Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My understanding is that information will not, to use the noble Lord's words, float around. I have emphasised that only a very limited number of properly trained officials will be accountable to a professional fraud supervising officer. That, together with the back up of the provisions of the Computer Misuse Act and the Data Protection Act, should prevent such floating around of information. I know that the noble Lord used the expression in a colloquial way. I can assure him that if that happened, we should have failed in our safeguards. It is very important that we should not do so. The information will be very tightly controlled, as will access to it. If it transpires that somebody may be making improper use of information concerning, for example, a former partner, we shall be able to catch that person, who will have no future with either the local authority or the DSS. If I have misled the noble Lord on that point, I shall certainly return to it.

Secondly, the noble Lord asked how long the information would be held. I have answered that question in Committee previously. We expect the

6 Feb 2001 : Column 1059

records to be held for about 18 months and then to be destroyed. In the event of an ongoing inquiry, they could be held for a longer period.

Thirdly, these investigations will not arise out of the blue. Reference has been made to innocent people not knowing of the existence of a fraud inquiry. To some extent, such investigations have to be secretive, by reason of the fact that we are dealing with the heavy end of fraud here--sophisticated people who might, if they suspected they were being investigated by the DSS, rearrange their financial affairs, their bank accounts and the like. In the case of a genuinely innocent person who may have made an error, the first response from the DSS would be to try to understand any discrepancy of information. We are not seeking to prosecute people, but we will prosecute in cases that involve a deliberate intent to defraud, where we have acquired that information on reasonable grounds.

I therefore doubt that there will be many cases of innocent people having reasonable grounds for being upset that information is being held about them. That is not how it will work. Errors will be sorted out locally. If it is discovered that benefit has inappropriately been claimed, that benefit may be stopped. We are after people who deliberately twice--certainly once--defraud the system. We are not referring to innocent people but to people about whom there is a reasonable suspicion, who are likely to share information. It is true that they will not necessarily know what information the DSS has collected on them.

Our code of practice and the measures that I have outlined for individuals to access information that is held mean that individuals could access that information in the 18 months after an investigation has been brought to an end and before the papers are destroyed. That additional precaution is in place, if somebody has reason to believe that the DSS has inquired about them and wants to check that there is no inappropriate information. That, too, would be a safeguard.

I hope that I have dealt with the noble Lord's points: first, that the information will not float around; secondly, that it is unlikely to target innocent persons and take them by surprise, because we are dealing with the heavy end of fraud, although I admit that it could sometimes happen; and, thirdly, that if somebody is found to be innocent or information is not required for an ongoing fraud investigation, it would be destroyed after 18 months. My understanding is that that would also apply to local authorities. If I have any further information on those points, I shall write to the noble Lord, but that is my understanding.

Lord Higgins: I am grateful to the Minister. We are concerned about these matters for the reasons that we expressed in Amendment No. 1 to Clause 1; namely, that the department will carry out these investigations without any outside authority from, for example, a magistrate. We have previously debated that point at length. In the absence of amendments which have not

6 Feb 2001 : Column 1060

yet been made to the Bill, one must be concerned that the provision may result in a considerable intrusion into the privacy of innocent people.

I want to be clear about one matter which the Minister mentioned and then I shall seek to withdraw the amendment. She said that this is at the "heavy end" of the market. That is true as regards organised fraud, the collusion of employers and so forth, but I understand that the information will be collected even if a comparatively minor case is being investigated. Therefore, I am not clear about the definition of "heavy end" in this context.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: I was trying to draw a distinction. Let us take disability benefits as an example. When we check on claims for, say, disability living allowance, between 15 and 20 per cent are found to be inappropriate. However, in very few cases is there fraud. People get better, there is a change of circumstance and they do not report back to us. In those cases, we do not go after them in order to prosecute because there has been an error which has been sorted. It has been established that the eligibility for benefit does not exist and benefit has been withdrawn.

Here we are talking about the heavy end of fraud. We are talking about people who have knowingly and deliberately produced false information in order to establish a claim to a benefit to which they are not entitled. That is what I mean by "heavy end" as opposed to a case which is in the grey area between error and fraud; for instance, someone recovering but none the less continuing to draw disability benefit. I cannot recall many cases in which we have prosecuted someone in receipt of DLA. A prosecution would arise in a case where, for example, a claimant had impersonated someone. That would be deliberate and knowing and what I would describe as the "heavy end" of fraud. That is the distinction I was seeking to draw.

Baroness Noakes: The Minister spoke of prosecution but the powers relate to obtaining information. We are discussing safeguards around the use of the powers to gain information. She spoke as though such cases were black and white but I am not sure that they are. We should consider cases, for example, dealt with by the adjudicator in relation to the Customs and Excise.

It will be found that often junior officials see cases in black and white, but they are not. Supervisory procedures fall down and it is not always the case that officials, however, well trained and even if authorised, will reach the right decision. That is why my noble friend is looking for safeguards.

I understand that the Government are trying to catch the villains but in practice the proposals are likely to affect those who are not villains. For that reason, we are looking for safeguards against abuse--admittedly inadvertent abuse--of the provisions.

Lord Higgins: It may be less disorderly if I speak now and then the Minister can reply further. I am somewhat puzzled by the whole business. The Minister

6 Feb 2001 : Column 1061

said that the provisions will be concerned only with the heavy end of the market, but she now appears to be saying that no investigations under the Bill--the demands for information and so forth--will be carried out in cases where, for example, someone simply forgot to tell the department about a change of circumstance. I understood that the provisions would deal with the "lighter end" of the market; that information would be collected on cases in that category, and that it would be held by the department.

If the Minister is saying that the provisions are concerned only with serious cases, that puts a totally different complexion on the Bill and on the likelihood of achieving the savings which the Government hope to make.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: We are making a false distinction between the "soft" and "heavy" end of fraud. The information is being collected where there is reasonable ground under Clause 1(2C). Paragraph (a), which is subject to later amendments, relates to,

    "a person who has contravened, is contravening or is likely to contravene provisions of the relevant social security legislation",

and is what I would call the "error" territory. Paragraph (b) relates to,

    "a person who has committed, is committing or is likely to commit a benefit offence",

and is the "fraud" territory.

In terms of the heavy end of fraud, we shall collect information. If a person is, so to speak, innocent or if the case is easily resolved because there was an error, the information will be scrapped within 18 months. The same rule applies to local authorities. It is likely that the information will be held longer only when someone is likely to commit a benefit offence and there is an ongoing inquiry which might lead to a prosecution. That was the point I was making.

As the noble Lord knows, we would always go to the claimant in the first place for an explanation of the discrepancies which have given rise to the "reasonable grounds" under Clause 1(2C)(a) and (b). The powers would be used only where fraud was suspected. That is what I meant by "heavy" as opposed to "error". The noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, was right in saying that cases are not clear-cut and that the area is shaded. If someone has had, say, a kidney transplant and continues to claim DLA because he or she needs constant attention as a result of dialysis, the line may be crossed.

However, I do not believe that there is an issue to be resolved and I am not sure why the noble Lord continues to press me. Clearly, we need to collect the information either in terms of a contravention of the legislation, which is likely to be an error, or a potential offence, which is likely to be fraud. We would normally go to the person concerned and, under paragraph (a), if that person can clear up our concerns, no problem will persist. However, if the case falls under paragraph (b), we will go on to collect further information. At that point, we may seek access to information which will validate what the claimant has told us because we do not believe it to be true. That is what I meant by the

6 Feb 2001 : Column 1062

"heavy end"; someone deliberately misleading the DSS and the benefits system. We would seek information from third parties and so forth because we had well founded reasonable beliefs.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page