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Lord Howell of Guildford: My Lords, what discussions have HMG had with the Government of China? Is it not a fact that the Chinese supply much the largest proportion of arms to the Government of Sudan and are the major customers for its oil, taking 90 per cent? Are these not underlying factors which influence the situation? Would it not be useful, given our limited influence on this horrific situation, to press upon the Chinese leaders their responsibility in trying to ease the tension and reduce the atrocities?

Lord Triesman: My Lords, there have been frequent discussions with the Chinese Government. We have tried to explain in some detail that if insecurity in Darfur continues, as it will, it is likely to derail the north-south peace process for the whole of Sudan. In those circumstances, whatever the investment that the Chinese have made in oil in Sudan, it will not be worth anything. There is a point at which they need to recognise that the bottom line is as disadvantageous for them as it will be for anybody else.

Lord Hannay of Chiswick: My Lords, the Minister agrees that a comprehensive settlement is necessary if this situation is to be brought to a close. What is being done to resuscitate the Abuja peace process? Are the outside forces, including Her Majesty's Government, putting as much pressure on the various rebel groups as they are on the Government of Sudan to come back into a political process that could provide the framework for a ceasefire?

Lord Triesman: My Lords, we have a special representative who is working on that project as the key focus. The United Nations and the African Union, through Ambassador Eliason and Doctor Salim Salim, are also working explicitly on that process. As the noble Lord says, the peace process will be the final resolution of this. It may very well need some security support, but there will have to be a peace negotiation and an agreement.

Housing: Transfer Ballots

3.10 pm

Lord Whitty asked Her Majesty’s Government:

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Communities and Local Government (Baroness Andrews): My Lords, the Electoral Commission is currently planning to refocus its mandate on its core tasks in response to a recent review by the Committee on Standards in Public Life that its current mandate was too broad and diffuse. To extend the mandate of the commission to require it to cover housing transfer ballots commissioned by local authorities would contradict the changes that are taking place.

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Lord Whitty: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that Answer. Is her department not aware that in many cases when such ballots have been held there have been very serious allegations of irregularities, ranging from questions misleadingly framed to tenants being denied the right to vote, those opposing the council’s position being denied access to the list of names and addresses of those entitled to vote, the council staff acting as both administrators of the election and advocates of one of the options and people other than tenants and residents who are entitled to vote—including Evening Standard journalists—being able to get hold of ballot papers?

In the light of these reports of cases, some of which have ended up in court, is it not necessary to have some establishment of the basic rules of democracy, whether through the Electoral Commission or some other body, so that these ballots are dealt with in the same spirit as the legislation covering national and local elections, referenda and trade union ballots?

Baroness Andrews: My Lords, there have been 264 ballots to ensure stock transfers since the process began in the late 1980s. Very few indeed have raised any problems about the conduct or consultation or the ballot itself. I am interested in what the noble Lord said and would be very grateful if he could provide some evidence that we could look at. However, the process is safeguarded in two ways—first, by the guidance in the transfer manual guidance that we put out, which sets out how scrupulous local authorities must be in involving and consulting tenants, including on the ballots. The ballots themselves are overseen by the Electoral Reform Society—and there could be no more authoritative body than that. Tenants have to have knowledge about the options available; they have to have balanced information and be properly and fully engaged. Before any transfer is agreed, the Secretary of State has to be fully understanding of that, and there must be no evidence that tenants are opposed to the process.

Lord Teverson: My Lords, is there not a problem in this area with the financial pressures on local authorities, which makes it almost imperative for those ballots to be successful and for housing stock to be transferred to meet the decent homes standard and other regulations? Is not the real answer to this to change the funding regime so that local authorities or housing associations can ensure that the housing stock is properly looked after?

Baroness Andrews: No, my Lords. Since the decent homes programme was set up we inherited a £19 billion backlog of 2 million homes that were below the decency standard. That is well on the way to being put right. We shall have £40 billion invested by 2010, and we would not have had that amount had we not put the decent homes programme in place with the ability to transfer stock so that registered social landlords could borrow on the open market. That has made a huge difference to the number of people who are now decently housed.

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In the options appraisal, the local authority has to offer tenants a full range of options, and a significant number of ballots have been refused. Indeed, in 56 of the 264 ballots that I mentioned, they have rejected those options. So it is an open and democratic process.

Baroness Carnegy of Lour: My Lords, the noble Baroness seemed to disbelieve what her noble friend Lord Whitty said. He made a number of most appalling accusations about these ballots. The House is not accustomed to thinking that the noble Lord exaggerates. Does she think that he was exaggerating?

