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Mark Pritchard: For the record, I was not alluding to the issue that the Minister suggested. I want to make it explicit that I was talking about some Christians feeling that, in some circumstances, they are discriminated against by some local authorities with regard to the adoption and fostering of children.

Mr. Dhanda: That is a fair point. I know that there is an issue relating to faith-based adoption companies at a local level.

The hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) mentioned, among other things, her Christmas card in East Dunbartonshire. I confess that, as the Minister with responsibility for the fire and rescue service, my card this year is the Fire Services National Benevolent Fund Christmas card. I agree with her about the importance of the Nativity. When I was five—many years ago—I was the king who got to deliver the gold in my nativity play. As she is possibly the youngest Member of the House, when she was talking about the Nativity, I thought that she was discussing the role that she was going to take, but that is another matter.

The hon. Lady also mentioned legislation. There was a slight tension between what she said and what the hon. Member for The Wrekin said about the need for the kind of protections for the Christian faith that he suggested. Legislation has been brought forward in the past couple of years. For reasons that are probably best not gone into, Opposition Members voted against legislation to provide the greater protection that the Sikh faith and Jewish faiths have historically had. I would have liked the Christian faith, the Muslim faith and other faiths to have had such protection, but the House was divided on that issue.

The hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) talked about a pride march. He makes a fair point about offensive slogans—it strikes me that they were offensive. He referred to “their community”, but I am sure that he will agree—it is important to get this point across—that one can be both Christian and gay. He also spoke about Christians wanting to protect the most vulnerable in society. I agree with him, but that is true of not only Christians. Every faith with which I work day by day, as a Minister linked to and working with faith communities across the board, shares those values.

Jo Swinson: Although members of all faiths want to protect the poor and vulnerable in society, faiths do not have a monopoly. Many with no faith feel the same sentiments.

Mr. Dhanda: Indeed—that is something that the humanists say when they visit me. We want to be as open-door as possible for all faiths and those with no faith when developing our policies.

The hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Campbell) made a balanced contribution about the need to develop tolerance. That is the thrust of the debate. As the hon. Member for The Wrekin said, this is not about policy or the shape of legislation, but about people’s understanding of each other, and of each other’s faiths, in the wider country, and what we can do collectively.

The hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) kicked off with some warm remarks about our former Prime Minister, Tony Blair. I, too, have been watching “The Blair Years” on television. We saw an
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interesting and candid interview on Sunday in which he spoke of his religious faith and its importance to him. He also spoke about what people’s perception of him would have been if they were aware of how important his faith was to him. I wonder whether that was because he is a devoted Christian, or because he was more afraid of people thinking that he had a religious zeal, full stop. He might have felt that the media would be concerned about that, but the hon. Gentleman made a fair point.

The hon. Gentleman also spoke about the local contribution of faiths, particularly the Christian faith. The Government very much support faith-based regeneration. He talked about the Make Poverty History and drop the debt campaigns. Members of Parliament have seen those faith-based campaigns making a huge difference over the past few years. They show the Christian faith at its very best, delivering on the ground to make a difference not only in this country but worldwide.

Many view the UK as an increasingly secular society. However, we must remember that the Christian Churches have had an immense and historic influence in shaping our society, and that they make significant contributions in a wide range of areas, including community development, education, social inclusion and heritage. I fully recognise the central, historical and cultural significance of Christianity in our country’s story. We should all be aware of that and celebrate the fact. The UK has a strong tradition of respect for others, justice, the right to freedom, the right to belief, and a strong sense of right and wrong. The Christian tradition has had a significant impact on the way in which those freedoms and traditions have been shaped, and that continues today through its role in contributing to and shaping Government policy.

As I said, I work closely with faith-based organisations. Later this month, we will be launching our inter-faith strategy, which is about strengthening the role of faith in all localities and communities. The Christian faith will be a key player. I make that commitment to the House and to all faiths in our land.

In the short time left, may I conclude where I started? I wish everybody a very merry Christmas.

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Identity and Internet Fraud

11 am

Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington) (LD): Today, in the half-hour allotted, I would like to discuss identity fraud and internet fraud. People are still relatively infrequently affected by the former, although it has devastating consequences, but are very frequently encouraged to become the victims of the latter. When I originally sought the debate, I intended to focus mainly on an individual constituency case, but of course since then there has been the small matter of the loss of 25 million child benefit records, with the associated risk of identity fraud. Clearly in half an hour I cannot refer to the 25 million cases individually, but I would like to deal with the concerns relating to the loss of those data.

