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Mr. Webb: I have much sympathy with the spirit of the amendments, which reflect many of the concerns that the Liberal Democrats have expressed about the lack of independent scrutiny, the advantages of a single point of contact and the seniority of the authorised officers. I am, however, anxious about some of the specifics. As I mentioned in an intervention, amendment No. 11A is problematic. It states that the officer needs written consent, but it says nothing about the people who should provide that consent or their seniority. Interestingly, it was suggested that such people could come from outside the organisation, but if the amendment is to achieve its desired goal, it should be much more explicit. One can imagine implementation through forms of written permission by another authorised officer. I am not sure where that would lead us.
I am sympathetic to the idea of a single point of contact, partly for the convenience of those from whom information is obtained and partly because of the concept of an audit trail. If matters go wrong, and there is some suggestion of abuse of the powers, we need thorough records of their use. The amendments try to achieve that.
Amendment No. 19 seeks consistency about seniority. That is sensible. The hon. Member for Beckenham (Mrs. Lait) made a good point about a telecommunications company being contacted by different Government officials under different Acts, which require different levels
Mr. Peter Atkinson (Hexham): Perhaps the Minister of State is about to shoot my fox and say that, unknown to me, progress has already been made on reaching agreement with banks and others who will receive calls from Benefits Agency or Department of Social Security staff.
I especially support amendment No. 12, which proposes a central point of control. That could be the only method of preventing the system from spreading to the extent of allowing officials to go on fishing expeditions to find material about individuals. It would therefore be sensible to route all calls through one control centre to an appointed person in the banks or utility companies who understood the system.
People who work in banks or utility companies are busy. If a phone rings and the caller claims to be Joe Bloggs from the Benefits Agency, the person who replies is more than likely to look up the details on the computer and provide the answer without checking the caller's precise identity. Private detectives and similar individuals can be extremely clever at passing themselves off as officials when trying to glean information. Providing for a central point of contact is therefore sensible. I am interested in finding out whether the Minister of State has made progress with the industry on that.
We are slightly ill at ease because we have reached the final stages of considering the Bill, yet one or two matters do not appear to have been resolved to our complete satisfaction. They raise serious questions about individual liberty and privacy. It was ever thus with such measures and we must ultimately rely on Ministers to hatch the best deal possible and hope that it works. However, I share my hon. Friends' anxieties. We remain ill at ease about the clause.
Mr. Rooker: I remind hon. Members that we have a draft code of practice, and we have said that after Royal Assent it will be issued for full-scale consultation with the industry and all other relevant bodies. By full consultation, I mean a normal three-month consultation with all interested parties. The code will be quotable in courts of law and govern the use of powers in the Bill. I emphasise that passing the Bill this week is not the end of the matter. The guidelines for its powers will be governed by a code of practice about which we will fully consult. If Members in both Houses wish, they can use the time available to debate the matter. The code is not subject to affirmative or, indeed, negative procedures, but there is nothing to stop issues relating to the consultation or the code being debated in the House.
The hon. Member for Beckenham (Mrs. Lait) mentioned various agreements, but I did not make a list of them. The note that I have tells me that all the points that she raised have been agreed with the private sector. I also remind her that they were agreed with the private sector at the time we issued the present draft code of practice. Since the Standing Committee, there has been nothing new for me to report back to the House.
I shall briefly go through the amendments in order. I promise the House, by the way, that I shall not use all the notes available, of which I have 21 pages. Amendment No. 11A would create an unnecessary further layer of bureaucracy, and we do not want to do that because it would incur extra cost and time. We have already explained at some length in Committee why we do not think it necessary for officers to obtain consent before making inquiries, but let me spell it out again, because it is important so far as the staff in my Department are concerned.
The Bill already provides safeguards to prevent the powers to obtain information from being abused. The powers may be used only when their use is reasonable for purposes set out in the legislation. Secondly, the officers who use the powers will not have the responsibility for making decisions about benefit entitlement, or about whether fraud has been committed. So, already, on the second of my seven points, we have reached a further check up the hierarchy.
