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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Work and Pensions (Baroness Hollis of Heigham): My Lords, by the leave of the House I shall seek to respond briefly to the amendment in the name of the noble Earl, Lord Northesk, as it affects the Department for Work and Pensions. This was picked up by the noble Baroness and referred to as a major anomaly. That is why I intrude on your Lordships' time.
There has been no challenge that DWP needs the powers it has. I bridle a little at the assumption that your Lordships did not scrutinise the Bill. I remember vividly the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, pressing me on credit agencies, fishing trips and the like. But it was a Bill which passed through this House without Division.
The noble Earl raises three basic issues concerning RIPA: first, the issue of transparency and accountability, which was the particular concern of the noble Lord, Lord Phillips; secondly, cost; and, thirdly, effectiveness. As regards transparency and accountability, I am perfectly happy on behalf of my department to take away some of the concerns to see whether in the annual report to Parliament and the like we could increase the transparency of our procedures. That would be entirely proper. If I can meet the concerns of the House in that way I am very happy to do so and would do so in good faith.
However, I wish to explore briefly two other options. The first is that of cost. Ever since the foundation of the Department of Social Security in 1948, on behalf of taxpayers and to protect taxpayers, it has requested information as of right from employers for National Insurance purposes and from landlords for housing benefit and the like. If within RIPA we were required to pay, as we would be, for telecommunications details and then were not able to refuse similar requests from banks, building societies and other agencies which give us information about health, income, capital, identity, address and family circumstancesall of the bread-and-butter data of the department which piggybacks on other sources of information for the benefit of the taxpayerwe would face multi-million-pound bills in order to pay for what we currently get with consent in the public interest. So I urge the House not to go down that path.
The third considerationto my mind the most importantis the consideration of effectiveness. As I say, we lose something like £2 billionperhaps £4 billionper year in fraud. We need this information. Since the enactment of the Social Security Fraud Act 2001 we have had an integrated, robust and effective structure for pursuing fraud. Let me give one example. Operation Utah was an investigation in which four defendants pleaded guilty to 25 charges of benefit fraud of a total overpayment of nearly a quarter of a million pounds. The Act was used for 42 credit references, 25 bank checks, eight credit finance checks and one telephone subscriber check.
Is the House really asking us to pay for each and every one of those checks? If so, does it then become financially worthwhile pursuing fraud, in particular low-level fraud? Is the House asking our staffrecently trainedto seek two sets of authorisation where now they operate withinthanks to the Actan integrated and robust structure?
Let me explain to your Lordships what would happen if the House took the amendment on board. We would have to return to Parliament to change the legislative framework of the Social Security Fraud Act, within which we operate. We would probably have to change and amend the statutory code of
In other words, to bring telecommunications used by the department into RIPA, we would have to fragment our integrated coherent structure, which allowed us to be so effective with Operation Utah. As a result I suspectI have checked this information this morningwe would disrupt the use of our fraud powers for anything up to three months.
Baroness Blatch: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for giving way. She has made coming under the RIPA regulatory framework sound extremely laborious, very time-consuming, extremely expensive in staffing and very expensive in terms of paying the providers. Do not these arguments apply to all other bodies which operate under different statutes? All the arguments put to us about coming under the regulatory framework indicate that it will not make any difference to these bodies, and that the position will not be as the noble Baroness has just described. It seems extraordinary that it should apply only to DWP and not to any other body.
Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, that is precisely why, as I was trying to say, our legislation was introduced in 2001; it is ECHR-compliant; and it builds on existing practices of obtaining the information which protects all our interests at no public expense. The noble Baroness may not like the information I am giving. It is information from my department about the implications on the ground of the cost, the laboriousness, the expense to staff training and our effectiveness. I know that the noble Baroness will not feel comfortable with any
The Earl of Erroll: My Lords, is not this a very good argument for using the DWP model for the code of practice under RIPA, to bring everything into the DWP-type framework, and call that RIPA? Then everything is under a united umbrella. I have been told that the DWP has better procedures for checking the identity of a person making a request than those under the code of practice proposed under RIPA. So I am not against it at all.
Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, as I understand the position, one of the powers under RIPA is to require payment for all requests for such information. I spent some time trying to explain that since 1948 we have not, for the most part, paid for such information, whether to employers for information about national insurance and earnings, to landlords
The noble Earl's amendment would be wholly negative and disrupt the Department for Work and Pensions' capacity to pursue and eradicate fraud. We have a good coherent, integrated and robust structure in place. To disrupt it now would be to undermine the very thing that this House has called for on several occasions, which is the effective and proper pursuit of fraud at the taxpayers' expense.
The Earl of Northesk: My Lords, perhaps I may clarify one point with the noble Baroness. The purpose underpinning my amendment is to make sure that, where the DWP has a need for access to communications data, communications data alone are brought within the RIPA regime. That is the logic of it. The rest of the DWP's investigatory activity would not be in any way affected. So I do not see how the nightmare scenario painted by the noble Baroness can be generated.
Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, I tried to give the answer in the example called Operation Utah. I could have given any other example. Our staff have a single route to acquire a range of data which include bank credit references, credit checks, information from building societies, information about utility bills to get people's addresses and so on. What the noble Earl's proposal
Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, as I understand the position, RIPA would require us to seek to establish separate routes of authorisation and payment for the information we seek. Both would be severely disruptive and entirely negative for the department.
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