Pensions Bill

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John Robertson: Can the hon. Gentleman can answer a hypothetical question? If a person wanted to give information but did not want anybody to know that he was giving it, does the hon. Gentleman agree that if what he suggests happened, the person could not do it alone, because he would have to have somebody with him?

Mr. Osborne: I do not want to require people to have a lawyer with them; I just want them to have that option. The amendment was tabled to ensure that the Government know why they want to take upon themselves the power to inspect and cross-examine people—and, indeed, to ask who will be doing that examining. Will it be the inspectors who went in to look at documents, or would they call in a team of people who were better trained at questioning people? It will be interesting to hear what the Under-Secretary has to say about that.

Mr. Pond: The amendment would significantly reduce an inspector's ability to carry out his duties by denying him the right to

    ''examine, or require to be examined, either alone or in the presence of another person, any person on the premises whom he has reasonable cause to believe to be able to give information relevant to''

his investigation. Without encouraging the hon. Member for Tatton to spend his weekend reading the reports of Committee proceedings on earlier legislation, may I quietly and gently point out that the provision replicates those in section 99(1)(c) of the Pensions Act 1995?

Information collection and management are the key to the new risk-based approach to regulation, as both sides of the Committee agreed as recently as a few minutes ago. Robust measures need to be in place to ensure that, when there is non-compliance with a request for information, decisive action can be taken to ensure that the regulator can fulfil its objectives of protecting scheme members' benefits. The power to interview people when searching premises is proposed for that purpose.

If an inspector were to enter premises, for example to check whether employer contributions had been paid, he might wish to interview the employees from whose pay any deductions had been made, as well as the employer and the persons responsible for the company's accounts. That would, I believe, be the appropriate use of resources. The regulators and inspectors will carry out any interviews in accordance with the provisions of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984. That means that, for example, anyone suspected of an offence will receive a caution advising them of their rights before being interviewed.

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The provision that allows inspectors to examine someone either alone or in the presence of another person enables anyone being interviewed to have an adviser present, or to reject that right, as they see fit. It also allows for two interviewers, as is common practice and recommended under PACE code of practice C. The regulator will have the power to request only information relevant to its functions, and procedures will be in place to ensure that all obligations, including those imposed by the Data Protection Act 1998, are adhered to.

Mr. Osborne: The Under-Secretary mentioned the Police and Criminal Evidence Act and its codes. Will the interviews be recorded, either by tape or in the same way as interviews by the police are?

Mr. Pond: Interviews will be undertaken subject to the PACE code, which means that there will indeed be proper recording of everything that is said during them. I hope that that reassures the hon. Gentleman, and that he feels that, with those safeguards, it is appropriate for him to withdraw the amendment.

Mr. Osborne: The purpose of all the amendments that we are discussing is to get the Government to justify why they are taking upon themselves powers to cross-examine and interview people and inspect their property. The fact that some of those powers were in the 1995 Act is not a great defence; the Government should justify them again if they want to continue to include them. Of course, I have enormous respect for the Minister who took the 1995 Bill through Committee, my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague). He made his reputation by doing so—and I see that my speeches have been so eloquent that the person whom I must now call my hon. Friend the Member for Greenock and Inverclyde (David Cairns), who I know is, deep down, really a Tory, is now sitting on our Benches. As I have said for some time, there is a very fine line between ultra-new Labour and Tory. It is good to see him on my side of the Committee.

I hear what the Under-Secretary says. My purpose was to get him, and through him the civil service, to justify including the powers. As he has done that, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Osborne: I beg to move amendment No. 208, in

    clause 49, page 31, line 45, at end insert—

    '(3) Where during an inspection the inspector obtains possession of any document or information stored in electronic form, and such document or information appears to be of no relevance to the original reason for the inspection, such document or information will be returned forthwith.'.

The amendment is eminently reasonable. Members of an inspection team may take away a large amount of information, and it seems reasonable that once they have sifted through it, they should return the information that they do not need—documents that are not relevant—as speedily as possible. That is a wholly reasonable request. Putting such a stipulation in the Bill might encourage them to speed that process up.

We all have constituents who are trying to obtain large volumes of correspondence that remain buried in

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administrative vaults from courts and other such places. The point of the amendment is to require the regulator to return documents that are not relevant to its investigation.

Mr. Pond: The Committee will note the generosity of the Government. Not only are we offering briefings to Opposition spokespeople, but my hon. Friend the Minister for Pensions has lent his Parliamentary Private Secretary to the hon. Member for Tatton for this part of the proceedings.

The amendment rightly seeks reassurance about the regulator's investigative powers. The hon. Gentleman is right to probe us thoroughly on such issues. Clause 49 expands the powers of inspectors when inspecting premises that are contained in section 99 of the 1995 Act. It enables the inspector to examine documents and to question people relevant to the reason for inspection. The clause already provides that an inspector can seize only documents relevant to the purposes of their visit. Irrelevant material would not be seized in the first place. If it were seized in error, it would returned as soon as was practicable.

An overriding requirement of the Data Protection Act 1998 is that information may be retained only if it is relevant to the purposes for which it is gathered. The regulator will have powers to request only information relevant to its functions, and there will be procedures to ensure that all legal obligations, including those imposed by the Data Protection Act, are adhered to. Although the concerns that the hon. Gentleman expresses are understandable, I hope that he will feel reassured that there are sufficient safeguards to ensure that such powers are not abused, and that he will feel able to withdraw the amendment.

Mr. Osborne: Despite things such as the Data Protection Act, my personal experience as an MP is that some institutions do hold on to information of dubious or no relevance to their work. However, I have made my point. I hope that those who run the pensions regulator will read our debates and note what the Under-Secretary says about the importance of returning information that is not relevant as quickly as possible. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 49 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 50 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 51

Penalties relating to sections 46 to 49

4 pm

Mr. Osborne: I beg to move amendment No. 209, in

    clause 51, page 33, line 3, at end insert

    ', save that it shall be a defence under this section if a person who neglects or refuses to produce any document, to answer a question or to provide information when so required, does so on the basis that he first wishes to take legal advice.'.

The clause deals with the penalties that can be imposed on people who fail to comply with the various requirements that we have been discussing. Under

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subsection 2(c), a penalty could be imposed on someone who, without reasonable excuse,

    ''neglects to or refuses to answer a question or to provide information when so required''.

The excuse that my amendment provides may turn out to qualify as a reasonable excuse already—perhaps that is what the Under-Secretary will tell me, but I wanted to be sure. For someone to neglect or refuse to answer a question or provide information when so required because they wish to take legal advice first seems perfectly reasonable, and it may well be covered by the description in subsection (2)(c) of

    ''A person who without reasonable excuse . . . neglects or refuses to answer a question''.

I want to make sure that a wish to take legal advice is accepted as a reasonable excuse. Severe penalties can be imposed on individuals, and they may get themselves into trouble and incriminate themselves by answering such questions, so I wanted to ensure that they could take legal advice first. I also wanted to know whether the right to silence is a defence under the Bill.

Mr. Pond: I can give the hon. Gentleman the assurance that he wants. To seek legal advice before answering questions would not be considered an unreasonable excuse. Any failure to produce documents or answer questions without a reasonable excuse is a criminal offence, and the usual criminal law applies. Those involved would receive the usual warning that anything they said might be used in evidence, and that failure to answer might allow the court to draw adverse inferences. I trust that the hon. Gentleman feels assured on his first question. As for the second, if the excuse for failing to provide information or answer questions is perceived to be unreasonable, the normal criminal law would apply, and the courts would have to consider how they would judge a refusal to give information. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will feel able to withdraw his amendment.

 
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