Social Security Fraud Bill [Lords]

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Mrs. Lait: I am grateful to the Minister of State for that explanation. As I was the lucky recipient of his letter—he has generously promised to send it to all members of the Committee, and I am sure that he will circulate it to interested outside bodies—it is only fair to say that I am prepared to withdraw the amendment, on the grounds that we shall return to the matter on Report once people have had a chance to comment. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mrs. Lait: I beg to move amendment No. 36, in page 7, line 40, leave out from ``officer'' to end of line 41 and insert

    `means a representative of the Benefits Agency or a local authority who has been authorised by the Secretary of State to undertake investigative work'.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to take new clause 1—Seniority of authorised officers—

    `—(1) Subject to subsection (2), an authorised officer allowed to undertake investigative work under this Act shall hold the rank of higher executive officer or above in the relevant department.

    (2) An authorised officer obtaining information under this Act from any person providing a telecommunications service shall hold such office, rank or position, and shall be subject to such restrictions, as are prescribed by orders made under section 25 of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000.'.

Mrs. Lait: I am grateful to you, Mr. Maxton, for selecting new clause 1 to be debated with the amendment because it allows us to consider the issue of authorised officers, to which we have referred extensively, particularly in regard to the numbers with which outside organisations could deal. I want to explore the real difficulty that many outside organisations face.

The proposal is that many authorised officers will be of executive officer level. To question that is in no way an attack on their ability, quality or probity but Liberty, for one, has voiced its concern that authorised officers should be people operating at a higher level. BT, which has been speaking on behalf of the telecommunications industry, sent my hon. Friend Lord Astor an interesting e-mail in which it compared its management structure with that of the civil service. BT states that, despite the fact that it has been privatised for more than 15 years, it

    ``has its roots in the Civil Service from which it has derived its ranking system. An Executive Officer in BT would be equivalent to an MPG2 manager''--

I am afraid that I must leave that to BT to elucidate. The communication goes on:

    ``This is the first level of management within the company and does not carry significant responsibility. Many managers at this level would be relatively inexperienced young graduates.''

It continues:

    ``The issues surrounding the disclosure of communications data have been well documented during the passage of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) . . . The Secretary of State has not yet issued an order under section 25(2) and (3) of RIPA specifying the offices, ranks and positions of designated persons authorised to obtain certain communications data.''

It then points out that the orders in SI No. 2417 deal with the authority levels for directed surveillance.

The argument put by, among others, the British Bankers Association—which is particularly concerned about local authorities where authorised officers administering housing benefit can, under the Social Security Administration Act 1992, be employees of a contractor—is that it is difficult to envisage officers of sufficient seniority being available in smaller authorities. It believes that officers should be of a higher level.

11 am

Through amendment No. 36, we are trying to clarify the system of authorisation and the rank of the authorised officer. However, in new clause 1 we are specifically focusing on the effect of RIPA. We are concerned about a clash between the Bill and RIPA on the information that can be acquired and the level of officer who can acquire it. RIPA states that the officer will be higher executive officer rank or above. BT points out that for information such as name and address reverse search—clearly, very technical—the authority of a higher executive officer will be required. The authority of a senior executive officer is required for other information, as defined by section 21(4)(b) of RIPA. Potential conflicts exist between the requirements of the different measures.

The concern in the telecommunications industry, which seems to be industry-wide--in addition to BT, I have heard from Orange, One 2 One, Worldcom and ntl—is that that inconsistency of approach might lead to confusion, civil litigation and violations of the RIPA, the Data Protection Act 1998 and the Telecommunications Act 1984. Will the Minister explain why he believes that the Bill is not inconsistent, and why inconsistency will not expose the telecommunications industry to possible litigation? I hope that he will reassure me that the Government will continue to discuss the issues with the various external agencies that are involved, so as to arrive at an agreed position between the industries and the Government.

