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Mr. Darling: That Act can be of some help, but, in so far as our proposals are concerned, we are giving authorised officers, where they suspect fraud, the power to get information from credit reference agencies or banks to find out whether someone has a bank account and, where the circumstances justify it, what payments might have been made in respect of it.
The DSS and its respective agencies already have powers in specified circumstances to exchange information with, and to get information from, the Inland Revenue because increasingly, and for obvious reasons, the DSS deals with people who have contact with both
A person's right to privacy is very important indeed, but the Department is entitled to set that aside where it has reasonable grounds for suspecting fraud. There are safeguards. I want to ensure that the officers who are entitled to obtain this information are identified. They will be supervised, and there will be many checks to ensure that there is no abuse of the system, and that the information is not wrongly used. But the hon. Member for Buckingham is right to say that, increasingly, the DSS and its agencies and the Inland Revenue need to work together. The Child Support, Pensions and Social Security Act 2000 is one measure that allows them to do so; I am sorry that some of the hon. Gentleman's colleagues who served on the Committee considering that legislation opposed it so strongly.
Mr. Butterfill: I gather that some bodies have suggested that there could be problems with the Data Protection Act 1998. Can the right hon. Gentleman confirm that he is now entirely satisfied that there will be no problem with that Act?
Mr. Darling: I certainly can. As the hon. Gentleman knows, I have to sign a certificate under section 19 of the Human Rights Act 1998, as is stated on the front of the Bill, but I can also tell the House that the Information Commissioner, who is responsible for these matters, recently wrote to me to say that her concerns have been addressed. I believe it is important to balance the rights of the individual with the rights of the public as a whole, to ensure that the system is not abused. I think that we have achieved that balance. There is the code of practice, which the hon. Gentleman may have had the opportunity to read. It is in the Library, and its authority is on the face of the Bill. That is very important.
Mr. Darling: Yes. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that I would not have referred to the letter had I not been confident of what it said, and that I am more than happy to send it to him. The Information Commissioner did have concerns when the Bill was at an early stage, and she wrote several times. I had a useful meeting with her, her staff met DSS staff and, as the hon. Gentleman knows, amendments were made to the Bill in the other place. My understanding is that, as the letter says, the commissioner is now satisfied that we have addressed her concerns, but I am more than happy to make the letter available to the hon. Gentleman and, as he has raised it, to place a copy in the Library.
I should like to talk briefly about the second strand that I referred to--that of removing benefit where people are convicted twice of benefit fraud. It is important that two things happen. First, more effort must be put into
Mr. Darling: The hon. Gentleman may not meet people like that, but I think that most of us do. I sometimes wonder who the hon. Gentleman does meet when he is outside the House. He and I would probably agree that we are probably very unlike each other. I certainly do come across people who say that benefit fraud is not really a problem--just as, some 20 or 30 years ago, people did not think that drinking and driving was really a crime. It was not uncommon, 20 or 30 years ago--although, I may say, I was quite young at the time--to find people who would think nothing of offering a drink to someone whom they knew would be driving afterwards. I believe that the same cultural change is necessary for benefit fraud.
I know that the Opposition have complained about the advertising campaign that is currently being run on television, but Governments need to focus on getting people to think about benefit fraud and its consequences, because every penny that is lost in benefit fraud could be better spent elsewhere.
It is necessary to go further and to make it clear to people that, if they abuse their responsibilities, they cannot expect to go back on benefit as though nothing had happened; so in the Bill we propose to implement the policy, first raised in Lord Grabiner's report, of "two strikes and you're out". If people are convicted of benefit fraud twice within three years, they will lose their benefit. That policy may be tough, but it is necessary to deal with persistent offenders.
People do have choices. They do not have to fiddle the system; the vast majority of people do not. As I have said before, there is no unconditional right to benefit. There are rights and there are responsibilities. I believe that this policy is justified and will build on policies that we have already implemented with regard to the new deal.
The hon. Member for Havant asked me about the Information Commissioner. I detected a suggestion that I might have said something that might not have represented the whole position. I am grateful to the Minister of State, who has given me the letter from the Information Commissioner. I shall quote part of it, but I can assure the hon. Gentleman that he may have all of it.
I shall say a brief word on collusive employers. My predecessor as Secretary of State shared my frustration that sometimes the court system has not been as efficient or as enthusiastic as we might like in dealing robustly with people who have been guilty of benefit fraud. The Bill therefore gives us powers to impose penalties for the less serious cases, where a penalty of between £1,000 and £5,000 can be imposed on employers who are guilty of collusion in relation to benefits. The use of these civil penalties will make it easier and far more efficient to send a clear message to people who are fiddling the system.
All the new powers that we have taken in the Bill are necessary because they add to the materials that we have at our disposal to continue to bear down on fraud in the system and to cut down on error.
We have changed the social security system to bring in more choices, more help and more support than ever before, but that is matched by a responsibility on individuals to help themselves and, crucially, to deal honestly with the system. The measures that we have introduced will build on what we have already achieved and will help to stop fraud in future, so we have made a start. We have set clear targets, which the Conservatives never did. We have imposed tighter gateways, which the Conservatives never did. We have seen the first significant fall in fraud and error. As always, I accept that there is a lot more to do, but we shall stop fraud and error only if we continue to invest in front-line staff and in information technology.
The Conservative party is pledged to cut more than £16 billion of public expenditure, so if it were returned to office, those front-line jobs would go, the investment in IT would be cut and, as a result, more fraud and more error would pour back into the system, just as happened during the 18 years when it was in power. The Bill will take our reforms a step further. It will ensure that staff have the powers that they need to check the information needed to stop fraud and to send a clear signal to those who persistently cheat the system that doing so is unacceptable.
Mr. Webb: As the Secretary of State usually leaves the Chamber before I make my speech, I want to raise an issue with him before he does so. Retirement pension is not included in the list of sanctionable benefits because, according to Baroness Hollis, retirement pensioners tend not to commit fraud, but war pensions are included. Is not that an insult to war pensioners?