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Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, I hope that I can reassure my noble friend and the House that his dilemma will be resolved quickly. I am sorry that the other place appears to have received a benefit not given to this House. However, the final version of the Nice Treaty, to be signed in Nice on 26th February, will be sent to the House Library this afternoon. Earlier versions have been available to the Library of the House and remain so. I cannot assist your Lordships as to whether the copy currently placed in the Library of the other place is the final or the earlier version. However, I can assure noble Lords that the final version will be available.
Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, I am confident that arrangements can be made. I am sure that the experience of all Members of the House is that the Library is increasingly energetic in providing assistance.
Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, the treaty is to be signed on 26th February. I know that the debate is to take place tomorrow, but the appropriate date is 26th February. I can assure your Lordships that the final version was made available as swiftly as was reasonably practicable.
Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, that is certainly the case. However, I know that Members of this House like to have documentation in their hands, and not all noble Lords are as conversant with the Internet as they would like to be. Therefore, I can reassure the House that this document can now be delivered through many vehicles.
Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, that is certainly not a matter for me. However, I emphasise that earlier versions of the treaty have been made available in the Library of the House. I hope that those versions have been of some little use to Members who have wished to look at them.
Lord Stoddart of Swindon: My Lords, can my noble friend say whether the Government intend to publish a White Paper on this complicated treaty and whether, at a later stage, they will hold a further debate in government time?
Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, is not the last point that was raised one of the best to have been made this afternoon? Only recently, the House asserted its right to hold debates on Wednesday afternoons, and I commend the Labour Party for having chosen this subject. However, the debate is to be held during the second part of the day and it will be limited probably only to two-and-a-half hours. Should there not have been a proper, full day's debate in government time
Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, I know that noble Lords opposite always get a ready ear from these Benches. I am sure that in their usual amicable way the usual channels will be able to sort out this minor difficulty.
Lord Elton: My Lords, can the noble Baroness reassure us that the occasion tomorrow will not be the one on which we were told that we, as Parliament, would be able to scrutinise the treaty before it was brought into force? Can she reassure us that a full debate will be held in government time before it is brought into force?
Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, there will of course be a Bill. I am confident that, during the process of that Bill through both Houses, there will be active and vigorous, if not contentious, debate.
Clauses 1 to 24, Schedule 2, Clauses 25 to 28, Schedule 3, Clauses 29 to 34, Schedule 4, Clauses 35 to 37, Schedule 5, Clause 38, Schedule 6, Clauses 39 to 42, Schedule 7, Clauses 43 to 50, Schedule 8, Clauses 51 to 54, Schedule 9, Clauses 55 to 82, Schedule 10, Schedule 1.--(Baroness Scotland of Asthal.)
The noble Lord said: In moving Amendment No. 46, I wish to speak also to Amendments Nos. 52, 54, 57 and 59. The first four are probing amendments to clarify whether the DSS and local authorities should have an ability to require organisations to enter into arrangements for electronic access. The BBA in particular is concerned at the conditions for the exercise of the power of the Secretary of State or local authorities to require electronic access.
We understand that this section is intended to relate particularly to credit reference agencies, where it may be simpler and cheaper to provide electronic access than to process numerous inquiries on paper. Although we recognise the desire not to make powers in Acts too specific, in this case the net appears to have been thrown far too wide.
Amendment No. 59--also a probing amendment--inserts a defence of reasonable excuse into the offence provision under Clause 2. There may be a number of valid reasons why a person cannot comply with a requirement under Sections 109BA or 110AA. As currently drafted, the Bill takes no account of that and creates an offence of strict liability, regardless of the circumstances of the particular case. We are of the view that every case should be considered on its own merits and that only wilful refusal to comply with a requirement under the Bill should be culpable. I beg to move.
Electronic access to information is an extremely important aspect of the fight against fraud. Credit reference agencies and telecoms providers both have facilities for people to go online in order to obtain information. This is a quicker and cheaper process for their customers, and is a valued service, particularly in the financial industry.
The amendments would not prevent authorised officers accessing information electronically. Equally, they would not prevent the Secretary of State entering into the arrangements that would be required to ensure such access. Nevertheless, they could be damaging amendments.
Amendments Nos. 46 and 52 seek to allow the Secretary of State to enter into arrangements for electronic access with organisations on a voluntary basis, rather than giving him the power to require them to enter into such arrangements. We have been informed by one service provider that it would charge £1 per inquiry made electronically, as compared to £10 for each inquiry made to it in writing.
If a business did not want to help the DSS to fight fraud, which is unlikely but possible, that difference in price could put it in a prime position to thwart our efforts, and the DSS would have to spend millions, not thousands.
