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Session 2000-01
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Standing Committee Debates
Social Security Fraud Bill [Lords]

Social Security Fraud Bill [Lords]

Standing Committee A

Monday 9 April 2001

[Mr. John Maxton in the Chair]

Social Security Fraud Bill [Lords]

4.30 pm

The Chairman: It may be convenient for members of the Committee if I inform them that the hon. Member for Beckenham (Mrs. Lait) has suggested that, when we discuss clause 7, amendments Nos. 51 and 52 be taken together.

Clause 5

Exchange of information with overseas authorities

Mrs. Jacqui Lait (Beckenham): I beg to move amendment No. 45, in page 9, line 2, leave out

    `it appears to the Secretary of State'

and insert

    `the Secretary of State is satisfied'.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to take amendment No. 46, in page 9, line 37, leave out

    `it appears to the Department'

and insert

    `the Department is satisfied'.

Mrs. Lait: The two amendments would make changes similar to those that have been made previously, although they concern information exchanged with overseas authorities. Throughout our proceedings, we have suggested that tightening up some wording may be beneficial to the Government. The amendments would remove some conditionality and ensure that the Secretary of State and the Department were satisfied with the arrangements.

There could be a need to exchange information with overseas authorities and we would not wish to prevent that. However, we want to ensure that the information that is sought, given or used by either authority is properly guarded. I am sure that Under-Secretary will assure us that the European Union and the United States of America have proper systems that already satisfy the Department and the Secretary of State, but may I quietly suggest that one or two EU states may not have in their systems the degree of safety that we may expect from others that are used to computers.

We must also consider closely the well-known issue of benefit fraud--one or two serious cases have involved people from Nigeria. I hope that, sooner rather than later, many central European countries will join the EU, which leads us to ask whether they will have systems that the Department is satisfied are sufficiently robust. Many constituencies, including mine, have experienced an influx of asylum seekers and refugees from the Balkan states. In due course, when the area has settled down, which we hope devoutly that it will, many such people will return, but they may have been given national insurance numbers and have access to our benefit system, which, in certain hands, could be used improperly.

At the same time, those who are legitimate, as I assume the bulk of them are, would not have to cope with information that was used improperly either in their original country or in this country. Will the Under-Secretary give us some idea of the criteria and assure us that the Secretary of State and the Department will be most rigorous in ensuring that the systems will not be open to abuse? Will she publish lists of countries that the Department believes to have sufficiently and insufficiently rigorous systems? It would be useful if she were to tell us what criteria the Department would use to satisfy itself that the safeguards in the Bill have been met by those countries.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security (Angela Eagle): I hope that I can satisfy the hon. Lady that the safeguards are adequate to protect information and our citizens' rights in relation to exchange of information.

The Secretary of State may supply information only when it appears to him that arrangements are in place for the legal transfer of information and when it appears that the other country has adequate safeguards against the abuse of information provided to it by the Secretary of State. The amendment suggests leaving out the words

    ``it appears to the Secretary of State''

and replacing them with

    ``the Secretary of State is satisfied''.

A similar change is suggested with regard to Northern Ireland.

In reality, however, the amendments would have no effect; they would achieve the same purpose as the Bill. I hope to persuade the hon. Lady that the Bill does what her amendments suggest that it should. For the Secretary of State to be satisfied that something is so, it must appear to him that it is so. Therefore, for a Secretary of State to be satisfied that a country has adequate safeguards against the abuse of information, it must appear to him that those safeguards are adequate. The amendments would not add anything.

I shall explain to the hon. Lady how we envisage the operation of the Secretary of State's decision-making process under the clause. There is a European convention on human rights and a European Union data protection directive, which govern what can be done with information held by a Government about a person and also safeguard that person's privacy. For it to appear to a Secretary of State that the other country has adequate safeguards against abuse, he must therefore be satisfied that the other country is subject to the ECHR and the directive or to similar enactments in other countries. We would also consider other factors such as whether the other country has a stable, democratic system of government. We would not transfer information to a police state or a country with a bad human rights record, where such information might be abused.

The Secretary of State would be under a duty to act reasonably at all times, and would be subject to judicial review if he did not do so. A decision that it appeared to him that there were adequate safeguards against abuse would therefore have to be reasonable. If it was not, the decision would be open to judicial review and could be set aside if the review was successful. If the Secretary of State transferred information unreasonably—for instance, to a country that did not have adequate safeguards against abuse—he would have acted unlawfully. Therefore, his action might also breach the Data Protection Act 1998. If so, it would be open to challenge by the Information Commissioner.

The Information Commissioner could serve the Department with an enforcement notice informing it that it would have to stop sending information to the country causing concern. If it failed to comply with that notice, the Information Commissioner could serve it with a further enforcement notice to stop it processing data altogether. I hope that the Committee agrees that that would be a significant deterrent against wrongdoing by the Department. Clearly, it would have no desire to become involved in wrongdoing or to transfer information to countries that did not meet the criteria.

Amendment No. 46 deals with Northern Ireland, to which everything that I have said about amendment No. 45 applies. I hope that those assurances satisfy the hon. Lady and that she will withdraw her amendment.

Mrs. Lait: I beg to differ on the definition of ``appears'' and ``is satisfied''. Indeed, the Under-Secretary said that a decision would have to be reasonable, but did not qualify that through the use of ``appears''. We are concerned about the conditionality of that. Although I agree that all the countries in the EU are governed by the European convention on human rights and the data protection directive, I am also convinced that some computer systems are not as robust as they might be, and that could lead to abuse in some EU countries. That is a concern, but I hope and expect that such systems will become more robust.

The Under-Secretary did not address the admittance of central and eastern European countries to the EU. Taking into account their proposed transition periods, is the Secretary of State satisfied that, when admitted, such countries will have electronic infrastructures that are sufficiently sophisticated satisfactorily to exchange information with our Government? I shall refrain from asking related questions about the Balkan issue and housing benefit frauds committed by Nigerians, to which I referred earlier. I am not persuaded by the arguments concerning grammar and the use of ``appears''.

Angela Eagle: I have been advised that, as the law stands and given that the Secretary of State must always act reasonably, there is no practical difference between the phrase proposed in the amendment and the wording of the Bill, although the hon. Lady is not obliged to agree with that advice.

The Secretary of State would not reach an agreement with a country unless he or she were satisfied that it had in place robust protections for citizens and democratic systems. I have mentioned those criteria. However, I cannot give the hon. Lady a list of countries that would meet them; such matters must be decided case by case. The only country with which we have a bilateral agreement is Ireland, as our social security systems are similar, and the citizens of both countries can travel freely between the three jurisdictions--the Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom, including Northern Ireland as a separate jurisdiction.

I cannot give a view as to whether we would immediately come to an arrangement concerning exchange of information with any particular country in eastern Europe or the Balkans, but I hope that I have enlightened the hon. Lady about the criteria that would be used to decide such matters. Arrangements would not be considered with countries that have bad human rights records and inadequate protections for the privacy of the individual, or which lack agreements in law that largely conform to the European convention on human rights and the data protection legislation, which are subscribed to by the UK and the rest of the EU.

I am not sure what the hon. Lady has in mind when she refers to computer systems in the EU that are not sufficiently robust. There must be adequate protection and recourse in law for individuals who might be subject to some form of abuse with regard to the exchange of information between countries. Those are the criteria, which I set out to reassure her about the clause's intention.


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