Baroness Andrews: My Lords, I have asked the noble Lord to provide evidence. The ballots have been conducted by the Electoral Reform Society, which uses an extremely thorough process, with built-in safeguards on identity, balloting methods and procedure, and so on. We do not have the evidence that the noble Lord mentioned. Our evidence suggests that the ballots were secure and independent and that the procedures were as they should be. However, I am very willing to look at any evidence of irregularities.

Lord Best: My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, that ballots must be fair and transparent, but does the Minister agree that transfers of disadvantaged and unpopular council estates have often not only released large sums of capital that have rejuvenated those estates, but have put the residents and tenants in charge, in control and involved in the ongoing management of their communities?

Baroness Andrews: Yes, my Lords, very much so. One of the major differences is that they have voted in overwhelming numbers, because there is a higher turnout for these ballots than in local elections. The average turnout is over 70 per cent. Tenants now make up one third of the members of the boards that run those housing associations, giving them far greater involvement with and ownership of their terms and conditions.

Lord Clarke of Hampstead: My Lords, countless thousands of people in this country look to the possibility of local authority housing as their future—their only future, in many cases. Does my noble friend agree that in any form of ballot—whether it is run by the Electoral Reform Society, or whatever the Government decide after the outcome of their recent review—people on waiting lists should be included, because their future is very much tied up with the decisions made?

Baroness Andrews: My Lords, that is an interesting idea. Tenants have the key vote, but as we look at how we might improve processes, I will think about what my noble friend said.

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Building Societies (Funding) and Mutual Societies (Transfers) Bill

3.17 pm

Brought from the Commons; read a first time, and ordered to be printed.

Serious Crime Bill [HL]

3.18 pm

The Minister of State, Home Office (Baroness Scotland of Asthal): My Lords, I beg to move that the Bill be now further considered on Report.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

Clause 61 [Disclosure of information to prevent fraud]:

Baroness Anelay of St Johns moved Amendment No. 94:

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, I shall speak also to Amendment No. 95. I have tabled these amendments to ask for further clarification from the Government about the process by which anti-fraud organisations will be specified under the provisions of this part of the Bill.

Clause 61(1) confers powers on a public authority to disclose information as a member of a specified anti-fraud organisation or otherwise in accordance with arrangements made by such an organisation for the purposes of preventing fraud. That is a complicated way of indicating that information is to be shared more widely, but among organisations that must meet specific standards if they are to take part in that exchange.

Between Committee and Report, I met representatives of both Experian and CIFAS. Noble Lords will recall that Experian is a leading UK credit reference agency. CIFAS is a fraud prevention service covering the United Kingdom. It was created in 1988 by a group of retail credit companies and now encompasses many types of financial service organisations including banks, building societies, insurance companies, credit card companies, share dealers and finance houses. The Minister referred to CIFAS in Committee.

I am grateful to both organisations for their helpful briefings. It was as a direct consequence of discussions with them that I felt that it was right to ask the Minister to set out more clearly today the process of designation that the Government expect to implement as a result of the Bill. The Minister gave us some assistance on these matters 26 March. I refer to col. 1513 of the Official Report. The anti-fraud organisations will be specified by order of the Secretary of State. As a result of a recommendation made by the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee, which was accepted by the Government in Committee, that statutory instrument will be subject to the affirmative procedure.

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It will be vital that the system of designating bodies is secure, effective and capable of withstanding attacks by criminals who would wish to gain access to or corrupt the information that they hold. The system of designating them must be right and those bodies that we designate must properly be able to deal with the information to which they will have access and hold.

What will be the criteria for the designation of anti-fraud organisation that will be specified under the provisions of the Bill? Who will make the decision about which organisations shall be so specified? At the outset, is it the Government’s intention that at least two anti-fraud organisations will be designated, perhaps to include CIFAS, in order to avoid creating a monopoly position? Does the Minister agree with the view of the British Bankers’ Association, circulated to noble Lords, that the,

I beg to move.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for the way in which she has moved her amendment. She has clarified that, in part, the amendment is intended to make clear that the provision applies to any anti-fraud organisation which may be specified under Clause 61 and that there is a prospect that more than one organisation may be specified. I am happy to affirm her assertion in that regard. I am glad to be able to confirm that because it has always been the Government’s intention that no organisation should have a monopoly on being specified for the purposes of Clause 61.

