment any the more.

The amendment would remove the requirement that in order to obtain information about consumption from a utility company the authorised officer should be an official of a government department. This in effect opens up the use of the power to local authority officers.

The way that we envisage the information that we receive from utility companies being handled means that this extension of the power to local authority investigators is unnecessary. We do not intend--I do not think that it would be reasonable--that investigators at local level, whether employed by the DSS or local authorities, would approach utility companies to obtain bulk information about consumption. They will, of course, be able to use the

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powers in new subsection (2A) to get information about individuals where they have ground for doing so. But what this power is about is getting bulk information for matching against our social security records. We shall do this through our data matching service based in the North West. It should be necessary only for authorised officers carrying out this data matching to use the power.

Local authorities will be a major beneficiary of the results of these data matches as they are expected to reveal residency fraud which is a major concern as regards housing benefit. But they will not have to extract the data from the utilities themselves. We will do it for them through our existing housing benefit matching information service.

I hope that that explanation satisfies my noble friend's concern and that he will feel able to withdraw his amendment.

10.30 p.m.

Lord Grabiner: At this hour of the night it would be entirely inappropriate for me to have cross words with my noble friend. We can have this discussion elsewhere. In those circumstances, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Earl Russell moved Amendment No. 40:

    Page 3, line 20, at end insert--

("(2F) Nothing in this Act shall be construed as conveying a right to use information gained under this Act for any purpose other than that of detecting social security fraud, or to communicate such information to anyone not otherwise authorised to receive it."").

The noble Earl said: I do not know to what extent the amendment may be necessary. I look forward to the Minister's remarks on that. However, it contains a principle that needs to be asserted. Under the general principle of the need for safeguards, information that is gathered under the powers of the Bill should be confined to the purposes for which its collection has been authorised. Information is like an oil slick--it has a remarkable habit of spreading into all sorts of places where it is not wanted. The Bill creates a formidable machine for information-gathering. We need to make provision to ensure that that machine shall not be driven on the pavement.

I do not know in what ways the amendment might or might not be necessary. I look forward to enlightenment on that. Even if it is not formally necessary, we should bear in mind that to some extent legislation has a hortatory effect. It is read. Not everybody who reads the Bill will have listened to the Minister's excellent replies on Amendment No. 35. Not everybody will know about the security provided in the Data Protection Act. The public reaction to the Bill might be more favourable with the restriction spelled out than without. The consent of the public to the existence of such sweeping powers will be a large

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part of their effectiveness. The department might be wise to bear that in mind. In hope of the Minister's answer, I beg to move.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: I understand where the noble Earl is coming from. I shall seek to allay his fears.

The aim of the amendment is to prevent the DSS and local authorities using information obtained under the Bill for purposes other than detecting social security fraud and to prevent us disclosing it to people not authorised to receive it.

Clause 1 sets out the circumstances in which we could require information about an individual and about the quantity of utilities supplied to addresses. The information that we obtain under those powers may not be used for any other purpose unless there is a statutory provision allowing for that.

I shall explain the ways in which the law allows us to use such information. We took powers in the Social Security Act 1998 to allow us to use any information that we obtained for any other purpose connected with functions in relation to social security, child support or war pensions. Obtaining accurate information can sometimes be a time-consuming exercise. Claimants and groups that work with them, such as CABs, tell us that they want to be able to interact with the department in a much more convenient way. They want to provide information only once. They want a correct and reliable spine of information to be available--an architecture on which the benefits system can be built. They expect one area of the department to know what they have told another. The exasperated claims that I hear from people who have told the CSA one thing, but we have not passed it on to the Benefits Agency when they believe that we should have done, are evidence of that.

Through initiatives such as the ONE pilots, we are demonstrating our commitment to trying to produce a client-centred rather than a benefit-centred approach. However, that would fall at the first hurdle if we could not pass information throughout the social security system. It is also important from the cost point of view to be able to obtain information only once.

It is important that the information that we obtain under the Bill can be used for any social security purpose. For example, if we obtained information from a bank that a claimant had considerable savings, not only would we stop that person claiming benefit, we would also wish to re-examine his child support arrangements to ensure that he was meeting his responsibilities in maintaining his children. We would not expect the Child Support Agency accidentally to find that person and discover that he was failing to declare his income to that agency, too.