In the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s statement on 20 November, he explained the extent of the loss. He said:

I am sure that most hon. Members would have joined the Chancellor in welcoming the swift resignation of the man at the top, Paul Gray, who, according to the Chancellor’s statement, said that

Equally, I am sure that hon. Members will have been astonished to learn that Paul Gray is already back in work, this time in the Cabinet Office, leading a special project on civil service skill development for the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Gus O’Donnell. Mr. Gray continues to receive a salary of more than £200,000.

Hywel Williams (in the Chair): Order. The title of the debate on the Order Paper is crime related to identity and internet fraud. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman would like to concentrate on that.

Tom Brake: Indeed, Mr. Williams, I will do exactly that in my next sentence.

In his statement, the Chancellor pointed out that financial institutions have confirmed that

That is not as reassuring as it sounds. It is frankly bizarre that in his statement the Chancellor made no reference to the risk of identity fraud—the subject of today’s debate.

Before I move on to highlight the individual case to which I originally intended to refer, I would like to ask the Minister a couple of questions relating to the case involving Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs that I think are pertinent. Will she monitor the take-up of benefits so as to be able to identify any decrease in claims that might arise from people’s concerns about the loss of data? I see the Minister shaking her head. I
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am happy for her to reply in writing. I also see that you are about to rise to your feet, Mr. Williams, so I will concentrate on issues relating to identity fraud. The case clearly has implications for the arrangements for data sharing between local authorities and the Department for Work and Pensions where they are to work together on benefit fraud. There will be concerns about the amounts of data that will be transferred between the two, the risk that those data may be lost, and that identity fraud may arise from that.

It is worth concentrating on one individual case to see what can happen when only someone’s address is used and how that can be abused, because that will enable one to draw conclusions as to what might happen should the data disc with 25 million cases on it end up in the wrong hands. I have a constituent who has repeatedly received at his address letters in the names of a variety of people. They have arrived from a variety of Government agencies. There was clearly a concerted attempt to defraud the benefits system, whether through tax credits, child benefit or the like. My constituent wrote repeatedly, using recorded delivery to return the documents to HMRC, because he was worried about how his address, name and potentially other personal details were being abused.

Having taken up the matter with HMRC, we got a response. My constituent started the correspondence this January and came to me some months afterwards. We got a response in July in which HMRC confirmed that it had a number of IT tools to help identify fraudulent claims, although one must question how effective they are at preventing someone’s identity from being abused, given the number of letters that my constituent received in the names of various people from various organisations. We received assurances that my constituent would receive no further correspondence from Government Departments, but unfortunately that was not what happened in practice. He received further correspondence at his address in the names of various people for various purposes, including details from banks about bank accounts being set up.

Having had to take the matter even further, I got a response from the Financial Secretary to the Treasury, who apologised for the fact that my constituent had corresponded with HMRC on a number of occasions using recorded delivery, and that it had taken many months before he eventually extracted a response. In that case, however, the only thing being abused by fraudsters was the person’s address. We know that the data discs that have gone missing contained a large amount of data, which dramatically increases the risk of identity fraud of a scale and sophistication that we have never seen before if they get into the public domain.

I wish to broaden the debate to other risks of identity fraud. I thank the all-party group on identity fraud, which sent me a copy of its report that was published in its final version in October. I wish to highlight two things from that report, the first of which is phishing—not of the line with bait variety. There are two types of phishing: one involves social engineering schemes—I am sure that we have all received e-mails encouraging people to go to a website that they think is for HSBC, NatWest bank and so on—and the second is the technical type that involves planting software on people’s PCs to capture details while they are using their accounts, and
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that information is then passed on. Such technical subterfuge is about stealing people’s credentials, intercepting online user accounts, passwords and so on.

In its report and recommendations, with which the Minister might be familiar, the all-party group calls for significant police resources to be devoted to the matter. Apparently the Metropolitan police has a fraud alert website, which in 2006 received no fewer than 10,000 hits a month. They also received about 300 e-mails a day. According to the all-party group, that part of the Metropolitan police is resourced with only one police officer, who is faced with the huge challenge of dealing with that volume of e-mails and complaints. There is also an international aspect to the problem, and I hope that the Minister will say what is happening internationally to deal with scams, particularly as many of them originate abroad.

