Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: The noble Baroness obviously has considerable experience of other public sector organisations. I am sure that she knows that in the Civil Service--certainly in local offices--executive officers are quite senior officials who take responsibility for decision-making. They decide whether a benefit claim is valid and put forward papers for decisions about prosecutions. We ask and expect a lot of our executive officers in terms of the scope of their authority and delegated powers. However, we expect them to be properly trained and we will expect them to be properly supervised.

1 Feb 2001 : Column 899

I earlier gave assurances to the Committee about the way in which the use of passwords to get access to electronic information could be checked by senior officials to ensure that the information obtained is not misused or used in an inappropriate way. That will be part of internal DSS procedure. It is certainly not in the interests of the DSS to allow inappropriate behaviour.

The noble Baroness will also know that the DSS already has very experienced staff in the Benefit Fraud Inspectorate. We shall add to their numbers in local offices and we shall work with local authorities in that regard. The noble Baroness does not need to worry about this. I have seen the work EOs do in other fields and they carry high degrees of responsibility competently and capably exercised.

9.30 p.m.

Baroness Noakes: But in the past EOs would not typically have been given these sorts of powers to impose burdens on business. It is in that context that I have a particular worry. I accept that they are casework officers; that is substantially what they are used for within the Civil Service. But I am particularly concerned that a single decision of a single executive officer, however well trained, could impose significant costs, especially when the Bill has limited proposals for reimbursement of costs to those providing information. There should be some further safeguard. If it is not in the code of practice I am at a loss as to how we can satisfy ourselves that it will exist.

Lord Higgins: I am a little mystified. I understand the points being made by my noble friend and they are important. But the amendment states,

    "inspector duly authorised in accordance with the code of [practice] set out by the Secretary of State for the purposes of this Act".

I understood the Minister to say in reply that that was something which would be covered in the code of practice. However, in answer to the intervention of my noble friend, she appears to be saying that it is something which will be done administratively and not in the code of practice. I am confused.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: We are making an issue out of something which does not exist. EO inspectors already have powers to demand access to employers' records. So the powers that these EOs have under the Bill are analogous to powers they already have in other areas of their work. I am saying that of course they will be monitored and supervised. But one does not put into a code of practice the internal monitoring arrangements of senior staff over junior staff. That is simply not appropriate for a code of practice. What is appropriate is the standard to which the EOs will be expected to work; what stringency will be applied to their examination; what reasonable grounds they will have for pursuing a certain direction; what access they may be expecting and what help and support they will be expecting from the organisation. That is what we are talking about; not internal management of a

1 Feb 2001 : Column 900

particular section. I have never seen a code of practice in my life containing that kind of thing. I am puzzled that I should be asked about it.

Lord Higgins: There is still, I fear, a certain amount of confusion. We shall need to consider to what extent it will be appropriate to incorporate something in the code of practice with regard to qualifications and so forth.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: I am perfectly willing to take away and consider this matter to try to reassure the Committee that if there are complaints or concerns by data-providing bodies there is a more senior official to whom they can go over the head of the EO. If that will address the substance of the noble Baroness's point, I am willing to take it away and think about it. But I do not want to start specifying line management, diagrams, salary rates and so forth; they are not part of the code of practice. If that is helpful, I am perfectly willing to do that.

Baroness Noakes: I thank the Minister for that and look forward to that reassurance.

Lord Higgins: In that case we are all grateful to the noble Baroness. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Grabiner moved Amendment No. 22:

    Page 2, line 26, leave out from ("shall") to ("is") in line 34 and insert ("be exercisable for the purpose only of obtaining information relating to a particular person identified (by name or description) by the officer.

(2C) An authorised officer shall not, in exercise of those powers require any information from any person by virtue of his falling within subsection (2A) above unless it appears to that officer that there are reasonable grounds for believing that the identified person to whom it relates").

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Lord Higgins moved Amendment No. 23:

    Page 2, line 27, at end insert--

("( ) the information is information that has already been collected and retained in the normal course of business;").

The noble Lord said: Amendment No. 23 stands in my name and that of my noble friend. It is an extremely simple amendment compared with anything else we have been discussing. It merely suggests that the information that can be demanded by the authorised official seeking to obtain information to prevent fraud should be that which is collected in the normal course of a business. I hope that the noble Baroness can simply stand up and say, "Yes, we agree to the amendment. There is no question of asking those particular organisations to produce custom-built data", if that is the right expression, "for the purpose of the inquiries". I shall settle for "customised", if the Minister prefers. I beg to move.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: Yes; we do not expect businesses to go out of their way to get information for

1 Feb 2001 : Column 901

us. Where we ask them to perform a unique data-processing function, for example a reverse search of the telephone directory, or to provide data in bulk, we have already said that we shall pay for it. In this case the information is already available and collected as part of a company's normal business.

We shall make use of such information as organisations are able to provide. We shall not make unreasonable demands on retention or that they somehow recreate data that has been erased or destroyed. If the information is not available, we shall look elsewhere or do without. I hope that the noble Lord is pleased with that reply.

Lord Higgins: Perhaps I misheard the noble Baroness. I thought that she accepted the amendment.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: No, I said that I hoped that the noble Lord was well pleased and that he does not need to move the amendment. I was giving the noble Lord an assurance that the amendment will not be necessary because we shall not be asking businesses for information that they do not hold.

Lord Higgins: I thought that it would be better to put it on the face of the Bill. None the less, given that assurance, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Astor of Hever had given notice of his intention to move Amendment No. 24:

    Page 2, line 28, leave out ("particular").

The noble Lord said: I shall not move Amendments Nos. 24 and 25 but, with the leave of the Committee, I shall speak to Amendments Nos. 41, 50 and 55.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: I am happy for Amendments Nos. 24 and 25 not to be moved. We have already discussed the matter substantively and I understand what the noble Lord wants to do. Perhaps I may suggest that we postpone the discussion until we reach Amendments No. 41, when he can move and speak to the amendment substantively.

[Amendment No. 24 not moved.]

[Amendments Nos. 25 and 26 not moved.]

Lord Higgins moved Amendment No. 27:

    Page 2, line 31, at end insert--

("(2BA) Requests for information shall not require the person providing the information to inform an authorised officer of any future change in the information provided.").

The noble Lord said: Amendment No. 27 is straightforward. As with the previous amendment, which the noble Baroness accepted in principle and on which she gave an undertaking, I hope that she can accept it. It seems important to us to minimise the burden on business as far as possible. In our view it would be extremely onerous if, having provided the authorised inspector with a particular set of information, there was any obligation on him to update it from day to day. It would require a

1 Feb 2001 : Column 902

considerable operation for that to be done without contravening the Act or failing to provide information for which the department had asked. I hope that the Minister can accept this simple and important amendment. I beg to move.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page