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5.30 pm

We will limit the number of authorised officers to 175 to start with. Ministers--other Ministers; not me--will be subject to questions on how the Bill is working. The code of practice will guide the way in which it operates. The House can revisit the matter any time it chooses if issues are raised that do not conform with the promises and commitments that we have given during the passage of the Bill.

Mrs. Lait: The right hon. Gentleman mentions that inquiries will be routed through only 14 DSS sites, but there are 409 local authorities. Will it continue to be 409 local authorities?

Mr. Rooker: I certainly hope not. It is worse than that because there are 409 local authorities and each of them probably has more than a dozen departments, but Ministers at the centre cannot dictate to local authority chief executives how they organise their affairs. In Committee, I gave examples of good practice, particularly in Gloucester, where all inquiries are routed through one department. There is nothing to stop local authorities--it would be good practice--from making a combined effort on anti-fraud measures; regions, or local authorities that are grouped together could combine. They could share anti-fraud measures and activity. There could be a central point for one or more local authorities, but we cannot--it is just not possible--tell chief executives how they will organise.

I accept that that may look like a cop-out. Time will tell whether local authorities are sensible in the way they operate the powers. As I have said, they are not completely analogous with those of the Government. They will not have online access to data in the private sector unless they have specific sanction and authority from the Secretary of State. They are not being given that authority. We are not prepared to say that we have that much confidence in local authorities that we are prepared to make their powers analogous to those of the Government from day one--far from it; we will not do that.

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There are excellent local authorities that are efficient, that are good value for money and that have good anti-fraud operations. Other local authorities are at the other end of the spectrum. We well appreciate that there are different practices, but we cannot give an absolute commitment on the basis of all 409 authorities.

Amendment No. 15 provides that organisations can object to a request for information on the ground that it is too onerous. May I briefly remind the House of the position? Businesses expressed concerns that inquiries should be centralised. I have already said that we will get the number down to 14 units from 600. Businesses expressed concerns that they would be asked for information that they did not normally collect. We have made it clear that we will not ask for such information. They expressed concern that they would have to develop new software and new ways of storing information, and to store information for longer. We have given reassurances on all those points. They will not be required to buy new software and to change the way they keep information. At every turn, we have made it clear that we are concerned to keep burdens to a minimum; we have made many commitments to do that. I repeat them on the Floor of the House today.

We have made it clear at paragraph 1.7 of the code of practice that businesses may contact authorised officers if there are problems in meeting a particular request. The code makes it clear that the authorised officer must consider the organisation's objections and amend the request where that would be reasonable. There must be a test of reasonableness. It will not be done on the basis of a hunch or a whim. The code is admissible in court proceedings. That is a further back-up.

I am a little surprised about amendment No. 16. If authorised officers had to give their background reasons for making a request or even a summary, that would let the cat out of the bag. The request might involve a collusive employer, yet the request would be made to the employer. It may be a bank or a financial institution. I am sure that the Opposition are not really serious about amendment No. 16 and therefore I will not spend any more time on it.

In some ways, I touched on the subject of amendment No. 19 when I referred to the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act and the rank and position of officers. It is not for the private sector to decide which rank of civil servant it is prepared to deal with when the civil servant is exercising powers conferred by statute and agreed by this House. We will not be told that by the private sector, because the law decides that issue, and Government management will decide the rest through executive responsibility. However, we will not be unreasonable. Executive officers cover a range of management in the Department and we are satisfied with the way in which they operate their present powers, which they have used since 1948, to contact companies every day across the country.

I do not accept the telecommunications industry's point about inconsistency between the grades of officers. The nature of the information required is different: we will not be looking for traffic information. It will be made crystal clear that the inquiries made using the powers in the Bill will be made under social security legislation and

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exclusively for social security purposes, by a named authorised officer working for a DSS intelligence unit or a local authority. Information providers will have a duty to check that the inquiry is from a source known to them as being an authorised officer. They will not hand out information about their customers willy-nilly, because they are not stupid. Companies know that it would be bad public relations, because one bad case could lose hundreds, if not thousands, of customers if they think that their information is not being properly looked after.

I have not used all my notes, and I hope that the House will not invite me to do so, because we debated the issues in Committee. However, that is no reason why they should not come back to the Floor of the House and, in some ways, it has been a useful exercise. I hope that I have been able to put on record a summary of the commitments that we have already given, so that the private sector knows that we seek to work with it and not against it.