As the noble Baroness indicated, I have already mentioned that CIFAS, the UK’s fraud prevention service, is the type of organisation we have in mind. I can give the House reassurance, if reassurance is needed, that we would not intend that CIFAS, if it is specified, or any other one organisation should alone be able to benefit from the provisions of Clause 61. The Bill achieves that effect. Clause 61(1) refers to being,

I can assure your Lordships that this wording ensures that the number of organisations that can be specified is not limited to one. It follows that the additional words which the noble Baroness and the noble Lord, Lord Henley, seek to include in Clause 61(8) are unnecessary. I am happy to reassure the noble Baroness in that regard.

Amendment No. 95 changes the definition of “specified anti-fraud organisation” in Clause 62 by adding “body corporate or not-for-profit organisation” to the list of those who might qualify as the “specified anti-fraud organisation”. My understanding is that the definition of “person” already accounts for bodies corporate by virtue of the definition of a person in the Interpretation Act 1978. As a result, the amendment would not add substantively to the definitions in the Bill.

There is, of course, interest both within the House and outside about the process of designation of the specified anti-fraud organisation under Clause 61. I

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know that various bodies and agencies have raised that, as the noble Baroness has indicated they raised it with her. The Bill deliberately leaves the question open. Subsection (8) simply says that,

That is, I suggest, a very straightforward and open requirement. “Specified” means specified by an order made by the Secretary of State under the negative resolution procedure under Clause 76(6).

The detail of how the Government will consider which organisations to specify has still to be worked through. However, we envisage that the data-sharing by public authorities, which is enabled by Clause 61, will be made subject to some sort of code of practice—a matter to which I intend to refer when we discuss Amendments Nos. 96, 97 and 98. The terms of that code would obviously need to be subject to prior consultation. An important test for any prospective specified anti-fraud organisation—or organisations; there could be a number—would be a willingness and ability to comply with the requirements of any code if public authorities were to disclose information to it for the purposes of preventing fraud. That could be a central test.

However, we would not want to go so far as to suggest how any specified anti-fraud organisation should go about its business. We would see that as a matter for the organisation and would not wish to impose any pre-set mechanism. I hope that that brief explanation helps to give the House some idea of how the Government envisage anti-fraud organisations being specified.

The noble Baroness asked about the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee report and the affirmative resolution procedure. She will know that the DPRRC said that the negative resolution procedure was an appropriate method of designating a body, and we accepted that assertion. The affirmative resolution procedure is appropriate for orders under Clause 62 but not under Clause 61. I hope that the noble Baroness will be content with that, and I am happy to have been able to put that explanation on the record for the purpose of clarity.

Baroness Carnegy of Lour: My Lords, before the noble Baroness sits down and with the leave of the House, did I understand that the Government expect three or more anti-fraud organisations to be designated?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, we have not specified the number; we have simply said that there will be more than one. Potentially, a number of organisations will put themselves forward for consideration. We agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, that it would not be right to have a monopoly of just one. Therefore, we will set a code or benchmark to govern the way in which these organisations operate, but it would be improper and wrong for me to suggest that there would be two, three or more. The most important thing is to make a judgment about which

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organisation or organisations may be fit for this purpose. However, as the noble Baroness has indicated and as others have also said, it is clear that it would be wrong to have only one, because that would create a monopoly and we do not think that that would be right.

Baroness Anelay of St Johns: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister. Her elucidation has taken us further than we managed to get in Committee. In particular, she affirmed clearly that there would be more than one organisation. I am grateful to my noble friend Lady Carnegy for trying to tease that out a little further. We shall have to come back to this matter when the negative instrument is put before the House, but it is important that there is not a monopoly. I am grateful to the Government for putting that clearly on the record.

I understand that the Bill leaves the matter of the process open and I understand why the Minister argues that it should be left open, subject to the code of practice issues to which we will turn our debate shortly.

Before Third Reading, I will go back to those who briefed noble Lords in order to check that no further clarification needs to be achieved. If further clarification is needed, it may well be better achieved outside the House and not at Third Reading, where our rules are much more tightly drawn concerning which amendments are allowed. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 62 [Offence for certain further disclosures of information]:

[Amendment No. 95 not moved.]

3.30 pm

Baroness Anelay of St Johns moved Amendment No. 96:

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, the purpose of the amendment is to ensure that the information commissioner has the right to carry out assessments of data processing under Clauses 61 to 65 of his own volition. He would not have to wait for an invitation to do so. In Committee we debated at some length the importance of the oversight that should be carried out by the information commissioner.

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