Mr. Rooker: It may be helpful to the hon. Lady if I deal with amendment No. 36 and new clause 1 separately. As she said, amendment No. 36 seeks to clarify who can be authorised for the purposes of the provisions. The words ``authorised officer'' in the Bill have the same meaning as in the Social Security Administration Act 1992. The definition in the 1992 Act was updated in the Child Support, Pensions and Social Security Act 2000, and is currently:

    ``(a) an official of a Government department;

    (b) an individual employed by an authority administering housing benefit or council tax benefit;

    (c) an individual employed by an authority or joint committee that carries out functions relating to housing benefit or council tax benefit on behalf of the authority administering that benefit; or

    (d) an individual employed by a person authorised by or on behalf of any such authority or joint committee as is mentioned in paragraph (b) or (c) above to carry out functions relating to housing benefit or council tax benefit for that authority or committee.''

There is no doubt that amendment No. 36 would very much narrow the scope of the definition, because it would limit it to a representative of the Benefits Agency or the local authority who had been authorised by the Secretary of State. The code of practice provisions would relate to a definition of authorised officer other than that which applies in the rest of the Bill. The amendment on its own would make the Benefits Agency officers authorised by the Secretary of State subject to the code of practice, but not the officers authorised by local authorities. That is a major contradiction. In case the hon. Lady contemplates coming back to this on Report, I stress that there is no real need to do so.

The powers in new clause 1 are the meaty bit, and would result in a large upgrade of DSS officers who could use these powers. That would add another £2.6 million a year to the wages bill. Some might say that that is being generous towards the staff in my Department, particularly when the Conservatives have pledged to cut £8 billion of public expenditure--it does not say that in my brief: I have added that bit. In any case, the executive officer is the appropriate grade for these powers. It is the first grade of management within the Department.

I cannot speak for BT. I do not know anything about the company, except that it has borrowed £30 billion, which people have only just found out about, and it is causing a bit of a problem in the board room. We are not in that situation. The Government are paying back billions of pounds of debts. Our executive officers perform an important role within the organisation. Investigators in Customs and Excise are also executive officers. They are the officers whom we want to authorise. They have direct supervisory responsibility for staff of the grades of administrative assistant and administrative officer. They have responsibility for the routine management of much of the Department's work in its local offices. They are the equivalent of a sergeant or an inspector in the police service.

Executive officers also conduct specialist roles within the Department. They are responsible for accepting cases for investigation and deciding the best way of progressing them. They prepare cases deemed suitable for prosecution to an acceptable standard in court. They are expected to give evidence in court. As I have said repeatedly, our people are being trained to a nationally recognised standard--professionalism in security. There are seven foundation and 14 specialist modules, including legislation, liaison intelligence, organisation and planning, the rules of disclosure, investigative interviewing, basic surveillance, photographic video evidence and court procedures. There are several stand-alone courses on top of those first seven modules. They are not all provided by the DSS: some are provided by outside contractors through competitive tendering.

Executive officers conduct cases for the Department at appeals tribunals. Since the 1940s, they have been using those powers to get information from employers about employees. It is nonsense to suggest that we are using low-level kids who are just out of college and are untrained, uncommitted and inadequately supervised. The hon. Member for Beckenham may want to step up the wages bill for the Department, but I cannot accept the amendment. I do not dismiss the amendment out of hand, but the powers under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000—they must have had a job saying that all the time in Committee—have not finally be laid. I know what was said during its passage, but the orders have been laid. We certainly do not intend to cause difficulties for business, whether it be BT, Orange or anyone else. We will arrive at an amicable solution for the powers in this Bill.

While I am on my feet, I should like to wish our Whip, the hon. Member for Dudley, South (Mr. Pearson), a happy birthday. Perhaps he is one of the new breed of 30-year-olds who will be let loose on the unsuspecting private sector from whence he came after giving distinguished service.

I hope that I have said enough. I will not satisfy the Opposition on this point, as it has been raised on more than one occasion. Obviously, it is up to them to raise further issues, and more time will be available on Report. I make a robust case for ensuring that officers meet the requisite high standards of professionalism and training. We do not intend to cause hassle and put extra burdens on business by letting loose untrained, unqualified or unprofessional officers from the Department.

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