The second key matter that I wish to take from the all-party group report is spyware, which is software that allows people covertly to monitor and obtain details from an individual’s computer. I understand from the all-party group that there is a question mark over whether the use of such technology is illegal. Perhaps the Minister will clarify that point. If she could put it on the record once and for all, the knowledge would help the all-party group and others to ensure that appropriate action is taken.

The all-party group raised other points that I do not have time to go through in detail. They include other ways in which identity fraud can occur, such as through online shopping. People can also access information left on second-hand computers, and fraudsters on social networking sites can capture people’s personal details, such as date of birth. A less sophisticated type of crime, although it is not identity fraud, can arise from such sites, when people advertise that they are going on holiday and someone breaks into their property. We do not have time to deal with those points today.

I have received a couple of briefings worth mentioning in passing. The first is from CIFAS, the UK’s fraud prevention service, highlighting two ways in which it thinks the Government could be more proactive. One is by introducing better controls to diminish the apparent ease with which fraudsters can obtain birth certificates and national insurance numbers, and the second is by clamping down on websites that provide what can be described as novelty or spoof forms of ID. The latter is challenging, because many such websites are not based in the UK. They offer ID that appears to be genuine but is open to fraud. I hope that the Minister will explain, either now or later in writing, what action the Government can take on those issues.

Some of these matters are the Government’s responsibility and some are not—they are the responsibility of financial institutions and other commercial organisations. I received an interesting briefing from the REaD group, which focuses on ensuring that direct mailings are sent only to people’s current addresses and that they are not sent to deceased persons. Fraudsters often create identities from direct mail, such as credit card applications, sent to people who have died. If they get their hands on such mail, they can create new identities from it and commit fraud.

I apologise if the Minister has not had advance notice of the range of my points, but I hope that she can respond to most of them now or later in writing. One of
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the positive consequences of the saga of the lost CDs has been a greater focus on the need to keep data safe and to protect our identities from fraud. I have asked a number of straightforward questions about the impact of the loss of HMRC data and what measures could be implemented to tackle identity and internet fraud, and I am certain that she will want to provide comprehensive and straightforward replies.

11.13 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Meg Hillier): It is a pleasure, as ever, to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Williams. I congratulate the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) on securing the debate. I acknowledge his work and that of the all-party group on identity fraud, with whose report I am familiar.

I shall pick up on some of the hon. Gentleman’s specific points first. I would not want anyone to think that I am unable to answer his question about whether I will be monitoring benefit claimants. As a Home Office Minister, it is not quite in my area of responsibility, but he makes an important point and I shall alert colleagues in the Department for Work and Pensions.

It is worth reiterating what action the Government have taken since the loss of the discs. Kieran Poynter, a senior partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers, has been appointed to investigate the circumstances of the loss of child benefit records, and an interim report is due in two weeks. The Chancellor will report that to the House and we will have a wider report in the spring to see what important lessons there are to learn, not only for Government but for private bodies. We hear about it because we have open government in this country, but we know that similar things can, and no doubt do, happen in the private sector, too.

Tom Brake: Having had a conversation this morning with TNT, I wonder whether it is perhaps unfortunate that TNT was the only private sector contractor involved with the mail at HMRC that the Chancellor mentioned in his statement. I understand that Royal Mail and DX are also involved in moving correspondence around within HMRC.

Hywel Williams (in the Chair): Order. Again, I remind hon. Members that the title of the debate on the Order Paper is crime related to identity and internet fraud. Perhaps the Minister could address that issue.

Meg Hillier: Thank you Mr. Williams. I will not be drawn on the ins and outs of the Chancellor’s statement. He was responding in the House to a particular incident, and I think he gave a full statement.

The hon. Gentleman has raised the case of a constituent whose address was used to carry out multiple crimes, and later he discussed false IDs available via websites. Both demonstrate exactly why we need identity cards in this country better to lock people to their identity. The fact that someone’s address alone is currently enough to enable people to make fraudulent claims in some cases—although I think that most institutions will require further proof—is unfortunate.

Tom Brake: Will the Minister give way?

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