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Mr. Webb: I wonder whether I can make a link between what the right hon. Gentleman has just said about infiltration of the Department of Social Security and the powers in the Bill to have a good nose around people's bank accounts. Does the conjunction of the two concern him?
Mr. Field: I hope that I will be here when the hon. Gentleman speaks. It is not that I have important meetings to go to, but I have a personal one to attend, so I may not hear his contribution. I am not quite sure of the connection that he is making.
There are civil liberty issues that relate to this issue and other aspects of the Bill, and it is proper for people to be concerned that the weight in our society is against civil liberties and in favour of protecting the majority. I do not share that view, but I respect the fact that others hold it. I do not think that we have got the balance right, and the Bill moves in an important direction to strengthen the hand of taxpayers collectively to look after their hard-earned income, as against the possible infringement of certain people's individual rights, although most of that group are undertaking activities that are not in the interests of decent taxpayers--[Interruption.] Perhaps I shall pick that point up later. Although there is a conflict, I come down firmly on the Government's side.
My final point is about what the Bill calls data sharing, although the industry calls it data raiding. Later in the Bill's proceedings, I hope that we can suggest that it becomes genuine data sharing. One useful amendment would be to give the Government power to join CIFAS, the credit industry fraud avoidance system. From a comment made by my right hon. Friend the Minister of State, it appeared that there was a legal bar against the
Those are my suggested reforms, which, I hope, we can add to the Bill before we enter the election fray. I said at the beginning of my speech that I wanted to conclude by picking up the theme of the hon. Member for Havant in respect of my right hon. Friend the Minister of State. I have been in the House for 22 years, and my right hon. Friend was a Member of Parliament when I arrived. I first met him when I worked for the Low Pay Unit and, in its early days, came with another member of the unit--who is now my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham (Mr. Pond)--to speak to a group of Labour Back Benchers. I hope that by raising that I do not harm my hon. Friend's career in any way.
As an ordinary worker in the Low Pay Unit, my hon. Friend raised the question of indexing allowance. Two people in the room were taking copious notes; my right hon. Friend and my friend Audrey Wise who, until recently, was the Member for Preston. I was surprised because, not only did they take notes and table the relevant amendments but, when the then Government were on a knife edge, with almost no majority at all, they both stood their ground and made reforms for which many people continue to be grateful to them.
The first characteristic of my right hon. Friend of which I was aware was his bravery under fire, as they say. During the long years of opposition, I also learned that if he thought that something was right, he would say so in the Chamber. We have heard this evening that a lot of people out there need to be convinced that fraud is bad, but I have not met any of them. However, he and I faced quite a few Members in the Chamber who did not think that countering fraud was important. The fact that all three parties now have a united front on countering fraud owes not a little to the stance that he was prepared to take in opposition, when his own side was still wandering around the garden of Eden suggesting that it was not a problem at all.
The fact that we now have a much more determined fight against fraud and that the Government are adding to their powers in the Bill is one small testament to the effect that my right hon. Friend has had on debates in this place. As I said, I hope that this is not the last time that Parliament hears from him.
Mr. Steve Webb (Northavon): May I pick up where the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) left off and perhaps make the Minister of State feel even older? As a child living in Great Barr, just down the road from his Perry Barr constituency, I used to read the Birmingham Evening Mail every night and see his face there; I thought that when I grew up, I wanted to be just like him--[Interruption.] I am not sure that it ever came to that.
We have had a knockabout, but I want to look at the Bill itself. It is called the Social Security Fraud Bill, and it sounds as though it must be a good thing, because we are all against fraud. However, we must always ask whether its measures for tackling fraud are appropriate: do they go too far? I want to focus on that question.
I want to raise a number of concerns--especially the business about delving into people's bank accounts and credit reference agencies--that are raised by clause 1. When I have done so, I hope that the Minister will respond to them in his reply, unless he has a better engagement, but I am sure that he will be here until the bitter end.
First, I turn to the scale of intrusion. In the other place, Baroness Hollis gave an assurance that there would be no fishing trips, yet the regulatory impact assessment states that there will be 800,000 inquiries every year, many of them into bank accounts, credit reference agencies, utilities, telecommunications and so on. Some are unexceptionable. There is nothing wrong with asking a utility company whether any gas or electricity has been used at a house, and if it becomes apparent that no fuel has been used in the house, it is appropriate to wonder about paying someone housing benefit for occupancy of it.
However, hundreds of thousands of inquiries to banks and building societies are mentioned. There is a contrast between that number, which was not used by the Secretary of State--he hardly touched on the Bill until quite late in his speech--and the impression that the Government are trying to give that the process will be measured, carefully scrutinised and carried out under controlled circumstances. The two things seem to be at odds. It is hard to see how hundreds of thousands of inquiries into people's bank details are consistent with a carefully controlled examination of only the information that needs to be examined.
My first worry is that the scale of the exercise will make it difficult to control. In another place, the Government stressed that there would be safeguards, that there would not be fishing trips and that checks would be made, but the scale that is envisaged makes me wonder whether that is practical. I have my doubts.
The second concern is whether those activities will be subject to independent scrutiny. An analogy has been drawn with the tax commissioners in the case of the Inland Revenue, who have an independent status, whereas the activity envisaged by the Bill will be subject to what are called management checks. Much of the scrutiny to determine whether the powers are being used properly will be internal.
In years to come, I can imagine constituents complaining to us that the DSS has been getting copies of their bank statements and finding out about their personal details. People will be shocked that the Department can do that, particularly when they are proven to be entirely innocent, and we will feel that we should have made sure
I am aware that there is a code of practice, and I am grateful to the Department for making it available to us. I know that only part of the code of practice was available to another place when the Bill was considered there. The code of practice is helpful, but its contents do not form part of the Bill. It is referred to in the Bill, but breaching the code of practice is not, in itself, an offence. Critically, the code of practice can be amended without reference to the House--I believe that I am right in saying that. At a later stage, we may wish to explore the conditions under which it can be amended. If that is the safeguard--if the Minister's response to our concerns is, "There is a code of practice, which is publicly available"--we need to be reassured that it cannot be changed, thereby possibly undermining people's protection, without proper scrutiny in this place.
A further source of concern is the seniority of the staff involved in examining people's bank accounts. In other cases in which those powers exist, the prying into people's personal circumstances is done by more senior staff than envisaged by the Bill.