Social Security Fraud Bill [Lords]

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Mr. Davidson: I should like to follow up the point about the identification of empty properties. Would the information thus obtained be shared with local authorities where it is needed to avoid fraud against the public? I am thinking of circumstances in which someone argues that he was living in a house in order to succeed to a tenancy, which he then buys and sells, when he had not in fact been living there at all. An old person could have been in hospital, and one of his relatives might claim the right of succession.

Angela Eagle: Yes, we intend to share information with local authorities in areas where it is relevant to what they are doing. I was thinking more of housing benefit, however. Frauds against housing benefit include ghost tenancies and collecting money, as well as ghost identities. The Bill's powers apply only to social security purposes, and so could not be used in my hon. Friend's example of succession to tenancies.

Mrs. Lait: As I have said, I am happy to withdraw the amendment on the grounds that we may return to it on Report. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mrs. Lait: I beg to move amendment No. 38, in page 7, line 34, at end insert—

    `(6A) The exercise of powers under subsection (1) shall be subject to the oversight of the Data Protection Commissioner, or such other body as the Secretary of State may by order designate, and it shall be the responsibility of the Commissioner (or such other body) to put in place such arrangements as they think appropriate for—

    (a) monitoring compliance with the Code of Practice; and

    (b) advising on any disciplinary action that should be taken in instances where they are satisfied that an authorised officer has not complied with the Code of Practice.'.

First, I must apologise for a slight technical mistake in the amendment: we refer to the Data Protection Commissioner, who is now the Information Commissioner. Should the Government be minded to accept our amendment, we would be happy to amend that. I hope that we can be fairly brief here.

I thank the Minister of State for writing to me to explain the discussions that his officials have had with the Information Commissioner. We originally tabled the amendment because a number of people had expressed concern about the Bill. The Information Commission wrote some cogent comments and sent a copy to my noble Friend Lord Higgins on 17 January. Many of the concerns were dealt with in the discussions in the House of Lords. We shall not pursue them, but we were concerned about being blandly told on Second Reading that the Information Commissioner now agreed with the Bill. As some of the original strictures were pretty tough, it seemed reasonable to try to tease out from the Government where the points of agreement were and how agreement had come about.

Last night, the Minister of State kindly sent me an extensive letter that went through all the points and reassured me quite significantly. The Minister has copied the letter to the Information Commissioner, and I hope that he will make it available to other Committee members, because it deals with crucial points and is quite reassuring. I hope that he will place a copy in the Library and ensure that organisations that had concerns following the Information Commissioner's original comments can benefit from it. In a sense, I suppose that I shall seek to withdraw the amendment on the basis of that letter.

10.45 am

Mr. Rooker: Before the hon. Lady seeks to withdraw the amendment, which will stop the debate, I owe you, Mr. Maxton, and the rest of the Committee an apology, because I failed to copy the letter, which was born out of our proceedings, to you and other Committee members. That will be done immediately.

Mrs. Lait: I give way to the hon. Member for Northavon.

Mr. Webb: May I encourage the hon. Lady not to conclude her remarks by seeking to withdraw the amendment, so that we may continue the debate?

Mrs. Lait: I was minded to withdraw the amendment, but I have not sought leave do so. Since the hon. Gentleman wants to say a few words, I shall decide after the debate whether to withdraw it.

Mr. Webb: May I encourage the hon. Lady not to seek leave to withdraw the amendment at the end of the debate and embolden her to stick to her guns? Our experience shows that the Information Commissioner has a very different mindset from that of the Department of Social Security. That is not a surprise or a criticism, but simply an observation. Indeed, in some cases and in the interests of public policy, I might almost side with the DSS.

For example, the Information Commissioner is nervous about data matching, but there are cases in which that would make sense, on one hand for detecting fraud and on the other for encouraging take-up. On a number of occasions, I have brought before Ministers—and been fobbed off—the fact that half the pensioners who do not claim income support give all the relevant information to their local authorities. The Information Commissioner discourages information sharing, but it could be beneficial and the DSS should do more of it. I am not saying, therefore, that the Information Commissioner is always right, but it is clear that she and the DSS consider matters through different lenses.

