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'(2BB) Prior to the exercise of the power conferred on an authorised officer to obtain information under this section, that officer shall obtain in writing the consent to carry out an investigation.
(2BC) Consent must be granted in writing or (if not in writing) in a manner that produces a record of its having been granted; and it must--
(a) describe the conduct and data in relation to which it is authorised; and
(b) specify the office, rank or position held by the person granting the authorisation.'.
Madam Deputy Speaker (Mrs. Sylvia Heal): With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 12, in page 2, line 26, at end insert--
'(2BD) Requests for information made by authorised officers to any of the bodies falling within subsection (2A) shall be made through a central organisation, and a notice requiring data to be disclosed or to be obtained and disclosed--
(a) must be given in writing or (if not in writing) must be given in a manner that produces a record of its having been given;
(b) must describe the data to be obtained or disclosed under the notice;
(c) must specify the office, rank or position held by the person giving it; and
(d) must specify the manner in which any disclosure required by the notice is to be made.'.
No. 15, in page 3, line 14, at end insert--
'(2G) A person to whom a notice is given under subsection (2A) above may, by notice in writing given to the authorised officer within thirty days after the date of the notice under that subsection, object to that notice on the ground that it would be onerous for him to comply with it; and if the matter is not resolved by agreement, it shall be referred to an official of seniority within the relevant department, who may confirm, vary or cancel that notice.'.
No. 16, in page 3, line 14, at end insert--
'(2H) An authorised officer who gives a notice to a person under subsection (2A) above shall also give to that person a written summary of his reasons for applying for consent to the giving of the notice.'.
No. 19, in clause 2, page 6, line 48, at end insert--
'(8) In this section and in sections 109B and 109BA an 'authorised officer' means an individual holding such offices, ranks or positions with relevant public authorities as are prescribed for the purposes of this subsection by an order made by the Secretary of State who is designated by the Secretary of State as an authorised officer.'.
Mrs. Lait: The amendments all deal with outstanding concerns about the Department's power to acquire information under the Bill. A number of amendments tabled in the House of Lords addressed some of the concerns that many organisations and companies have expressed, but concerns still remain about certain issues relating to fundamental aspects of the Bill. Amendment No. 11A deals with the lack of independent scrutiny of authorised officers' requests for information. From the outset, organisations as diverse as the British Bankers Association and Liberty have, for obvious reasons, expressed concern about the lack of independent consent from a higher authority to requests for information.
The BBA feels that an officer could convince himself that he had reasonable grounds when, in fact, he was acting on gut instinct or worse, as the system is used more, as a matter of routine. Liberty believes that the provision means that a rogue investigator cannot make inquiries about all and sundry. Therefore, there are still concerns about the lack of an independent check, which are strengthened by the existence in the Taxes Management Act 1970 of a procedure, similar to our proposals, to ensure independent scrutiny. As there is an exchange of information across government--with which we do not have any problems--we are anxious that there should be a consistent system and level of approval of requests for information.
Although the Government do not believe it, the development of social security benefits depends partly on the introduction of tax credits--including, of course, the working families tax credit, which replaced family credit. Already, there appear to be a number of problems with fraud in respect of the working families tax credit, and I understand that the extent of fraud in the Canadian working income supplement system is so great that Canada is moving back to a benefits-based system. In other parts of the world, therefore, tax credits seem to be prone to fraud, and the difficulty that we all face is that the system of checking is different as between the Department of Social Security and the Treasury and the Inland Revenue. That is why we want to achieve a much greater strengthening of the independent scrutiny.
Amendments Nos. 12, 15 and 16 are linked to what we all know as a single point of contact and the potential for trawling or fishing. We seem to have been hung up on the
Amendment No. 15 provides that, because of the sheer number of people who could make contact, organisations should have a specific point of contact through which the Government should channel requests. There is no single point of contact in the Government or in local authorities, but the code of practice might be amended to make it easier for companies to be made aware of the fact that they will be dealing with fewer people.
I understand that, following debates in Committee, negotiations have been taking place between the DSS and affected organisations in the private sector. It has been agreed that requests for information will be addressed to a nominated single point of contact, where one has been specified. To try to tighten up on the unknown number of requests that could be made by the public sector, it will make requests only in writing by post, fax, e-mail or electronic password-controlled database access. Telephone contact will be made only by arrangement and only to clarify or query information already provided under a written request. Authorised officers will not make inquiries by means of a personal visit to any corporate premises. That provides reassurance, but I would be grateful if the Minister of State confirmed it. It is important that we are able to reassure the private sector.
I understand from the telecoms fraud group that there are still issues outstanding. The DSS has agreed that only a proportion of DSS officers authorised to use the information powers in the Bill will be allowed to contact telecoms companies. However, that does not apply to the local authorities, of which there are 409. I agree with the group that the Government tend to ignore the sheer number of local authorities and concentrate on their own offices. That is understandable, but it makes it more difficult for the private sector to know with whom it is dealing.
Mr. Webb: May I take the hon. Lady back to amendment No. 11A? I apologise for interrupting her flow of thought and for not intervening sooner. The amendment states:
Mrs. Lait: In order to build in an element of independent scrutiny, we seek to involve somebody further up the system who will not necessarily be part of the organisation from which the investigating or authorising officer comes. If we persuade the Government to accept the amendment, I shall obviously be happy to negotiate on the correct language. We want to build in a firebreak that can pull people up short and make them ask whether they need the information and, if so, why they need it.
Amendment No. 19 has a similar purpose, as it seeks to ensure standardisation across Government in respect of those who can make inquiries. We want to explore the
British Telecom, which is significantly affected by RIPA, has pointed out that the grade of authorisation is at variance with the higher grade of management controls that are expected to be introduced under subsections (2) and (3) of section 25 of RIPA for exactly the same type of communications data. Telecommunications companies will be dealing with two levels of officers across government in respect of similar information. BT remains very concerned and continues to hope that the government can deal with its anxieties. We have heard on many occasions about the Minister of State's view that training will deal with that discrepancy in the seniority of the authorised officers, but the problem is more fundamental, as it concerns the provision across companies of similar, sensitive data to very different levels of authority.
We feel strongly about the amendments and believe that the Government still need to negotiate with the companies and organisations that are involved. I would be grateful to hear about the progress that is being made, as I hope that the outstanding concerns will be addressed and that those companies and organisations will get some comfort from the Government.