Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Earl Russell moved Amendment No. 71:

Page 18, line 43, after ("supply") insert ("relevant").

The noble Earl said: In moving this amendment, I shall speak also to Amendments Nos. 72 and 73. This is a closely-related group of amendments, so close that I should like to treat them as consequential. They deal with the provisions in Clause 11 to require information from landlords and their agents.

I have no objection to the requiring of information but I wish to know precisely what information is required and for what purposes because the phrases in the Bill seem to me extremely wide. On Tuesday, the Minister told us that he did not want to go on fishing expeditions. I hope that he meant what he said because if he did he will accept a version of the amendments.

Let us consider the power given in the Bill to require information either to the authority or to a person authorised to exercise any function on behalf of the authority. It may require any appropriate person to supply information of a "prescribed description" to the authority or other person. There they are: the Government are over-prescribing again.

My amendment seeks to take out the words "of a prescribed description" and insert instead the more specific test of "relevant" information; that is, information relevant to the administration of housing benefit. Surely that is the Government's intention. That is all they want. I would like the clause amended so that that is all they will actually get.

13 Mar 1997 : Column 539

Amendment No. 73 seeks to delete subsection (4), which says:

    "Regulations may provide that any prescribed person, or any person of a prescribed description, is not an appropriate person for the purposes of subsection (1) above".
That means, not being an appropriate person, they would not be required to supply information. In other words, it is a blanket power by regulation to confer exemption on various people from the requirements to supply information. I do not know what the Government had in mind in drafting the clause but, under these powers, one could exempt absolutely anybody one wished. For example, one could exempt all landlords from supplying information. One could exempt all tenants from supplying information. One could exempt all employees of a local authority from supplying information. I am sure that none of that is intended by the present Minister, but he knows that he will not be in office for ever. We have no idea who in future--even in the far distant future--may be using the clause. The power is not sufficiently carefully drawn.

As for the power to supply information, in the hands of people given a blank cheque like this such powers are definitely capable of abuse. There are regrettably large numbers of people in this country who hate some category of their fellow subjects. Hearing the noble Baroness, Lady Castle of Blackburn, in such good voice earlier, I was reminded of the campaigns of the noble Baroness, and for those I take off my hat to her. They were against the cohabiting rules as they were in days of yore. Those were rules which allowed the exercise of a vast amount of prurient interest in other people's private lives. One can imagine those powers in the hands of a jealous ex-husband. I repeat the principle that public officials are also private people with all the ordinary passions that ordinary people have.

Regrettably, there are large numbers of our fellow citizens so passionately homophobic that they are prepared to commit breaches of the peace against other people they just happen to dislike. We all have every right to dislike each other, but it does not follow that we should commit breaches of the peace as a result. One could imagine information being demanded, asking for the precise details of all the sleeping arrangements, which could be brought together precisely in order to serve that kind of prejudice.

One knows also that there are certain people who are near to the point of paranoia about illegal immigration. One knows how complicated immigration documents may be: those of us who sat through the asylum Bill last summer had plenty of evidence of that. Again, for those of our fellow subjects who happen to hate everybody with a black skin--we must admit that there are such people--the powers under this clause would authorise a fishing expedition for other than a public purpose. No doubt the official concerned would be able to argue that there was a public purpose, because, of course, it is the very essence of all these prejudices that they involve the belief that the person against whom one is prejudiced is more likely to be criminal than almost anyone else.

As for the power to supply information, I imagine that the power to convey exemptions from the list of appropriate people might be used to exempt children

13 Mar 1997 : Column 540

from being required to supply information against their parents. I hope it would be so used, but the Bill does not say so. The Minister may or may not, in days to come, choose to prescribe children under subsection (4) as being not appropriate people to supply information against their parents.

There is not even any clear recognition of the basic common law provision that husband and wife may not be required to supply evidence against each other. It may be that all that will be all right in regulation but we do not know. If we are asked to accept that it will be, we are being asked to accept the creed of legislation of the noble Lord, Lord Peston, that it will be all right on the night. Perhaps it will, but perhaps it will not. If we let this clause go from us we have given up our chance to review the exercise of power. Still we are told that Parliament controls the executive. I know it does not but we ought to try every now and then. I beg to move.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: The regulation making powers within Clause 11 enable the Secretary of State to prescribe, by regulations, the type of information a landlord or agent may be required to supply. We intend that the information will cover full postal addresses and ownership details of a property, for example, where the properties are owned or run by limited companies, details of those companies, their ownership and associated companies. Managing or letting agents and other persons acting on behalf of the landlord will be required to supply the local authority, if requested, with the name of the responsible landlord, and vice versa, and may be asked to give details of other properties they manage. That matter concerns many of the important points we discussed on the previous amendment.

Information covered by this provision will not be restricted to properties which fall within the local authority's own area. It will extend to all geographical areas in which housing benefit may be payable. Moreover, information will not be restricted to those properties containing housing benefit claimants or those to whom such benefit is paid direct. This is particularly important as landlords do not always know which, if any, of their tenants is in receipt of housing benefit, if they are not being paid directly.