That is just the sort of independent scrutiny of the process of obtaining data that we have sought in earlier stages of our discussions. The amendment would provide an opportunity for outside scrutiny by someone whose role in life is to keep an eye on the way in which official bodies use information about private citizens. The Information Commissioner should be keeping an eye on such activity—that is what she is there for. Why not accept the amendment and give the Information Commissioner a formal role in checking that the code of practice, which is about the way in which information on private citizens is used, is being implemented properly?

The Department's assurances that ``You can trust us, we are the Department'' do not wash, because even the best Departments need independent scrutiny. Apart from the technicality about the Commissioner's name, the amendment would serve ideally to achieve that objective, so I encourage the hon. Lady to persist with it.

Mr. Rooker: I shall do my best, although I will be unable to satisfy the hon. Member for Northavon. To be honest, he may think that he has been fobbed off, but I have never knowingly done that in answering a parliamentary question or letter. If he asked more precise questions, he might get answers. I answer the questions that he asks; I cannot second-guess the ones that are in his mind.

The amendment would place operational control of the powers in clause 1 in the hands of the Information Commissioner, but it is not the function of the Information Commissioner to get involved in policy. We are talking about social security fraud, which has nothing to do with the Information Commissioner. We are responsible for policy on social security fraud; the Information Commissioner's responsibilities involve data protection, the protection of privacy and the misuse of data. The Department was the first in Whitehall to have a code of practice on data matching. It was approved by the Information Commissioner, who wrote the foreword to the second edition. As far as I know, there have been no complaints about its operation.

We work in partnership with the Information Commissioner on issues relevant to her responsibilities, which she accepts. I am rather putting words in her mouth, as meetings with the Information Commissioner were conducted by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, as I stated in the letter to which I referred earlier.

The Information Commissioner has a role, which we respect, and we shall do what we can to assist her. That is why substantial changes were made to the Bill in the other place. We have undertaken consultation on the matter already, and there will be a continuing programme of consultation. I do not know why the hon. Member for Northavon wants to put day-to-day operational control in the hands of the Information Commissioner. She must conduct her own inquiries. If there are problems with the working of the code of practice or any misuse of it, she will rightly come down like a ton of bricks on the Department and the local authorities. For a start, she will receive complaints and review how the Department acts in that respect. She is entitled to make inquiries about how the code of practice is working, and we will co-operate with her inquiries.

As I said, we will review the operation of the powers in the Bill three years after its enactment. We will not pass legislation and then just walk away from it. These are new powers, and a modest extension of the powers given to the Department by the 1974 measure. We have bent over backwards to ensure that no misuse by Government is built into the proposal and have done our best to respond to matters raised in the other place and in this House, albeit to a lesser extent because of time constraints. We shall take into account all the points made by business and civil liberties groups and by right hon. and hon. Members. The Department is working with the code of practice on matters such as the matching of computer records to uncover inconsistencies, and is cross-checking occupational pensions and income support to discover errors, whether by the Department or the claimant or whether they involve fraud. That is the purpose of the exercise: we are not keeping quiet about it.

The foreword of the second edition of the code of practice states:

    ``This is the second edition of the DSS Code of Practice on data matching and I am pleased to report that since welcoming the first edition a year ago I have received only a very few inquiries about the Department's data matching exercises. In other words the code seems to be achieving two twin goals of setting out for DSS staff the standards, which they must follow, and of explaining to benefit claimants the nature of the checks that are carried out and the safeguards. I hope that this new edition, reflecting the strengthening of Data Protection legislation over the last year, will be equally successful.''

That is what the data commissioner said about the data matching that is already being done. I hope that she will in due course say—there has not, as far as I know, been any discussion on the matter—that the code of practice is as successful as the Department's data matching operation. I hope that the hon. Lady will withdraw her amendment—although it is obviously in the Committee's gift, rather than hers, to do so.

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