Social Security Fraud Bill [Lords]

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Mrs. Lait: The entire matter is unravelling before my eyes. I hoped that I would receive answers, but the Under-Secretary's comments are generating new questions in my mind. I am fascinated that we have a bilateral agreement with Ireland, given that it is a member of the EU and that, theoretically, under the criteria that she has explained, sufficient protections are in place.

With regard to potential difficulties with countries such as Nigeria, the Under-Secretary said that information would not be exchanged with such countries if their systems were not sufficiently robust. However, we might need information from countries such as Nigeria.

The Under-Secretary discussed my comments about robust computer systems. I had in mind mainly whether the electronic safeguards would be sufficient to protect people from hacking, to use the vernacular. If the systems were not sufficiently robust, the information could be available to people on a much wider basis and could corrupt our systems, despite the data protection legislation and the work of the Information Commissioner.

4.45 pm

Those are just a few of my thoughts. I am fascinated that m'learned friends cannot see a difference between ``it appears'' and the conditionality implied in that phrase, and ``is satisfied''. I am interested in the Under-Secretary's response, but perhaps it will be best if I take the matter away for more detailed consideration. That extra time might allow her to produce the list that she implied that she would be able to produce. In a couple of weeks, when we consider the Bill on Report, we may return to the matter.

Angela Eagle: I am sorry if I have given the hon. Lady the wrong impression. I said that each country would have to be dealt with case by case, so I cannot provide her with a list of countries that would qualify or that we would want to involve in the information exchange immediately. Under the provisions, we could not exchange information with a country until it had legislated to give us its information. That country's legislating would allow us to check that it was introducing adequate controls and safeguards for the use and collection in that country of the information that it would hand over to us.

The clause is enabling. However, that does not mean that, from the day after the Bill receives Royal Assent, we shall be able to dash out and exchange information everywhere immediately. We intend matters to develop bilaterally from country to country as we pick up particular problems in our anti-fraud work.

Many of the issues raised relate to identity fraud and to non-EU citizens posing as EU citizens to access benefits under EU rules agreed throughout the EU. Those are the two sorts of fraud that we are trying to discover and tackle, and we shall do so bilaterally, within the terms of the clause. We shall not take a scattergun approach. As matters develop, agreements reached, such as that with Ireland, will specify the parameters under which information will be exchanged and help will be used. As part of that, we shall check, as is the legal duty of the Secretary of State under the clause, that adequate protection of the sort that the hon. Lady referred to is provided for people whose information may be included in such exchanges. I hope that that reassurance answers a few questions, at least.

Mrs. Lait: The best thing for me to do is withdraw the amendment and, perhaps, return to the matter on Report.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mrs. Lait: I beg to move amendment No. 47, in page 9, line 17, leave out 'reasonable' and insert 'necessary'.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to take the following amendments: No. 48, in page 9, line 19, leave out 'or impliedly'.

No. 49, in page 10, line 6, leave out 'reasonable' and insert 'necessary'.

No. 50, in page 10, line 8, leave out 'or impliedly'.

Mrs. Lait: I was all but determined to table the amendments simply to remove that ghastly word ``impliedly''. I should have thought that we could use ``by implication'' or ``is implied'' or some other term--not ``impliedly'', which jars slightly. However, the amendment carries more weight than merely trying to change a rather nasty word.

When discussing the previous group, we tried to remove conditionality. In this case, we are trying to remove subjective judgment, but the arguments are similar to our previous ones. The amendment would replace ``reasonable'' with ``necessary'' and would delete ``or impliedly'' to try to ensure that specific levels of security were enforced in the exchange.

The argument is similar to those that we used when discussing previous clauses, as it relates to fishing expeditions and officers having a gut feeling about someone, as opposed to being in possession of established information. Some people get into a routine of asking the same six questions without regard to whether they are relevant. The argument is familiar, therefore, and I hope that either Govt Front Bencher will have a word with the drafters and even if they want to retain the idea of implication, they might at least change the word. Will the Under-Secretary also tell us why the word ``reasonable'' is used rather than ``necessary''?

Angela Eagle: Although the amendment deals with the word ``necessary'', we feel that it is unnecessary. If the Secretary of State failed to take a necessary step, it would be difficult to understand how he might be said to have acted reasonably. As the hon. Lady knows, the Secretary of State is under the compunction to act reasonably at all times in all those matters. Therefore, ``necessary'' and ``reasonable'' amount to the same thing in this context.

Our memorandum of understanding with the Government of the Republic of Ireland states that information given us by that country may be used for social security purposes alone. That means that we could not provide it to the Inland Revenue for tax purposes. Under the clause, the Secretary of State would have to take all reasonable steps to ensure that information provided to him by the Republic of Ireland was used only for social security purposes. For example, he must allow only those staff to control the information who are fully informed of what they may do with it. The hon. Lady's amendment and the wording in the Bill are similar for those purposes.

As I am not a lawyer, I have a great deal of sympathy with the hon. Lady's comments on seemingly cumbersome words such as ``impliedly''. However, lawyers tell me that, over the years, those words acquire a meaning that all lawyers understand in the context of Acts of Parliament and Bills before Parliament. Although she is worried about the cumbersome and alienating nature of the prose, ``impliedly'' achieves something in the text. If we did not keep it, we would have to list every possible purpose in the agreements reached with other countries, which would almost certainly result in their being revisited often. Fraud, international or otherwise, evolves and changes over time. As one loophole closes, others may open and other ways of defrauding the system are created. The language we use in our Acts of Parliament seeks to put a stop to such practices and to keep up with that evolution.

Due to the bilateral nature of the information exchanges, agreements known as memorandums of understanding will be reached between two countries and will list the purposes for which the information will be exchanged. Those will be public documents—they will not be secret in any way. If we did not use ``impliedly'' in the primary legislation, we would need to list in each bilateral arrangement every possible use of the information.

The term ``impliedly'' allows us some flexibility. I give the hon. Lady an example, which will, I hope, enlighten her, although I had to read it a couple of times before it enlightened me. In our memorandum of understanding with Ireland, we state that information may be used for social security purposes, but imply social assistance purposes, too. Social security includes social insurance or contributory benefits, whereas social assistance includes non-contributory or means-tested benefits. In the United Kingdom, we do not differentiate in that way, but use the term ``social security'' to cover both areas. Other countries make the distinction.

Keeping the term ``impliedly'' will allow flexibility to accommodate the different terminologies and different ways that countries have of administering their social security systems. Otherwise, we would require a list of all possible terminologies in the primary legislation. The term will allow the flexibility to fit particular arrangements with different countries' social security systems. That will give our memorandum of understanding with another country a greater chance of catching as much fraud as possible, in the context in which the arrangement is agreed.

I hope that the hon. Member for Beckenham, despite her dislike of the phrase, understands that such flexibility is important in an evolving fight against social security fraud and that she will withdraw her amendment.

Mrs. Lait: The Under-Secretary may or may not believe this, but I now understand the meaning of ``impliedly'', although that does not mean that I like the word. I have some sympathy with it, but I wish that we could simplify the wording in the legislation so that we do not have to go through this process. It is ironic that the lawyers understand the meaning of ``impliedly'', but do not believe that there is a difference between conditionality and the word ``appears''. Never mind.

As I understand that rather horrible word, and now that its precise meaning is on the record, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 5 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 6 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 7

Loss of benefit for commission of benefit offences

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