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Baroness Amos: My Lords, before the Minister replies, I remind the House of the statement in the Companion about limiting comments to questions to the Minister.

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: My Lords, I understand the anger of people caught in this situation, as expressed by my noble friend. This is a devastating blow for the communities involved and, indeed, also for the workers who raised their productivity in the industry year after year to the highest level in Europe. That is why we are again asking the company--I stress this--to reconsider the matter and to work with us to find a way forward.

Lord Wedderburn of Charlton: My Lords, will my noble friend confirm two short points? First, long before eight a.m. this morning Corus came under legal obligations to inform and consult not only trade union representatives but also the Government. The failure to inform the Government has been sanctioned in statute by criminal sanctions for some 25 years. There is no need for a new law on this matter in the particular circumstances of the case we are discussing, although there may be such a need in the case of other employers. Does not my noble friend agree that when Ministers met Corus last week they should have told it that it was flying in the face of a criminal offence long dictated by statute and, indeed, departing from the normal consultation procedures of good employers? The good employers point has been mentioned, but as my noble friend mentioned Community rules, will he not also take account of the rules on our statute book of which Corus is flagrantly in contempt?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: My Lords, the noble Lord has raised an extremely important point. I do not wish to comment on it without further information on the details of the conversations that took place as that may indicate when decisions were made to take these actions. However, I shall take further advice on the matter. If I can obtain any further information, I shall write to the noble Lord and place a copy of the letter in the Library of the House.

Lord Hardy of Wath: My Lords, some of us have watched the steel industry closely--I have watched the engineering steel industry closely and, I hope, helpfully--for a long time and have rejoiced at the enormous achievements of that industry. It was pre-eminent internationally only two or three years ago.

My noble friend may be aware that at that time the industry and parliamentary representatives established beyond doubt that there were areas of unfair competition in Europe. We have heard nothing from Corus in recent years about problems unless it has mentioned them today. As a result of our happy relationship with what was then British Steel, we

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attended the meeting two or three years ago when it explained the implications of the merger with the Dutch firm. We accepted its hopes and assurances which now do not seem to have been fulfilled. Is there any possibility that jobs are being lost in this country because workers here may have fewer employment rights than workers in partner firms in mainland Europe? Will the Minister pay particular regard to the point raised by my noble friend Lord Wedderburn about making clear that this business's interests are no longer with Britain? Instead they relate to the short-term calculation of profit wherever it can be planned, with no regard to the long-term interest in the United Kingdom which it should still possess?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: My Lords, I do not believe that Corus has suggested recently that unfair competition is involved. Any suggestion of unfair competition would be immediately investigated. The question was asked as to whether people have been made redundant in this country rather than in Holland because it is easier to dismiss them in this country. There is no great difference in terms of costs, if not always of procedures. In this case it is fairly clear that the position relates to the performance and profitability of the individual plants rather than differences in costs or procedures for redundancy.

Social Security Fraud Bill [H.L.]

4.11 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Social Security (Baroness Hollis of Heigham): My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now resolve itself into Committee on this Bill.

Moved, That the House do now resolve itself into Committee.--(Baroness Hollis of Heigham.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

House in Committee accordingly.

[The DEPUTY CHAIRMAN OF COMMITTEES (Baroness Nicol) in the Chair.]

Clause 1 [Additional powers to obtain information]:

Lord Higgins moved Amendment No. 1:

    Page 1, line 7, leave out from beginning to ("(persons") in line 9 and insert--

("After subsection (1) of section 109B (power to require information,) there shall be inserted--
"(1A) A magistrate may, on an application from an authorised officer who has reasonable grounds for believing that a person--
(a) is a person falling within subsection (2A) below, and
(b) has possession of or access to any information about any matter that is relevant for any one or more of the purposes mentioned in section 109A(2) above,
make an order requiring that person to provide to the authorised officer such information specified in the order as is information of which he has possession, or to which he has access, and which it is reasonable to require for a purpose so mentioned."
(2A) After subsection (2) of section 109B").

The noble Lord said: In moving the amendment which stands also in the name of my noble friend Lord Astor of Hever, I point out that it may be convenient

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for the Committee to consider Amendments Nos. 28, 48 and 49. I thank the Minister for writing on a number of points raised at Second Reading; and for a briefing meeting with officials on what is an extremely technical and complex Bill of great interest to many outside organisations and people.

