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Lord Astor of Hever: I am grateful to the Minister for that very full answer and the assurances she has given. The Minister stated that the first four amendments were damaging amendments. I had pointed out that they are only probing amendments. The Minister also stated that some business might not want to help the DSS to fight fraud. I have not spoken to a single business that has taken that position. I was grateful for the reassurance about the strong safeguards that the Government intend to introduce against abuse of electronic access. In regard to Amendment No. 59, I am also grateful for her reassurance as to reasonable excuse for not complying.

A great deal of detail has been given, and I shall read Hansard carefully. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 47 to 50 not moved.]

Lord Higgins moved Amendment No. 51:

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The noble Lord said: Earlier in our deliberations on Clause 1 we made it clear that we were strongly in favour of information being provided to the Government to enable them to deal with the problem of fraud. However, considerable doubts were expressed earlier about the side effects of the proposals. We were very pleased to hear the assurances of the Minister. The first was that the decision on whether there should be an inquiry should not turn simply on whether it was likely to be a case of fraud. The Minister has undertaken to introduce amendments on Report to cover that point. Similarly, on the doubts expressed in relation to the suspicion that members of a group may be involved, she again gave an undertaking, although that fact did not seem to catch up with last weekend's Sunday Telegraph.

This amendment takes the same approach. In exercising the fairly draconian powers that are provided for in the Bill, we are concerned that in each case there should be a reasonable suspicion that a particular individual has taken action that may be regarded as fraudulent.

In Section 2, which is concerned with electronic information, it appears that in subsection (2) the Government seek to reassure us. It says:

    "An authorised officer--

    (a) shall be entitled to obtain information in accordance with arrangements ... only if his authorisation states that his authorisation applies for the purposes of that subsection".

We are more doubtful about subsection (2)(b) which states that the authorised officer:

    "shall not seek to obtain any information in accordance with any such arrangements other than information which relates to a particular person"--

and this is the crunch of the matter--

    "and could be the subject of a requirement under section 109B above".

We are concerned that what appears to be a protection for the individual may turn out not to be protection because an authorised officer has to show only that the person he is investigating could be the subject of an inquiry. That is closely related to the debate that we had on whether it is likely or not. We believe that he should be entitled to obtain the information by electronic means only if he has a reasonable suspicion. We believe that there would be better protection for the individual and for the prevention of fishing trips--in this case by electronic means--if the amendment were agreed to. I beg to move.

3.30 p.m.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: I have great affection for amendments like this. I used to table such amendments, no doubt to the entertainment and education of the Chairman of Committees.

Amendment No. 51 seeks to change the wording in new Section 109BA(2)(b). This particular subsection ensures that authorised officers make electronic inquiries only of people who could be the subject of a requirement under Section 109B. The amendment, as the noble Lord explained carefully, seeks to substitute

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the word "could" for "should". Technically, I believe that the amendment is meaningless, but that has never stopped us in the past, so it should not stop us now.

Perhaps I can deal with the substantive point. I hope I can dispel the concerns of the noble Lord that may have prompted the amendment. The people about whom we may seek information are defined in Clause 1 (new Section 109B(2B) and (2C). The provision as currently drafted means that we would be able to obtain information by electronic means only about people who fall within those provisions. Consequently, your Lordships should have no fears that the scope of electronic access to information is any wider than the power to obtain information in writing. Therefore, in the light of that explanation, which I believe it is useful to put into Hansard, I hope that the noble Lord will withdraw the amendment.

Lord Higgins: I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. As she points out, it is a classic form of words and not infrequently such classic forms of words convey the concerns that the Opposition have without necessarily wanting to see them incorporated in the Bill. We still have some concern about this matter which reflects a theme that runs throughout the Bill. In the light of the explanation, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 52 not moved.]

Lord Higgins moved Amendment No. 53:

    Page 5, line 24, at end insert ("; and

(e) such arrangements as are necessary to provide the person with a report upon the investigation should they either be incidental to the investigation in process or, if the subject of that investigation, found to be innocent of any wrongdoing").

The noble Lord said: In moving Amendment No. 53, I shall speak also to Amendment No. 64. Amendment No. 53 suggests at line 24 on page 5 that we should insert a further provision. Subsection (3) refers to:

    "The matters that may be included in the arrangements that a person is required to enter into under subsection (1)"--

regarding electronic provision and so on. We take the view that the amendment would provide an appropriate additional protection.

Amendment No. 64 concerns a different point. With regard to data held by credit rating agencies, it is well known that an individual may obtain the details that are held by an agency either generally or, more particularly, electronically. I believe that that is an important protection. In that instance we would have a series of investigations of which, apparently, the individual would not be aware. We believe that there is a case for saying that that information should be disclosed so that, if necessary, individuals can obtain redress or take corrective action in the same way that they could do so if they found that a credit rating agency held inaccurate information on its records.

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We are concerned that the overall provisions of the Bill will result in a large number--20,000 or whatever--of investigations. We feel that an individual should know whether such an investigation has taken place and what information is being held by the Government, having collected information from a whole range of different sources that may affect an individual's position with regard to credit rating and so on. I beg to move.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: Amendment No. 53 would impose a duty on authorised officers to prepare a report of an investigation for those on whom information was obtained, where they were incidental to the investigation or found innocent. The effect of the amendment as drafted would be to issue the report of the investigation to the information provider, not to the subject of the inquiry. I am sure that that was not the intention of the noble Lord. Nevertheless, that would be the effect, which would be wholly contrary to the Data Protection Act--I believe the word "person" gives rise to that. It would also compromise the investigation and be unfair to the subject. That, of course, could be repaired by redrafting.