Mrs. Lait: I was interested in the Minister's comments, some of which--like our comments--have been made before. I am reassured that the code of practice is genuinely open for consultation and, I hope, negotiation. I hope that problems will be negotiated, rather than solutions being imposed at the end of the consultation, because it is in the Government's interests--not to mention those of taxpayers--to ensure that the system works well and effectively. If difficulties arose between the private sector and the public sector, including the 409 local authorities, it would make it difficult to ensure that the legislation worked effectively.

I hope that the consultation on the code of practice will include all 409 local authorities, and will give rise to suggestions on how they can reduce the number of points of contact. It would be horrendous to try to keep records up to date for so many local authorities.

Mr. Rooker indicated assent.

Mrs. Lait: I see that the Minister shares my concerns. Although he unfortunately will not be with us in the next Parliament, we will be able to call in aid his words.

Mr. Rooker: In that case, and without the benefit of advice, it would be my view that the consultation should include every concerned body, including local authorities. As a result, the code of practice might include advice on how even local authorities use their powers under the Bill. Given that the Government have reduced the number of units from 600 to 14, it is not unreasonable to ask local authorities to designate one point of contact, and if neighbouring authorities can combine their fraud work, so much the better. I shall watch with interest to see whether my words have any effect.

Mrs. Lait: I just hope that the Minister's words are not informed by a touch of demob happiness. We will also watch the situation closely and keep in touch with those organisations that have expressed concerns. I hope that we will hear that those concerns have been addressed, and I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Webb: I beg to move amendment No. 11, in page 2, line 31, leave out "has committed,".

Madam Deputy Speaker: With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 13, in page 2, line 37, leave out--

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'who is an official of a Government department and'.

No. 14, in page 3, line 1, leave out "or described".

Mr. Webb: Amendment No. 11 might seem a minor amendment to tidy up the Bill's drafting, but there is an issue of substance behind it. Under clause 1, an authorised officer cannot require information

Let us suppose that the criteria did not include the phrase:

and that the House had simply decided that these powers could be exercised only in the case of people with a conviction for benefit fraud. There is no way that the clause would have been drafted in that way, because removing that phrase would mean that the clause read that the officer had reasonable grounds for believing that the person had committed such an offence.

The test of reasonableness cannot apply to history. People have either committed an offence or they have not. So it is odd, and no more than that, that the test of reasonableness in the Bill is applied to three things--whether a person has committed, is committing or intends to commit a benefit offence--because on one of those criteria there is no test of reasonableness. That is what first alerted me to wonder what was going on with regard to inclusion of the words "has committed".

When I queried this in Committee, the initial response of the Under-Secretary of State for Social Security, the hon. Member for Wallasey (Angela Eagle), was to tell me to go back and read the Bill--which I did--where it says that an officer must have "reasonable grounds for believing" that the person has committed fraud and is about to commit fraud again. That is not what the Bill says--it says:

fraud. So the Minister's remarks were not, in my judgment, accurate. The condition is that once someone has committed fraud, they fall within the scope of clause 1, whether or not they are committing or intend to commit an offence.

The Minister went on to say, and this offered me some reassurance:

It was spelled out in Committee that not only must someone have committed an offence but they must be about to commit one. That contradicts the Bill, which refers to someone who has committed, is committing or intends to commit an offence.

If the Bill should read "and intends", why does it not do so? If having merely committed an offence is not a sufficient condition, why is it mentioned at all? That is the nub of the amendment. The phrase "has committed" adds nothing to the Bill if the Minister's assurances are correct. If "has committed" is not a sufficient condition and there must be reasonable grounds for thinking that someone is committing or will commit an offence, the phrase "has committed" does not need to be included.

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It could be argued that if the phrase is not doing anything it does not matter whether it is taken out or left in. My worry is that leaving it in provides scope for authorised people to say, when challenged, that the Bill allows them to use these powers because someone has committed fraud. If that is not the Government's intention--and the Minister has made it quite clear that it is not--why are they giving themselves that power?

The wording of new clause 2 is better than that of clause 1. New clause 2 refers to a benefit recipient having a conviction for fraud or the officer having reasonable grounds for believing that the recipient is committing or will commit an offence. In the light of our debate in Committee, it has become apparent that if we were to write such a provision from scratch we would probably use the wording in new clause 2 rather than that in the Bill. In new clause 2, the test of reasonableness does not apply to the past, but only to the present and future.

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