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Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, we debated the issue of centralisation of information requests in some detail in Committee and on Report. These amendments seek to ensure that requests from local authorities and DSS to the listed bodies are routed through a central point. Amendment No. 1 has two different meanings: either that local authorities must work through a central point, which is a problem, or they must themselves offer within each local authority a central point of inquiry, with which we agree. I have two separate speeches and I am not sure which one I should make in dealing with the noble Lord's amendment.

If I understand it correctly, as worded the amendment provides that requests from a fraud inspector in a local authority for an authorised officer

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to obtain information shall be made through a central organisation. But it does not make clear what form the central organisation should take. Would it be a regional or national central organisation? Nor has the noble Lord enlightened the House as to how much it will cost to set it up, who is to pay for it, what local authorities think of the idea and how it will assist them in cutting the bill of over £600 million in respect of housing benefit fraud. I find it difficult to see how to take forward that proposal.

To pursue the implications, to route all requests through a central point, presumably in the DSS, is not a viable option, for the reasons stated during previous debates. It would impose extra costs and act as a disincentive, and it would add to the time taken to pursue and control fraud. Obviously, there is plenty of scope for local authorities to work together. We meet local authority representatives on a regular basis to discuss all the practical issues which arise from the Bill, one of which is the centralisation of requests. The noble Lord may be assisted to know that we have asked them whether there may be scope for local authorities in a particular area to band together to make inquiries from central points. But that is a matter for discussion with local authorities and for them to organise themselves in the most effective way. That may be a constructive response.

Lord Higgins: My Lords, perhaps the noble Baroness was distracted for a moment. Do trading standards officers provide us with a model to follow?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, I understand that in Gloucester trading standards officers use the local authority for inquiries. My advisers do not know of any other example. Let me follow that up because it may or may not be a helpful precedent. That is the best information we have; just the one example in Gloucester. Therefore, that is not a widespread practice.

I return to the first point. Although we would be loath to legislate in any statutory way, we will work with local authorities to get them to work together and reduce the number of contact points with business.

I turn to Amendment No. 2. The amendment seeks to make it a requirement that requests for information from DSS authorised officers be made to the listed bodies through a central organisation.

I can again reassure the noble Lord that authorised officers will not be located in DSS local offices. They will work in 13 area intelligence units or, in the case of our staff investigating organised fraud, in the National Intelligence Unit. That is because the Benefits Agency, the delivery arm of DSS, is organised into 13 area directorates. Given the large number of staff--89,000--in the BA, that is understandable.

Fraud investigators who work for the Benefit Fraud Investigation Service (BFIS) are located at offices throughout these area directorates. Additionally, fraud investigators who work for the Benefits Agency Security Investigation Service (BASIS) are located at several offices around the country. They deal with

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serious and organised crime against the benefits system. They are the equivalent of police regional crime squads. Our intention is that each of the area directorates will have an area intelligence unit. Together with the National Intelligence Unit, that makes 14.

Therefore, fraud investigators in approximately 450 Benefits Agency local offices will address their requests for information to an authorised officer in one of the intelligence units--the 13 area ones or the one national one. The authorised officer will, if he is satisfied that the request is reasonable on grounds debated previously, and that there is no other less intrusive way of obtaining the information, make the request to the listed body. I hope that that explanation proves satisfactory to the noble Lord and that he will feel able to withdraw his amendment.

Lord Higgins: My Lords, can the Minister give us some idea of the total figure? I understand that there are 14 regional or area offices of the DSS, but there are apparently then 400 local authorities. I am not at all clear, nor are those outside, to what extent these will be amalgamated in making requests. Obviously, if 414 individual groups of people come to a bank at some central point, the problems the bank has in validating the authorisation of all these people and so on, and then dealing with the inquiries, are much greater than if there is some central collection point.

As I understand the situation with regard to trading standards officers, there is a central clearing office. When one says "central" one means central--a single point.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, we may have 500 DSS officers and 1,000 local officers. We are not certain yet what numbers we are talking about. But that is the proportion. That means that we expect that it could be five or 50 DSS area offices. My present understanding is that we are talking of authorised officers on that kind of scale. In terms of local authorities, we may be talking of two or three, according to size within each individual local authority. It is of that proportion.

The noble Lord will appreciate that we are making a distinction here between fraud investigators on the ground who actually do the day-to-day work and authorised officers. There may be a team of 20 or 30 in a medium-sized local authority with a population of 100,000, but there will be only one or two authorised officers to whom they will have to go if they require information which has to be specifically approved in terms of the Bill.

Lord Higgins: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that reply, as far as it went. I still have some difficulty in ascertaining how many individuals or groups of individuals will be applying to the central point. For example, a bank will say, "I want all the inquiries through a central point". Evidently it will get at least 14 different groups of people applying to it. I understand the distinction between fraud investigators and authorised officers. But the bank will also get

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many inquiries from groups of people--some from local authorities which have been authorised and will have their own authorised officer, but also, presumably, there will be some kind of collective of the non-local authority bodies which have not been given authority to have their own authorised officer. I am looking simply for a number. Does a bank have to validate the applications of 414 people or for a very large number?

Should there be any misunderstanding on this point, I am not seeking to intervene before the Minister sits down. I think that would be a disorderly form of conduct; I am merely saying that that number is still unclear. Perhaps she will in her usual courteous way write to us and give us some idea what that number is. When the Bill goes to another place, the numbers we are talking about will then be clearer. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 2 not moved.]

