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Earl Ferrers: My Lords, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State went to the Council of Ministers with a steel-jawed leghold trap and a pencil. He put the pencil in the leghold trap in front of his colleagues on the Council of Ministers and the pencil was stripped in two. That shook his colleagues. It is for that reason that my right honourable friend is doing all he can to get the leghold traps banned. But you have to get the agreement of your ministerial colleagues and then try to get agreement with the countries who use them not to import into Europe furs procured by such methods. It is better to try to get an agreement with them rather than to have the possibility of a trade war.

Baroness Castle of Blackburn: Is the Minister aware that he is no better than the Commissioner for Trade, Sir Leon Brittan? The Commissioner stated that there can never be any international agreement to curb an iniquitous practice because it would interfere with the GATT agreement. Does the Minister know that Article 20 of the GATT agreement allows exceptions to be made when necessary to protect public morals or the life or health of humans, plants and animals? This is a clear case coming under Article 20, as argued very effectively in the Environment Council by, I am glad to say, a British environment Minister. So why do the Government not have the courage to tell the British Commissioner for trade that he is defying both the will of the Council of Environment Ministers which is the responsible body and which has unanimously rejected these spuriously humane methods of trapping and also the will of Parliament? Are we in this House saying that the Commissioner can defy all the democratic controls in Europe?

Earl Ferrers: My Lords, the noble Baroness sometimes becomes very irate and sometimes she is quite rude to people. I think she meant to be rude to me this afternoon. In fact she has paid me the greatest of compliments. She says that I am no worse than the Commissioner. My goodness me, I regard that, rather like the noble Baroness behind her, as a great compliment.

I must try to get over to the noble Baroness a point that she seems to be finding very difficult to accept for some reason. The fact is that it is not the fault of the Commissioner for Trade. From a sedentary position, the noble Baroness says yes, it is. I can assure her, no, it is not. The fact is that the Commissioner for Trade is doing his best to reach an agreement, which is much better than having all-out conflict.

Baroness Park of Monmouth: My Lords, I hate to take the personalities out of this discussion. However, will my noble friend the Minister confirm that the problem has arisen because Directorate-General XI on the environment totally failed to consult and work with Directorate-General I on GATT. The whole issue stems from relative incompetence, I am sorry to say, in

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manoeuvring and managing this business in the Commission. It is not a personal matter; it is a matter of bad organisation.

Earl Ferrers: My Lords, I am not sure whether or not that is supposed to be a compliment. I shall take it whichever way I can. The fact is that the regulations were agreed to be implemented, but there was no decision on how the ban should be carried out. That is the problem that is being overcome. No matter whose fault it is, the main principle is to try to get in place as soon as possible the ban which the noble Baroness wants to have in place.

Baroness Castle of Blackburn: Has the Minister been to Strasbourg in the past few days, as I have, and talked to the Commissioner for Trade, Sir Leon Brittan? Has he heard him admit that he is the prime mover in trying to thwart the will of Parliament and of the Council and to push through the spurious agreement on humane methods of trapping, which merely consist of putting a bit of plastic round the jaw but still holding the animal in pain and panic?

Earl Ferrers: My Lords, I have not had the privilege of going to Europe as the noble Baroness has. I have been detained in your Lordships' House because her party is being so difficult over some of the business we have to transact. Unlike the noble Baroness, Ministers are not allowed the privilege of escaping. I am surprised that her Chief Whip allowed her to escape whereas mine does not allow me to do so. Nor did I have the privilege of being a fly on the wall and hearing the noble Baroness's conversation with Sir Leon. Although I have the greatest admiration for her integrity, I think that I would like to hear Sir Leon's version of the conversation as well as hers before I come to a conclusion.

Social Security Administration (Fraud) Bill

3.45 p.m.

The Minister of State, Department of Social Security (Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish): My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now again resolve itself into Committee on this Bill.

Moved, That the House do now again resolve itself into Committee.--(Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

House in Committee accordingly.


Earl Russell moved Amendment No. 44A:

Before Clause 4, insert the following new clause--

Automated data processing

(" . After section 187 of the Social Security Administration Act 1992 insert--
"Automated data processing.
187A. No decision concerning or relating to a person's entitlement to any benefit, or to the payment of that benefit, shall be validly made if it is based solely on the automated processing of data.".").

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The noble Earl said: Having enjoyed the preceding exchanges, I shall begin in the same spirit by relating an incident. One very hot summer day in 1981 there was the kind of thunderstorm which only the east coast of the United States knows. The United States social security main computer was struck by lightning and lost its memory. That was discovered only when an old lady in San Francisco went to claim her pension and was given a monthly pension cheque for the sum of 5 million dollars. The old lady took it back. That is an entirely commendable spirit of honour but one cannot count on it happening universally.

We all know that computers are capable of error. We have probably all experienced errors made by computers. Bank computers are capable of paying amounts to the wrong person. I have had a good deal of experience of that and have endeavoured to react in the spirit of the old lady in San Francisco. We heard recently in the debate on party funding and related matters a good many stories about fundraising letters which computers had sent out to the wrong people. So I do not feel that we need have any argument about whether or not computers are capable of error. They are.

