Mr. Osborne: It is good to hear that reassurance. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Clause 51 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Mr. Osborne: I beg to move amendment No. 210, in
This is a probing amendment about the use of warrants that the regulator might obtain. It would amend subsection (5), which says:
''A warrant under this section continues in force until the end of the period of one month beginning with the day on which it is issued''
by stating the obvious, and merely adding:
''unless there is a prior successful application to a justice of the peace to have the warrant revoked.''
Column Number: 145
I assume that that is the case anyway, but I want to check with the Government.
Mr. Pond: The amendment seeks to make specific provision that the warrant issued by the justice of the peace could be revoked beyond the period conceived as appropriate. It is undesirable, for the reasons that I shall give once I have explained the overall effects of clause 52.
The clause replicates the powers in section 100 of the Pensions Act 1995, which allow the regulator to apply to the court for a warrant to be issued. The warrant enables an inspector to enter premises, with force if necessary, and search for and take copies of documents. Before issuing a warrant, a justice of the peace will have to be satisfied by the regulator that either there is a document on the premises that was requested by the regulator under clauses 46 and 49 and it has not been produced as required, or, if it were requested, it would not be produced or would be destroyed.
The regulator may also request a warrant when a criminal offence, such as theft, is suspected, or the power can be used to enforce compliance when a request for information has failed, or to prevent the documents from being altered or destroyed.
Enabling inspectors to search premises, and enabling the regulator to apply for a warrant to search for and copy documents—forcibly, if necessary—is vital. It ensures compliance with the power to request information, which otherwise schemes could wilfully ignore, depriving the regulator of the full picture of the scheme. That could mean that regulatory action that might need to be taken would not be taken, and members' benefits would be put at risk. Without the power to search forcibly for documents and copy them, which a warrant provides, vital evidence could be destroyed, altered or moved. That could deny the regulator vital proof of wrongdoing that could be used as justification of regulatory action or used in a court case as evidence, thus putting members' benefits at risk. It is unacceptable if regulatory action cannot be taken or for criminal behaviour to go unpunished.
However, the regulator will apply for a warrant only in the most severe of cases, where there is evidence to suggest that there is a considerable risk of documents being altered or destroyed. It is recognised that in the vast majority of cases, schemes will send the regulator the information requested. That means that the power will be used sparingly. Hon. Members might wish to note that OPRA applies for an average of only five warrants a year. None of its applications for a warrant has been refused.
I hope that it is apparent why the amendment is undesirable. The first that a person would know about a warrant being issued in respect of their premises would be when the regulator's inspector came knocking at the door with the warrant in hand. If that person had the power to apply for the revocation that the amendment would provide, he could reasonably refuse entry on the basis that he had reason to appeal the warrant. That would present the person with the opportunity—after the inspector had
Column Number: 146
been sent away—to destroy or remove the documents that the regulator sought. The amendment would make the power conferred by the warrant futile. I hope that with that understanding, the hon. Gentleman will feel able to withdraw the amendment.
Mr. Osborne: I did not want to render the whole clause futile, as the Under-Secretary alleged. Better drafting might have made it clear that some time might elapse in the process. For example, if the warrant had not been exercised for a couple of weeks but was hanging over the individual, they could apply for it to be revoked. However, I take the Under-Secretary's point about the use of warrants. It has been useful to have him set that out on the record, and I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Clause 52 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Clause 53 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Offences of providing false or misleading information
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
Malcolm Wicks: I do not want to impede proceedings that are moving along briskly. However, perhaps I could just say that the clause replicates section 101(5) of the Pensions Act 1995 and ensures that the provision of false information to the regulator continues to be a criminal offence. It is useful to get that on record in Hansard. The regulator may issue a summons in respect of anyone providing false information and would have to prove to the court's satisfaction that that information was provided knowingly or recklessly. If someone is found guilty by a magistrates court, a fine of up to £5,000 can be imposed; if the matter is heard by the Crown court, imprisonment of up to two years, a fine of £5,000 or both may be imposed.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause 54 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Use of information
Mr. Osborne: I beg to move amendment No. 211, in
clause 55, page 36, line 8, leave out from 'register' to end of line 9.
The more I look at it, the more I suspect that this is a wrecking amendment, because it would render the clause meaningless. Nevertheless, it provides a good opportunity to debate this clause on the use of information. We have discussed many clauses on the use of information, and we will discuss many more. My attention was drawn to this one by paragraph (b), which says that information
''otherwise held by the Regulator in the exercise of any of its functions, may be used by the Regulator for the purposes of, or for any purpose connected with or incidental to, the exercise of its functions.''
I would be interested to hear the Government say what the point of this little clause is. If it were not included,
Column Number: 147
perhaps the regulator could not exercise any of its functions.
Malcolm Wicks: I feel reassured to see that my PPS, my hon. Friend the Member for Greenock and Inverclyde—
David Cairns (Greenock and Inverclyde) (Lab): I have re-ratted.
Malcolm Wicks: Yes, my hon. Friend has re-ratted, as Churchill would have said. My hon. Friend was on a mission for me on the Conservative Benches. The record should show that he did not briefly join the Conservative party.
The amendment seeks to limit the information that the regulator may use in exercising its functions to registrable information, as defined in clause 35. Judging by what he said earlier, the hon. Member for Tatton has guessed that that would be highly damaging to the work of the regulator, because registrable information is limited and consists of the name and address of a scheme, its sponsoring employer or institution, and its trustees. The clause provides the regulator with flexibility to use all the information that it collects for any purpose connected with its functions, rather than have artificial barriers in the organisation that would prohibit effective regulation and might jeopardise scheme members' benefits by hindering information sharing.
I shall give an example of the impact of the amendment, if it were agreed and not withdrawn. Let us say that the regulator receives a whistleblower's report saying that two trustees are about to empty the scheme's bank account and leave the country. What can it do? I can hear hon. Members thinking that it could appoint a trustee or get an injunction—but that would not be so. If the hon. Gentleman's amendment were agreed, that would be prevented and the regulator would be unable to use the whistleblower's information to protect the scheme members. The amendment would at least allow trustees' names and
Column Number: 148
addresses held on the register to be used, so the regulator could send them a bon voyage card.
Mr. Osborne: On closer examination, I did suspect that this was a wrecking amendment. However, it has provided the opportunity for a useful debate about the clause. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Clause 55 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Amendment made: No. 34, in
Question proposed, That the clause, as amended, stand part of the Bill.
Malcolm Wicks: This clause replicates section 104 of the Pensions Act 1995 in defining restricted information and ensuring that any unauthorised disclosure of such information is a criminal offence. It is straightforward. Before we discuss it—although this is for others to call—I would like to suggest that perhaps we will decide to adjourn when we have finished with this clause, having done brisk, good business—not that I could not ad lib on the next 50 clauses without any notes if I had to. Should our Whip decide to speak in a moment, may I thank you, Mr. Griffiths, for chairing our earlier sittings so ably and with such good humour, thus enabling us to make good progress with co-operation from all parties in the Committee?
Question put and agreed to.
Clause 56, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Further consideration adjourned.—[Margaret Moran.]
Adjourned accordingly at sixteen minutes past Four o'clock till Tuesday 16 March at half-past Nine o'clock.
The following Members attended the Committee:
Griffiths, Mr. Win (Chairman)
Cunningham, Mr. Jim
Hamilton, Mr. Fabian
Osborne, Mr. George
Liam Laurence Smyth