By drafting the clause in this way, by providing for a power to require organisations to enter into arrangements, we have sought to ensure that the Government can obtain a fair deal. The payment provisions in Clause 3 and the safeguards that I am about to mention will ensure that this deal is not obtained at the expense of fairness to the private sector: it is a precautionary provision, which we think achieves a balance between the needs of the various parties involved.
We appreciate that businesses are concerned about the security of their information and wish to screen who has access to that information. Consequently, a power to require them to enter into arrangements may leave them feeling insecure, and I understand the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Astor. However, I can assure noble Lords that we would put in place strong safeguards against abuse. Access to databases would be allowed only to specifically authorised officers. These would be of at least executive officer grade, and would be centrally located within each of our administrative areas. They would be managed by a more senior officer, and would be and highly trained through our Professionalism in Security programme. Access to databases would be controlled by passwords. We would also obtain a record of all inquiries made on the database, which could be cross-checked against our own records. Any discrepancies suggesting improprieties could be spotted and thoroughly investigated. I also refer noble Lords to the Computer Misuse Act 1990, under which officers who break into databases can be imprisoned.
Amendments Nos. 54 and 57 cover the same issues as Amendments Nos. 46 and 52, but in relation to local authorities. Everything that I have said thus far applies also to these amendments. Local authorities also need this provision. However, they have to go one step further and go through the process of obtaining the Secretary of State's consent before they can use these powers.
We considered very carefully whether local authorities should be required to obtain consent before entering into arrangements for electronic access. On balance, however, we decided that it was desirable. We should ensure that local authorities are able properly to use this provision to obtain almost instantaneous responses to their inquiries. As we have repeated ad infinitum, housing benefit, which is administered by local authorities on our behalf, is one of the areas most susceptible to fraud.
The Secretary of State will need to consider whether those local authorities are willing, and able, to implement safeguards and audit trails that would deter and identify abuses of electronic access. He will need to consider their overall management controls, whether they have been subject to complaints before, whether they have had an adverse benefit fraud inspectorate report-in short, whether they are running a tight ship, and one that the DSS thinks will be properly handled.
These issues are, of course, relevant to all the inquiries that would be allowed under these provisions. However, given the instant access to information through electronic access, we thought it best to build in the additional safeguard of scrutiny by the Secretary of State, before a local authority is permitted to use such powers.
Noble Lords need not worry that local authorities will have to pay more for inquiries until they have achieved consent because the DSS will use its electronic access facilities to process inquiries on behalf of local authorities, until such time as they can do so themselves.
Turning to Amendment No. 59, I can assure noble Lords that the Secretary of State is under a duty to take into account any reasonable excuse that an organisation may have for not providing electronic access to information. The Secretary of State and local authorities are always under a duty to act reasonably wherever they have a power of discretion. This is a well established principle of administrative law, and would apply to this provision. If the Secretary of State or a local authority failed to act reasonably, their actions would be subject to judicial review, and if that review were successful, the decision would be set aside. I appreciate, however, that there may be practical concerns about whether we would act reasonably and take into account reasonable excuse.
We already have powers to obtain information from employers. They sometimes have a reasonable excuse for not complying with our requests for information; for instance, if their payroll system has crashed.
Concern has been expressed that the relating to an organisation's capability to provide electronic access could be used, for example, to force an organisation to provide us with electronic access to bank details simply because its customers can access their own bank accounts over the Internet. It may be helpful if I explain how these provisions will work in practice as this is the first of the amendments in Clause 2, and it may prevent us having to go over the same ground later.
The Bill allows us to require electronic access in only two circumstances: first, where such access is already available to another organisation, as is the case with the credit reference agencies; and secondly, where the capacity exists to provide such access to another organisation. In the second case, I stress that the capacity must already exist.
It is not open to the Secretary of State to demand that new computer software or hardware be obtained to facilitate electronic access to an organisation's records. The power is aimed at circumstances where a business is planning to provide access to a third party but is unwilling to give it to the DSS. In such cases, the Secretary of State could require that he, too, should have electronic access. There is no intention--and I doubt whether the Bill would permit it--for the Secretary of State to require electronic access to a company's records apart from in the circumstances that I have mentioned.
For the avoidance of doubt, I am happy to put on the record and to assure noble Lords that the Secretary of State will not require any business to provide electronic access to its records unless it is already doing so, or plans to do so for another organisation.
I hope that I have given the noble Lord the reassurances that he perfectly properly sought, and that against that background he is able to withdraw the amendment.
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