I noticed that the hon. Lady gave a quaint definition of "independent" by saying that it would refer to someone else in the Department. I thought that "independent" meant independent, as in outside the Department. Perhaps I have misunderstood. The fact is that the people making the inquiries under these powers will not be the people who decide whether someone is entitled to benefit. That is important: they will be removed from the decision-making process. That should give the House confidence that the officers conducting the inquiries will take an objective view when doing so.
Furthermore, one cannot just dismiss the fact that I have said that the officers will be trained by saying, "Oh, they are going to be trained. Well, that doesn't matter; we are not interested in that." The Department is training more officers in anti-fraud and security than ever before, and they are obtaining professional qualifications accredited by outside bodies. The testimony to the quality of the training in the DSS now is that the private sector advertises for PINS--professionalism in security--trained and qualified staff. The private sector is seeking to poach my Department's trained staff because it knows that they have gained a qualification through quality professional training.
The officers will have to record the details of why the inquiries were made. It will not be possible for them to make inquiries without making such records. Also, if they abuse the powers, they will be found out and punished.
Mr. Rooker: I am trying to be as helpful as I can. What I am saying is that these things happen, and have happened in the past. The numbers involved are small but we catch them, because we police the system. No system is perfect, and people must be confident that officers using the powers in the Bill will be checked out.
In 2000--I believe that I gave these figures in Committee--there were 18 prosecutions, three downgrades, 21 resignations and 30 dismissals among 80,000 staff in the Benefits Agency. Those are small numbers, but I am not suggesting that the situation is not serious: there have, after all, been prosecutions, resignations and dismissals. We are policing what our staff are doing in using their powers, which may be intrusive in terms of access to personal information. We have the Computer Misuse Act 1990, the Social Security Administration Act 1992 and the Data Protection Acts. Prison sentences may be imposed following prosecutions carried out successfully under those Acts. Before the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar asks me, however, let me say that I do not know how many people were sent to prison last year.
The number of authorised officers will, as we have said, be limited. We do not expect the Secretary of State to need more than 300 officers, and we propose to authorise only 175 initially. The Benefits Agency has 80,000 staff, fewer than 0.5 per cent. of whom will be authorised to use the powers in the Bill.
The work of authorised officers will be supervised, and subject to regular management checks. We are talking about normal operational factors and arrangements, and about people who are undoubtedly highly trained specialists, with managers who are also trained specialists. We do not want more checks and red tape than we have already. It could be argued that we have gone too far now, but we need this provision because we are dealing with sensitive information.
I remind the hon. Member for Beckenham that it was the previous Government who consolidated provisions into the Social Security Administration Act 1992. It was also the previous Government who extended those powers and made them available to local authorities in the Social Security Administration (Fraud) Act 1997. I am not making a major point about that; I am merely expressing the hope that there is some consensus.
It may be said--although this is a banal way of putting it--that the same group of officials advised both Governments, and that both Governments have soaked up what they said. We have not soaked it up, however; we have subjected it to our own questioning. When planning the Bill, we removed a lot of material that existed in early drafts. My ministerial colleagues and I asked ourselves whether we could stand at the Dispatch Box and feel
Amendment No. 12 relates to centralisation. I know that the hon. Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson) has raised the issue before, and I do not criticise him. Ours is a large Department, responsible for spending--I think--a third of all Government money. Our budget for benefits is £100 billion a year--£2 billion a week. That is big money, and a good many people are needed to manage the operation successfully--there are some 600 offices around the country. We have said, however, that all inquiries related to the Bill will be routed through the 13 administrative areas over which the Benefits Agency is spread, in addition to the headquarters of the national intelligence unit, which deals with organised fraud. Therefore, we have cut the number of sites from 600 to 14. I honestly think that that is reasonable. It is not reasonable to route all inquiries through one central office.