Lord Astor of Hever moved Amendment No. 3:

    Page 2, line 27, at end insert--

("( ) Prior to the exercise of the power conferred on an authorised officer to obtain information under this section, that officer shall obtain in writing the consent to carry out an investigation.
( ) Consent shall be obtained from an official of seniority of 'higher executive officer', or above, from the relevant department.").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, Amendment No. 3 relates to the level of seniority in the DSS and local authorities at which consent must be obtained for investigations to take place. We believe that authorised officers should be required to receive written consent from an official of higher executive officer status or above. On Report, the Minister said that such officials will be appointed at executive officer grade, grade B3, or its equivalent in a local authority. That is a management grade equivalent to that of a flight lieutenant or a second lieutenant.

The ranks of flight lieutenant and second lieutenant are so lowly that they do not appear on the Civil Service military grade equivalent. I, myself, was once a second lieutenant. My regiment quickly made me aware what little responsibility that grade enjoyed. Furthermore, my research assistant tells me that when she worked in the Civil Service, her executive officer did not even have the authority to sign the stationery order form for paperclips.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, under what administration was there such foolish waste of talent?

Lord Astor of Hever: My Lords, the electricity association, the ABI, BT and the BBA tell us that the proposed level of executive officer is too low. They will be at the sharp end of tens of thousands of inquiries each year from the substantial number of authorised officers that the Minister has just mentioned.

BT has its roots in the Civil Service. It points out that its executive officer equivalent is the first level of management within the company and does not carry

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any meaningful responsibility. Indeed, many managers at this level would be relatively inexperienced young graduates. Furthermore, it points out that under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act disclosure of lower level communications data, such as that required under the Bill, must be authorised by a police superintendent. The equivalent rank in the DSS is a senior executive officer.

Logically, authority levels for the Bill should be in line with the RIPA. If that cannot be achieved, BT would not expect the level to drop below higher executive officer.

The BBA points out that draft clauses of the proceeds of crime Bill place the level for similar powers also at the rank of police superintendent. I beg to move.

4 p.m.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, the amendment seeks to impose a condition that authorised officers shall seek the written consent of an official of HEO grade before exercising powers to obtain information.

Given the admirable autobiographical contribution of the noble Lord, I shall not repeat all the matters about flight lieutenants and so on. I am sorry that the MoD was so nasty to him. I am sure that he has now got over it. I do not want to repeat that except to say that officers will be authorised by the Secretary of State in the case of DSS staff and by the chief executive in the case of local authorities. They will receive their authorisation only when they have completed specialist training courses in the Professionalism in Security syllabus or its equivalent. We shall give them a detailed knowledge of their powers under the Bill. The training will also cover human rights and data protection law, the guidance in the code of practice, and so on. Their job will be to determine whether requests for information made by the fraud staff on the ground are reasonable and justified within the framework of the Bill.

As I said in Committee, authorised officers will be staff of executive officer grade--that is B3--or the equivalent in a local authority. It is a senior grade equivalent to a level between sergeant and inspector in the police force, alongside whom they will be working. The noble Lord shakes his head. That is my information. I would point out that the analogy with police superintendent made by the noble Lord is for the exercise of very much more invasive powers. For example, they include traffic data; that is, what is said on telephones and who it is being received by, not just the reverse searches that we are talking about. Equally, some of the powers under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act--whether exercised by the Inland Revenue or Customs and Excise--are surveillance powers, which again are much more intrusive and where one would normally have to have police support. What we are talking about with BT is for the most part the data exchange and the checking of basic information in terms of where people live and

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against their use of energy and electricity supply to see whether that is consistent with the information that we have.

I want to make a second point. I am surprised still by the belief of noble Lords opposite about the low level of responsibility presently enjoyed by executive officers. Executive officers are the grade of officer who currently use the department's powers to inspect the records of employers about their employees. They are currently expected to use their experience and training to decide when an inspection is appropriate and must carry out that inspection within the framework of the law. They have to question the employer and examine those records. I should have thought that that was a highly sensitive job, competently carried out, and requiring a degree of expertise in many ways probably more demanding than we are expecting executive officers to operate under the Bill. I hope that the noble Lord will agree.

However, it may be that I can give the noble Lord some of the assurances that he seeks. Although authorised officers will normally be of EO grade, it may be that I can meet the noble Lord's concerns by assuring him about the degree of supervision that will be exercised over their work by HEOs and, where appropriate, SEOs. An HEO will manage authorised officers. That person will routinely check the work of authorised officers. There is already a comprehensive regime of test checks on the activities of fraud investigators. These checks are made by the HEO and deal with all aspects of the investigation. That includes whether the investigation has been conducted correctly, whether information and evidence have been gathered in the most appropriate way, and whether any financial savings have been recorded correctly. All cases that have been open over 13 weeks are subject to such a check. In addition, a proportion of investigations are checked when they are finalised.

The activities of fraud officers are subject to a number of other checks; for example, the use of the computers that we have described. There are also checks on the issue and use of notebooks and those are checked every 13 weeks. We have built on this regime with management checks by HEOs on the activity of authorised officers at EO level. In addition, if anyone, whether an individual or information provider, has a complaint or question about the way that these powers are applied, they can direct that complaint to the authorised officer's manager--and they will know who that is because we will tell them. Their address will be included in all requests for information.

I have tried to suggest, first, that EO is the proper level of responsibility at which authorised officer activity should be carried out. It is certainly analogous to other activities, often of an equal if not more sensitive nature, that EOs currently carry out. Secondly, they will be properly trained. Thirdly, they will be properly managed. Fourthly, there will be in place an appropriate and proper complaints system should any difficulties emerge.

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In the light of that information--it has been useful to explain the degree of supervision by HEOs--I hope that the noble Lord will feel able to withdraw the amendment.

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