Amendments Nos. 71 and 72 to which the noble Earl has spoken seek to remove the Secretary of State's power to prescribe in regulations the types of information a landlord or agent may be required to supply to an authority. This would be replaced by a general provision giving each local authority or its contractor the right to demand any information from a landlord or agent it considered relevant. Of course we want the information which landlords and agents are required to supply to be relevant. But we believe that it should be relevant to the primary policy intention behind the clause: the prevention, detection and investigation of housing benefit and council tax benefit fraud. We intend to set out the detail in regulations, after consultation with local authorities and other interested organisations. The approach we have adopted ensures that we have the maximum flexibility to adapt the provisions in the light of experience.

13 Mar 1997 : Column 541

There would be a number of difficulties if the clause were to be amended as suggested. First, removing the power to prescribe, by regulations, the types of information which may be required and putting the word "relevant" on the face of the Bill leaves open the whole question of what information is relevant, and what it is relevant to. This exposes local authorities to allegations that they are exploiting a general provision for purposes other than those for which the power is intended.

Secondly, although it might appear quite reasonable to allow local authorities to determine, in the light of their local knowledge and experience, what information is relevant to the prevention and detection of benefit fraud in their area, each local authority would apply its own set of criteria in making that decision. Practice could vary therefore from authority to authority and from contractor to contractor. The fact that this new power extends beyond local authority boundaries means that some authorities might collect one type of information, while another group might gather a different type of information. The Committee can see that a certain amount of confusion could easily arise.

The result would be multiple sets of data which, when compared with each other--this is one of the important things this Bill would enable us to do--might not reveal the very discrepancies this power is designed to uncover. To get the maximum benefit from the information gathered using this power we must ensure that we have some uniformity in the type of information to be required. It is our intention that this uniformity will be achieved by laying down in regulations descriptions of the information authorities may require a landlord to supply.

Finally, the amendments would lead to increased local authority administration costs resulting from processing differing sets of information and missed opportunities to uncover benefit fraud by dishonest landlords because different authorities would be collecting different information. These amendments would introduce difficulties which will not arise with the clause as it stands.

Turning now to Amendment No. 73, it may be helpful if I explain to the Committee that we intend to use the regulation-making powers in this provision to require information only from landlords or agents who are being considered for, or are in receipt of, direct payments of housing benefit and in relation to whom there is either a suspicion of wrongdoing or an ongoing investigation into an allegation of benefit fraud.

The reason for specifying the first of those two conditions is that one of the commonest types of fraud involving landlords is that where direct payments are received in relation to either fictitious tenants or genuine tenants who are no longer resident in their properties.

We shall be monitoring the use and effect of that power. If it should become apparent, for example, that dishonest landlords are evading the requirement to

13 Mar 1997 : Column 542

provide information by avoiding the direct payment facility, we will have the flexibility to adjust the classes of landlords or agents to whom the provisions of this clause will apply. The need for this flexibility is the reason why the details of who is to supply what information, and in which particular circumstances, have been left to subordinate legislation.

The other restriction on the use of this power--that is, to apply the requirement to landlords suspected of being implicated in some misdeed in relation to the benefit system--is designed to prevent wholly innocent landlords from being subject, unnecessarily, to a burden on their business and exposed, unreasonably, to the possibility of a penalty for non-compliance.

Those classifications of landlord will be set out in regulations made under the powers in subsection (1) of the new Section 126A of the Social Security Administration Act 1992 inserted by this clause. The separate regulation-making power in subsection (4), which this amendment seeks to remove, will allow us to make further regulations to provide for prescribed persons to be excepted from this requirement.

We do not, at present, have any plans to exclude particular persons or classes of person from these provisions but we believe that it is important to have the power to prescribe exceptions in reserve should this prove necessary in the light of experience. Our initial intention is, as I have explained, to use the powers in subsection (1) to draw the conditions for the use of this power quite tightly. That being the case, we do not feel that there is a need to define further classes of person to whom the provisions will not apply.

If, however, experience shows that we must cast our net wider, then we shall need to consider whether particular cases or classes of case which would then be caught should be excluded. Moreover, if this measure is causing extreme unintended difficulties for certain classes of landlords, or individuals, we believe it is both sensible and prudent to have the flexibility to provide for exceptions to the rule. Subsection (4), as it stands, provides for these flexibilities.

This amendment would remove that safeguard. I do not believe that to do so will assist local authorities in their fight against fraud. Nor will it usefully extend the scope of the powers already contained in Clause 11 to a greater number of landlords, if that is what is intended by the noble Earl. It will, however, make it far more difficult to provide for any anomaly which might arise in the future.

I appreciate, because it is not the first time, that the noble Earl is rightly suspicious of the Executive gaining powers. I happily concede that the department may not always have enlightened Ministers such as Mr. Lilley and myself running it. But I take a broadly generous view of the democratic process--

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page