It is also extremely difficult to correct an error made by a computer. Somebody has to talk to the computer and the computer does not always listen. Computer generated letters, repeating errors, are sent out and are received over and over again. I shall not regale the House with experiences involving other American banks. The Minister knows my views about the computers in American banks. But that underlines why it has been decided in European Union Directive 95/46, Article 15, that decisions should not be based solely on automated data processing. It is a very good protection for the principle of civil liberties.

Moreover, it is a directive which will need to be in force in English and Scottish law not later than April 1998. If it is not done now, which is a convenient moment to do it, it will necessarily take up the legislative time of a future government. To attempt to clutter up the legislative programme of a future government is a form of scorched earth policy in which I hope this Government will not indulge, especially since it is still possible that it just might be them.

I believe that it would be highly convenient as well as just and practical to put that principle into our law now. If we do not do it now, we shall have to do it very soon. It is a strong case and I do not see a case to be made against it. I beg to move.

The Earl of Balfour: Before my noble friend the Minister replies, I wonder whether I could ask him to take up with the social security offices throughout the country, and the Customs too for that matter, the need to ensure that at least somebody is trained to be able to delete a mistake in the computer and put it right. I am sure I cannot be the only one who has found that a number has been misplaced or a wrong postcode has been put on letters, and no matter what I do or what letters I send, they still come back wrong.

I understand that it is a matter of training and people need to be specifically taught to go through a special procedure--I do not know what procedure--whereby

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you can correct or delete something in a computer's memory and put it right. If I may respectfully say so, in a number of government departments the people with that ability seem to be extremely rare.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: Perhaps I may respond to my noble friend. It is not so much ability; it is authorisation. One has to ensure that the person who corrects or alters something in a data bank or database is authorised to do so, so that unauthorised persons cannot make changes which are not corrections but which are actually adding wrong data to the computer. It is more a matter of the people who are authorised to do it doing it than it is people trained to do it. The authorised people are well trained to do it.

The question of mistakes is one of the important aspects of the first part of the Bill. Data matching will in any case throw up mistakes of a postcode nature. It will then be up to people who have been employed to do this to decide what is, for example, the right postcode and then to make the alteration. They have to be authorised, otherwise one could have people making unauthorised entries which might be wrong or fraudulent entries. That is one of the things we have to guard against.

The amendment largely retraces some of the ground we covered on Tuesday. I shall therefore be fairly brief. I hope the noble Earl does not mind. I can easily refer him to quite a few column inches of Hansard for Tuesday on this point. The amendment is prompted by Article 15.(1) of the European Union second directive on data protection which is concerned with automated decisions. It is not clear that the article covers decisions about benefit entitlement. With the amendment, the noble Earl is seeking to insert into our domestic law a provision which would specifically prohibit benefit decisions being taken solely by the automatic processing of data.

I have already covered our plans for the use of the powers within the Bill but perhaps I may again offer the noble Earl the reassurance I offered earlier in the Committee stage about the code of practice and also in response to Amendment No. 20 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Carter. The discovery of an inconsistency during a data matching exercise will not lead immediately or automatically to a stop on the payment of benefit. I can put it no plainer than that. I thought I had put it plainly on Tuesday.

Where an inconsistency is discovered which might indicate that an existing benefit award is incorrect, the normal procedure will be for the case to be referred to the benefit office responsible for further investigation. In the vast majority of cases where the rate of benefit is involved, the claimant will be asked to explain the inconsistency before any action is taken. That may be impractical where, for instance, the data suggest that the claimant has moved abroad or in cases where the whole identity is entirely fictitious. If the claimant fails to respond to a letter to his last known address within a reasonable time, powers exist within regulations made under Section 5 of the Social Security Administration Act to suspend the payment of benefit. I do not suppose anyone would argue against of those situations.

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Adjudication officers then make decisions about an individual's entitlement to benefit by applying the law to the facts of each case. Local authorities do the same in relation to housing benefit and council tax benefit. If and when a decision is made by an adjudication officer or a local authority, that individual will be informed of that decision in writing and notified at the same time of his review and appeal rights.

Article 15 and the noble Earl's amendment relate to decisions based solely on the automated processing of data. I have explained that data matching does not involve taking decisions. All it does is identify inconsistencies which may then be subject to further human investigation. As I have said before, we believe that prior to October 1998, when we shall have to implement the directive into domestic law, the Government will have to bring forward the necessary legislation encompassing the whole field of data protection and data use and not just specifically this small corner relating to the Benefits Agency.

Although I hear what the noble Earl says about trying to prevent a future government having to take up the time of both Houses in order to bring forward legislation, I have to say to him that they will have to bring forward legislation. That is the proper place to do it and not in a Bill concerned solely with social security. I hope I have this time managed to explain to the noble Earl how the data matching and any errors thrown up by the data matching will be treated, and I trust I have assured him that there will be no automatic stopping of benefit.

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