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Lord Desai: I apologise to the Committee. I arrived a little late and I am confused. I thought that we had accepted Amendment No. 22, which removes several lines. If we had, is it still in order to move Amendment No. 27?
The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Lord Ampthill): The amendment was debated at some length in the noble Lord's absence, but he has no way of knowing that. Does the noble Lord wish to speak to the amendment?
Earl Russell: Perhaps I may ask one question about the meaning of the amendment before the Committee. It refers to information in the future. We come back to the question of intention, the future and the present. My example is that of a certain unmarried woman, shall we say a Miss Smith, who has informed the bank that she will, in the next few weeks, become Mrs Snodgrass. That could be material information to someone who wants to investigate a bank account.
Becoming Mrs Snodgrass is in the future but the expression of a clear intention to do so is in the present. Does the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, intend to prohibit the gathering of that information or not?
Lord Higgins: The sad case of Mrs Snodgrass obviously needs careful consideration. Whether she is entitled to various benefits for married women is an even more partisan question. I take the point that the noble Earl made and do not doubt that the Minister has an appropriate answer.
Baroness Hollis of Heigham: Returning to the substantive amendment, I assure noble Lords that we would not ask companies to inform us of future changes in the information that they had given to us. That will be made plain in our code of practice and administrative guidance to staff. It is unnecessary to put it on the face of the Bill and I hope that in the light of that assurance the noble Lord will withdraw the amendment. And I duck Mrs Snodgrass!
The noble Lord said: This is an important amendment and relates to the controversial Amendment No. 32, which was not moved in the light of the points made and undertakings given by the Minister. There are four paragraphs in subsection (2C) of the new section which appears in Clause 1 and we have dealt with the first two. Paragraph (d) provides that it is legitimate to make a person the subject of an inquiry if there are reasonable grounds for believing that he is or may be,
We have already dealt with the case of someone falling into the category of paragraph (d), who is related to a person in paragraph (c). We hope that category (c) will disappear. Therefore, the question is whether it is appropriate to have paragraph (d) in relation to paragraphs (a) and (b). Paragraph (a) deals with,
We have a number of doubts about this provision, not least the point raised earlier by the noble Lord, Lord Grabiner; namely, that in the context of human rights legislation it is important that the individual should be clearly identified. I do not believe that paragraph (d) clearly defines anyone. We shall come to the question of human rights in the debate on clause stand part. However, it is doubtful whether the particular provision is appropriate, although the extent to which it is objectionable will be ameliorated if we eliminate paragraph (c).
Baroness Hollis of Heigham: I wonder whether the noble Lord has reflected on my earlier remarks about the three main forms of benefit fraud: first, fraud associated with claiming while in work; secondly, fraud related to housing benefit in various forms; and,
The whole range of income-related benefits are household-based. Therefore, one needs to know about the component parts of the household and the family; one cannot escape that. For example, last year £18 million of income support and JSA was overpaid because claimants had not declared their partners' earnings. In addition, £216 million of IS and JSA was overpaid last year because people claimed as single people when they were living with someone as husband or wife. We need to be able to obtain information about possible, or suspected, partners in order to prove that they are living with single claimants. For example, if we suspected that a single claimant lived with someone we might check with the claimant's utility providers to see whether the suspected partner paid the utility bills, or check with the bank to see whether or not he or she had a joint account.
I could go on. The definition of "family" is quite tight. However, given that a considerable amount of benefit fraud is based on fraudulent and inaccurate information about household income, relationships and members of that household, we must have these provisions in the Bill. I very much hope that, with that explanation about income-related benefits in particular, the noble Lord will be able to withdraw his amendment.
There are also other problems. If it is a family it may well have nothing to do with cohabitation; the person may be a cousin, sister and so on. No doubt the noble Baroness will correct me if that is not the case. It may be that in one sense there is a relationship but the second person concerned does not live in the same household. Perhaps the noble Baroness can clarify those particular points. I agree that this is an
Baroness Hollis of Heigham: It was not meant to be--if I can put it this way--a fishing trip way of getting at information. It was actually about where the offence is constituted by relationship of one person with another. That is why one needs that information.
The concept of family is the absolutely bog-standard one in DSS law. It includes married or unmarried couples in the same household and any of their children or dependants living in that household. It also covers a single person--for example, a lone parent--and any of his or her children or dependants living in that household.
The provision would not enable authorised officers to obtain information about a claimant's brother living at the same address as a claimant. Nor would it enable them to obtain information about a claimant's separated partner unless he or she was suspected of living with the claimant as husband and wife. So it is the absolutely standard definition in terms of income support, JSA, and so on, of "couple and dependant children or other dependants".
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