Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: I am awaiting confirmation on that point. However, my understanding is that anyone who is a benefit claimant can request the DSS to give him a copy of the information that is held under his name. Relying on my memory, I believe that we have had something like 20,000 such requests over the past few years. However, I may be wrong in that respect. It is certainly true to say that the power has been exercised occasionally. As with health records, it can be a useful way of ensuring that no mistakes have been made.

Lord Higgins: I am most grateful to the noble Baroness for that explanation, which I find rather surprising. In the circumstances, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Higgins moved Amendment No. 36:

("( ) No information in possession of any government department relating to any person who is the subject of an inquiry shall be conveyed or shared with any person or body as specified in subsection (2A) above.").

The noble Lord said: In the course of a Bill as complicated as the one now before us one tends to develop one's own jargon as regards a particular issue. The jargon that I have attached to this set of amendments is "reciprocity". The main thrust of the Bill is to enable the DSS and local authorities to obtain information from the whole string of different organisations listed in the first part of Clause 1.

1 Feb 2001 : Column 913

Sometimes the Government will be paying for the information but, more generally, they will not be paying for it.

In the responses to the consultation document provided by various outside organisations there was a tendency to say, "If we give you the information, you ought to give us some information in return"; in other words, there would be a reciprocal arrangement. I referred to one such organisation at Second Reading. As I understand it there is an organisation called CIFAS, which operates in this field. I understand that the Government have no intention whatever that this should be so--that is to say, the credit rating agencies will not be able to say, "We'll tell you what is happening to this particular individual if you tell us something about his income tax return". This is an important point.

In the response to the consultation there seemed to be some expectation that such a deal might be struck. Therefore, I thought it worth while to raise the point at this stage. I look forward to hearing the Minister's comments on my amendment. I beg to move.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: The noble Lord's amendment seeks to place limits on the information that the department--indeed, government in general--is able to give back to the organisations from which it has obtained information. That is a perfectly laudable aim and was presumably intended as a safeguard against the inappropriate exchange of personal information with the private sector.

I take it that the noble Lord is seeking to ensure that we do not send information back, rather than that we do. Is that correct?

Lord Higgins: Yes, I think so.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: I rather thought that this was another of the noble Lord's schizophrenic amendments.

Either way, the amendment is unnecessary and would fail in its intended purposes. It is unnecessary because we have no plans to exchange sensitive information about people who may be the subject of an inquiry with information providers. I was trying to think of an example that might persuade the noble Lord. It could be of very real interest to a building society or a mortgage lender to know about someone's outgoings in terms of the number of children that he has to maintain. The number of children involved may not only be those in the immediate family; indeed, there might also be children who are known to the CSA in another family, or who were part of a relationship about which his current partner knows nothing. Clearly, that would be very sensitive information which it would be highly inappropriate to send back, even though the mortgage lending company might think it germane to its inquiries. That would be extremely offensive in terms of any concept of privacy and the right of people to expect the DSS to protect sensitive information.

1 Feb 2001 : Column 914

We are taking steps to ensure that such information does not find its way back to the private sector. We have already had the discussion about not leaving footprints behind with credit reference agencies. However, we know that fraudsters do not respect organisational boundaries and that the people who commit fraud against the benefit system may well try to commit it against the private sector or other organisations in the public sector.

While trying to ring fence sensitive information which it would be inappropriate to disclose, we are trying to be helpful--as I say, we have had this debate--about giving information that is non-sensitive and non-personal. I gave the example of giving information about someone who was already dead. However, the noble Lord will be aware that our inquiries may at any time uncover fraud against one or more of the organisations that we seek information from. The effect of his amendment would be to prevent us informing a company that it is the victim of fraud and that we had information that might help put a stop to it. The exemption that allows us to pass on information about criminal acts is contained in that self-same Section 29 of the Data Protection Act and in common law.

In fact, the amendment goes further than that. It would also prevent any other government department from passing on such information. For example, if we made inquiries about a person suspected of benefit fraud, we would effectively prevent the Inland Revenue from informing a bank about its suspicions of his involvement in mortgage fraud. Perversely, the amendment would not apply to people about whom we have not sought information. What I am trying to say to the noble Lord is that it is rather a bad amendment on all possible grounds. We shall not exchange personal information about people whether they are the subject of our inquiries or not, except in the circumstances covered by Section 29 that I have described. I hope that in the light of those comments the noble Lord will wish to withdraw his amendment.

Lord Higgins: I am grateful to the noble Baroness. I do not think that the amendment covers the point she made about transferring information from the DSS to the Inland Revenue as it is not specified in subsection (2A). One can see that there may well be a case for exchanging information within government. I shall need to consider the other points which the noble Baroness made as regards people who are dead. Obviously if a pension is continuing to be drawn when the person whose life was insured has departed, it may be appropriate to inform the pensions department of that. However, that raises issues as regards how far that measure will extend. What prompted the amendment with all its faults was the suggestion in a representation, which I believe came from CIFAS, that it would do a deal; that is, it would give information to the Government if the Government

1 Feb 2001 : Column 915

would give it information. I understood that that was not something that the Government would go along with. Perhaps the Minister will confirm that.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: A number of financial organisations would dearly like to have additional information held by the DSS. I was not clear whether the noble Lord argued that they should or should not have that. They will not get it. However, we are considering whether we can release to them non-sensitive, non-personal information, for example, address verifications or verifications of deaths, which are obviously relevant to companies paying out insurance policies. These organisations have asked us about stolen/blank death, birth, marriage certificates and bogus national insurance numbers. We are considering those matters and we are talking with organisations to see whether we can be helpful in a common activity against fraud without in any sense endangering someone's right to privacy in terms of the sensitive information we hold.

I do not know whether that reply helps the noble Lord. However, we shall not give the private sector any information about a claimant's benefit details. However, as I say, we are considering some of the other more neutral areas such as information on national insurance numbers or checking whether someone has died and therefore whether an annuity should not continue to be paid. We are considering whether that information could usefully be made available. Perhaps, after all, we are on the same side; namely, that we do not wish to see sensitive information going round the system out there in the private sector. Equally, if in non-sensitive areas we can help in checking fraud, we shall do so.

Lord Higgins: Let me be clear. I am not in favour of reciprocity in the way I described. The Minister said that there may be occasions where information would be transferred which was not sensitive and personal. Clearly, the information would be personal because it relates to an individual. What is sensitive is a matter of judgment.

It has been helpful to have the discussion. We shall need to consider what the Minister said. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Viscount Simon): Before calling Amendment No. 37 I have to advise the Committee that if it is agreed to, I cannot call Amendment No. 38 or 39 due to pre-emption.

[Amendment No. 37 not moved.]

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page