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Lord Higgins moved Amendment No. 18:

("(2AB) Requests for information made to any of the persons specified in paragraphs (a) to (m) above shall be made to a central department in the organisation concerned.").

The noble Lord said: The amendment is intended to be the mirror image of that which we have just discussed. Again, I have to confess that I drafted it myself, so it may not achieve its intended objectives. On the other hand, it may do.

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A considerable number of the specified organisations referred to in the amendment have expressed the concern that they do not want their various branches and organisations to be constantly diverted from their normal--and, one hopes, profitable--operations by having to respond to requests from the department that may take up time, incur costs and distract them from what they should be doing. Nearly all of those organisations would prefer to have any applications for information put through a central contact point so that its staff would become somewhat expert in the matter and would be able to provide satisfactory answers to the investigations carried out by the department. That is essentially the object of the exercise.

The proposal has considerable and widespread support and appears to be a sensible way forward. It would also avoid the problem that we discussed earlier about whether applications should be made to individuals or servants of a company rather than to the company itself.

The amendment has much to be said for it. It may require a degree of organisation in a company. On the other hand, those dealing with requests would also become much more expert than someone in a branch office who may not be familiar with the matter and who may not even be sure whether he is allowed to divulge the relevant information. He might be worried about the Data Protection Act 1998 and might say to an inspector, "I shall have to check the request with head office". It would be better if the application were made to the head office in the first place. That would avoid any doubts that an individual might have at the local level about whether he should provide the information and what information he was entitled to provide. I hope that the Government will agree to the amendment.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: If the Government accepted this amendment, the noble Lord would find himself the object of quite a lot of complaint from business. The effect of the amendment is to direct investigators to contact a central point in any organisation from whom they are seeking information. It removes the flexibility for organisations to decide for themselves as to how they would prefer our inquiries to be managed.

We feel it would be foolish of us to stipulate how businesses should organise themselves. In any given case we will contact the organisation and will be happy for them to refer us to whoever they feel is best placed to deal with our inquiries. It may be a central point or it may be someone with local knowledge but, either way, we will be happy to deal with the person or the department that has been specified.

We will seek to be as unobtrusive as possible. We will not ask for anything that is unreasonable or not readily available, as I hope our code of practice makes clear. So though the amendment seeks to place a restriction on investigators, in reality it places a

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restriction on business. In the light of that, despite the fact that the noble Lord drafted the amendment, he may not wish to pursue its ownership too far.

Lord Higgins: I understand the point the noble Baroness is making. But can we be clear about one thing?

If the organisation concerned--let us say the electricity company, the gas company or, more particularly perhaps, the bank--felt that it would like all the requests for information to be addressed to a specific central point, will that be accepted? My understanding was, despite what the noble Baroness has just said, that a number of organisations would prefer to have a central point approached where those concerned are specialised; they are familiar with the legal position and so forth, rather than local branches dealing with something with which they are not familiar.

If the noble Baroness can give me an assurance that if an organisation asks that all inquiries should be addressed to a central point, that will be accepted and facilitated, then I shall withdraw the amendment. I suspect Hansard does not reflect the nods and winks taking place.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: I did actually say yes, though I said it from a sedentary position. I am happy to stand up and say yes.

Lord Higgins: On that basis I am happy to beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Lord Lyell): I must advise the Committee that if Amendment No. 19 is accepted, I cannot call Amendment No. 20.

Lord Astor of Hever moved Amendment No. 19:

    Page 2, line 24, leave out ("Subject to subsection (2D) below,").

The noble Lord said: In moving Amendment No. 19, I shall speak also to Amendment No. 37. These are probing amendments to clarify an area of concern felt by the utility industries.

The effect of the amendment would be to remove subsection (2D) from the Bill, which places the utility industries in particular in an entirely inconsistent position. A problem for the utility industries occurs in subsection (2D), which exempts the utility industries from the application of the important safeguards in subsections (2B) and (2C).

The reasoning behind this distinction may well be that the Government want to make bulk requests for information from the utility companies which may cover information, for example, on the consumption of electricity from a vast number of addresses within a specific area. The Government want that information, presumably, because it will enable authorising officers to match that information against other data in order to identify potential cases of fraud.

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Clearly the safeguards set down in subsections (2B) and (2C) requiring grounds for suspicion against an individual would be difficult to satisfy in respect of requests for bulk information. That is why the Government want to remove utilities from the protection of that section.

The important limitations provided by subsections (2B) and (2C) from widescale requests is thus removed by subsection (2D) and could place an even heavier burden on the utility companies. That burden could fall more heavily on certain companies due to the different areas of the country in which their customers are based and therefore their being subject to a greater number of requests for information. The burden, therefore, could have an effect on the level playing field of competition between utility companies.

An additional concern is that the utilities may still, like other organisations, be subject to individual requests for information relating to specific individuals. Even if the distinction between bulk and individual requests for information can be maintained, it is not clear from the wording of subsection (2D) that it could not also be used to request information relating to the specific premises with which a person is connected. There is thus an inconsistency in respect of information requested from utility companies and that is surely not what the Government intended. I shall be grateful if the Minister could explain why the Government have not addressed that inconsistency.

Finally, authorising officers have been much mentioned tonight. Perhaps I can clarify the Minister's reply to the first amendment when I thought I heard her say that they might only be relatively senior officers. I beg to move.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: These amendments seek to remove new subsection (2D) from the Bill, which would remove our capacity to obtain information from utility companies about patterns of consumption of water, gas and electricity at domestic premises. We seem to be repeating ourselves. We tried to group some of these amendments, perhaps unsuccessfully.

We know that data matching is a very successful tool in combating fraud and error. An example would be where we found that two different women were claiming for the same child on separate income support claims and that led to uncovering a multiple scam with 1,000 a week being claimed fraudulently.

So data matching is a practice endorsed by the Data Protection Commissioner who provided a foreword to our Data Matching Code of Practice. It has a well-tried history of throwing up the inconsistencies which lead one into further investigation. The new power would enable us to obtain information in bulk from utility companies to match against our social security records, so that abnormal patterns of consumption at addresses where benefit was in payment would be revealed. As I say, we have explored this issue and it should have been grouped with earlier amendments.

When we consider asking a utility company for bulk data, we will do so in order to find addresses with abnormal levels of consumption. We will know what

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we are looking for. We are not seeking, for example, to harass people who may be using a lot of fuel caring for a sick or elderly relative. We will be consulting a utility company to ensure that our estimates of abnormal consumption are realistic and that will probably change from supplier to supplier. We will then pay the company to search for records that meet the criteria we set, a payment that will cover the cost of writing specialist computer software or the purchase of extra hardware necessary to comply. That data would then be put onto disk and transferred to DSS under secure conditions as set out in data matching codes of practice. When we receive the information we will match it against our own records looking for inconsistencies.

I do not know whether that explanation meets the concerns of the noble Lord. If so, I shall bring my remarks to a close. If he feels I can give him further information, I shall be happy to attempt to do so.

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