More substantively, I believe that the amendment is unnecessary. I shall explain why. First, we shall ensure that those claiming benefit know that they may be the subject of the powers of investigation. Benefit claim forms will make it clear to claimants that the information that they provide may be checked with third parties. Moreover, we shall not use the powers before we have published a code of practice that will be available to anyone who wants to know more about our ability to obtain information.

Secondly, the Data Protection Act provides further safeguards. Any individual is free at any time to ask an organisation what data it holds on him. That includes the DSS, as we said previously in Committee. Provided that the information requested would not jeopardise an investigation, the department must provide it. The DSS receives about 2,500 requests for such information each year.

I discussed with officials what an individual may receive from the DSS if he or she sought such information. Let us take the example of an individual who is now 30 but who has been at an FE college, has had a year on housing benefit and JSA while retaking, on a part-time basis, one A-level, has gone to university and after leaving university has been on JSA for three or four months before going into a full-time job. I suspect that that simple example will be redolent of the nephews, nieces, sons or daughters of noble Lords. If that individual asked the DSS what information it held on them, they would get back a print-out of information about their JSA payment, including details of their income, the dates on which they moved on to and off benefit, any refusals to do appropriate work while on JSA, and, above all, information about their NICs, which is often the reason why people inquire whether they are building a full retirement pension. However, we would not have information on their housing benefit, their labour market details or their current financial status. They

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would therefore receive a print-out ranging from a few to a large number of sheets, depending how many years of NICs records they had, which is the largest constituent element.

That information, which is available now, is sought by approximately 2,500 people per year. Under the Data Protection Act, that information will continue to be provided with reasonably expeditious speed to anybody who seeks it. Anybody can check the information and correct it if necessary. It would be unprecedented to go beyond those safeguards in law enforcement in this country. I believe that those safeguards are sufficient to protect the individual against unwarranted intrusion.

Amendment No. 64 requires the Secretary of State to make arrangements for the disclosure of information according to certain standards, which are to be drawn up, and for those standards to form part of a code of practice. It requires the disclosure of information, which is unspecified, to persons incidental to the inquiry and to persons who are found not to have committed an offence. It also requires an official to monitor the application of those standards and to report.

The amendment is redundant. That is because the procedures and standards to be adhered to for the disclosure of information and for the prevention of unauthorised disclosure are already enshrined in law and in existing guidance to staff. This amendment adds nothing to the existing safeguards.

The law already provides strong safeguards against a person unlawfully obtaining or disclosing information. Those have already been mentioned. Our Protection of Customer Information Guide, which is publicly available, sets out in detail the rules governing the disclosure of personal information. A revised version was published in April 2000. We are currently considering the production of an information guide dealing specifically with the right of DSS customers to access personal information kept about them. I hope that that will be available by the autumn.

I hope that I have met the noble Lord's concerns. Nothing in this Bill overrides the provisions of the Data Protection Act. The use of information obtained under these powers would be controlled strictly in accordance with the principles of that Act. We cannot do otherwise. Further, all investigations would be carried out according to the procedures laid down in the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 and the Criminal Procedure and Investigations Act 1996, and their statutory codes of practice. The Criminal Procedure and Investigations Act code of practice sets out procedures for the retention and disclosure of information in criminal cases.

Anybody can seek access to the information held, providing that it does not jeopardise, or is not prejudicial to, a fraud investigation. In addition, the standards involved in this and other areas of fraud investigation will be overseen by an official. In those circumstances, I hope that the noble Lord will agree that we have in place a very full set of safeguards. I

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welcome the opportunity to place them on the record. In the light of those assurances, I hope that the noble Lord will feel able to withdraw his amendment.

3.45 p.m.

Lord Higgins: We are grateful to the noble Baroness for her full reply. Her statement that nothing in the Bill contravenes the Data Protection Act may be true. However, the Data Protection Commissioner does not take the view that nothing in the Bill gives her cause for considerable concern. That is one of the reasons we are particularly anxious to clarify a number of points.

I should like, with the help of the Minister, to clarify a particular point. She has said that if an investigation is carried out under this Bill, the department will be in possession of a mass of information about the subject of the inquiry. Information obtained from banks, credit rating agencies, water companies and telephone companies will presumably be kept on file simply on the basis of a suspicion that an individual may have engaged in fraudulent activities. It is not clear to me why an individual should realise that and, therefore, ask to see information that was not previously held--information which, in the event, would not be needed because the department had concluded that no fraud had been committed.

First, I am not clear why, in such a case, the department would need to continue to hold all that information. Secondly, I do not understand how individuals will know that they are suspected and that that information had been collected. They may feel that it should not, for example, be left to float around the local office of a local authority whose staff may know, or may even be the next-door neighbour of, the individual concerned. Perhaps the Minister will also tell us whether the information collected will be held indefinitely by the local authority or whether it will be removed from the record.

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