The principle of using information efficiently and effectively is a government-wide issue. Should any information held by the DSS assist other departments to perform their functions more effectively, we should be able to share that information.

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Statutory powers allow us to provide information to the Department for Education and Employment, Customs & Excise, the Inland Revenue, the Home Office and the Lord Chancellor's Department. Those powers clearly set out the purposes for which information may be transferred; in other words, they are highly transparent. For example, legislation in the Jobseekers Act 1995 enables the DSS to share information with the Department for Education and Employment which determines a person's availability for work. Should we obtain information that a person is studying full-time, that would affect his or her availability for work and we may need to share that information with the DfEE.

Finally, the DSS, like any other organisation, can provide information to other organisations where that helps to prevent and detect crime. On that point, we return to Section 29 of the Data Protection Act. Therefore, in highly specific circumstances we may be in a position to provide information to the police.

Local authorities also need to share some information to help to prevent fraud in housing and council tax benefits. Therefore, social security legislation allows local authorities to share housing benefit and council tax benefit information with each other and with the DSS.

The Committee will be interested to know how long the department retains information for such purposes. It is normally held for approximately 18 months, but that period could be extended in the case of an ongoing action. From July, the retention period will be reduced to 14 months. We are not talking about a vague data bank which is held in perpetuity.

Members of the Committee have expressed concerns that information obtained under the powers could be disclosed inappropriately where no legislation existed to allow the disclosure. Perhaps I may reassure the Committee that we are experienced in holding DSS information securely. That point arose in our discussions on an earlier amendment.

We have already produced a detailed protection of customer information guide. That sets out clearly the legislation which governs the protection of information and the disciplinary and legal consequences for staff who fail to act properly. Again, that is a subject on which I have already touched. It also provides guidance on such matters as what should be considered when making a decision about whether to disclose information--for example, whether the disclosure is necessary and whether legislation permits it--and what information should be recorded about the disclosure.

That guide is published on the DSS internet site. Staff who do not follow the guidance are subject to disciplinary procedures and, where appropriate, will be prosecuted under Section 123 of the Social Security Administration Act 1992. That section provides for an offence of unlawfully disclosing information obtained during social security administration. It is punishable by a prison sentence of up to two years, and so on. Safeguards are also provided under the Data Protection Act and the Computer Misuse Act. The

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existing provisions ensure that those who disclose information unlawfully can be punished. They provide a deterrent.

I wish to make one other point. It may not have been the noble Lord's intent, but the effect of the amendment would be to amend at a sweep all the provisions of the Social Security Administration Act 1992. That is the main legislation governing the administration of benefit. Therefore, we would be prevented from obtaining any information under its provisions for any purpose other than detecting social security fraud. That would prevent us, for example, collecting any information on the basis of which we could pay benefit to claimants. Therefore, this is not only, so to speak, an amendment which wrecks the Bill but an amendment which wrecks the entire social security system in one fell swoop.

We would look to maximise the use of any information which we obtain, as the public and business rightly expect. Should information be useful for other social security purposes, we would use it within the framework of the law. In order to maximise efficiency, we would, where appropriate, also make available to other departments information which was useful to them, but, again, only where the law allowed us to do so. We have strong guidance which governs the disclosure of information, and strong safeguards to prevent disclosure which is not allowed for by law.

Therefore, I hope that the noble Earl, Lord Russell, will agree that we should not expect a person to submit separate pieces of information when he may be receiving housing benefit, council tax benefit, income support, child support, and so on, and possibly disability benefit as well. Asking him to repeat the same information five, six or seven times over with the possibility of error, which would lead to the information being thrown out by data-matching, is not something that we should contemplate lightly. Against that background, I hope that the noble Earl will feel able to withdraw his amendment.

Throughout, my emphasis has been that any exchange or passing on of such information must be transparent. That is within the framework of the law. The information which we seek to obtain will be used for the purpose of prosecuting fraud. I believe that that is a matter of common ground between us.

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