At Second Reading I stressed that we on this side of the Chamber are keen that social security fraud should be reduced. In that context we support the main contentions of the Bill. None the less, it is important to take into account the considerable representations on the side effects of the Bill, in particular on the protection of data and, related to that, the violation of human rights. No doubt those themes will arise time and again. I hope that we shall be able to avoid undue repetition. We shall come later to a specific amendment on data protection. It may be convenient to deal with the detailed human rights aspect on the Question whether Clause 1 shall stand part.

We dealt with the question of whether the title of the Bill shall be postponed. Governments are enthusiastic about this kind of title. It is difficult to oppose a Bill with such a title. The classic example was Mr Michael Foot's Employment Protection Bill. It had many objectionable features; none the less it was difficult to oppose. How can one oppose a Bill entitled the Social Security Fraud Bill? Perhaps we should change the title to the Data Protection Infringement Bill.

Important issues are raised. It seems likely that a general election will not be long delayed and, therefore, the measure may come into that group of Bills which the Government may nod through on the spur of the moment. If there is any possibility that that may occur, given the title of the Bill, noble Lords must give detailed consideration to the Bill to ensure that it is as good as it can be since discussion in another place may be curtailed.

Amendment No. 48 is a subsidiary amendment. It deals with electronic data. I shall turn to that later.

The amendment provides that the way in which the Government wish to obtain information to prevent social security fraud should be circumscribed in a similar way to that which exists when trying to prevent abuse of drugs, criminal acts generally, tax fraud and so on. Previous governments have always felt it appropriate to protect the position by recourse to the courts in one form or another. That is what the amendment seeks to do.

As the Bill stands, there is virtually unfettered discretion for authorised officers to demand information from many outside bodies. That should be subject to a review, perhaps only briefly, by an outside body. The problems are set out clearly in the correspondence contained in the bundle of responses to the consultation document, kindly provided by the Minister. At Second Reading I pointed out that that was only a summary of a summary. The noble Baroness has now given us the full information. From the response to the consultation process provided by the Data Protection Commissioner, one sees how deeply concerned the commissioner is about the Bill and its side effects. Her letter to the Secretary of State states:

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    "As you will see, I have been unable to support the proposals in the form in which they are currently made".

So far as I can see, they are now in the same form in the Bill.

The commissioner makes a number of specific points. She says:

    "The commissioner does not believe that the department has made a convincing case that the proposed interference with the rights of privacy is necessary".

Nor does she believe that the proposed safeguards--a matter to which the European Court of Human Rights has attached considerable importance--are sufficient to protect the rights of benefit claimants and applicants. As the Committee will recognise, those are strong words. The commissioner does not accept that the means by which it is proposed that investigators should obtain information are fair. She is particularly concerned that there will be no prior judicial authorisation of the exercise of the new powers and that too many hopes are invested in the code of practice. We shall come to the code of practice later.

The present legal framework is that private sector information can be released only if a court or judge order disclosure, if the individual has given consent, or if the organisation holding the data is persuaded that not to make the disclosure in an individual case would prejudice the prevention and detection of crime or the apprehension or prosecution of offenders.

It is clear from the comments of the commissioner and other parties that the Bill would significantly weaken the legal safeguards on privacy and probably create the problem of whether there had been discrimination in some respects. We shall come to those issues later.

Another important point is that the information will be disclosed without the knowledge of the person whom it is about. Hitherto we have been anxious to avoid that--witness the way in which one can obtain details of whether a particular credit rating has been affected.

The commissioner finally suggests an alternative approach, which your Lordships may wish to consider, stressing not least the importance of asking people whether they will provide the information voluntarily rather than in the way set out in the Bill.

Amendment No. 48 relates to the bulk provision of information. The explanations are rather naive, saying that the measures that allow authorised officers to get general information on electricity, gas or telecommunications, for example, relate to the provision of information only on addresses, not on individuals. That is naive, because, as much of the process outlined in the Bill involves cross-checking of data, it is not difficult to relate an address to the name on the electoral roll and thereby identify the individual to whom the information relates.

There are also concerns about the scale of the operation. As we understand it--no doubt the Minister can give more details--the department envisages a very large operation on bulk information. The department may argue that the main amendment would result in some delay in getting the information,

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but the points of principle I have addressed are very important. We are proposing the traditional approach that past governments have always adopted on drug trafficking, crime or other actions of fraud, rather than making the department the judge of whether it is reasonable for it to carry out an investigation, with no control exercised by any outside body, except in the limited case of local authorities, which will require the general, but not specific, authorisation of the Secretary of State.

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