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The Minister referred to the Senior Salaries Review Body, but surely that will not look at the structure of the scheme. It might consider the benefits and so on,
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Lord McKenzie of Luton: That is the point that I was going to make. I am a little unclear as to the remit of the SSRB, but I accept that it is more likely to be focused on benefit levels and financial arrangements than on the structure of the scheme.
Lord Fowler: The Minister has made a good offeralthough it is slightly qualified by what the noble Lord, Lord Naseby, saidabout having talks with the Leader of the House or making representations, however one wants to put it. Perhaps I could meet him, as a Treasury Minister, to express some of our reservations. That could perhaps run in tandem.
Lord McKenzie of Luton: I am happy to be involved in that. I should stress that I speak as a DWP Minister these days; I used to do Treasury stuff in the Whips Office. I am sure that we can get the right officials around the table to explore these issues in more detail. Obviously it is outside my power to say how this matter might be taken forward but, given the concerns expressed, that would be a good first step. I am happy to commit to that, to facilitate engagement with the Leader of the House of Commons and, if communications have not been speedy enough in the past, to see what we can do to move them forward. I do not know where this might head at the end of the dayI cannot commit to thatbut there is a real issue and I am happy to commit to working with noble Lords to see what movement we may be able to make. That is as far as I am able to go today.
Lord Fowler: I am grateful. I should say to the noble Lord, Lord Naseby, that I am extremely grateful for his contribution. It was no part of my intention to fall out with him, with the present trustees or with the chairman. I went out of my way, I hope, in my opening remarks to pay tribute particularly to the chairman. What my noble friend and I have been saying on the individual case is exactly the initial position of the trustees themselves. We are not concerned about individuals; we are concerned about the structure and about Parliament setting down regulations, rules and restrictions that apply to everyone else but, when it comes to its own scheme, saying that that would be going far too far. The answer to whether it was 1993, 1983 or 1973 is that the whole thing has moved on and we are getting into a much more modern and sensible pension structure. That is why the scheme should be looked at.
I am grateful for the manner in which the Minister has replied. My colleagues and I shall certainly take up the offer that he has made that, perhaps simultaneously, we should talk to the Leader of the House and, through his good offices, to Ministers on a way forward. On that basis, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
(1) The Secretary of State may by regulations make provision authorising the Secretary of State, or a person providing services to the Secretary of State, to supply relevant persons with social security information about persons in receipt of state pension credit.
(3) Regulations under this section must specify the purposes for which information may be supplied by virtue of subsection (1), which must be purposes in connection with enabling the provision of assistance to persons in receipt of state pension credit.
social security information means information held by or on behalf of the Secretary of State and obtained as a result of, or for the purpose of, the exercise of the Secretary of States functions in relation to social security;
The noble Lord said: I shall speak also to Amendment No. 141E. Amendment No. 136A would allow the Secretary of State to make regulations to share data on pension credit recipients with energy suppliers. It also allows energy suppliers to share customer data in order to identify people to whom they can provide assistance with the cost of their fuel bills. These powers would come into force on Royal Assent so that the required regulations can be introduced soon after. These regulations will be subject to full parliamentary scrutiny.
Energy supply companies have, for some time, been asking for the Government to provide them with benefits data to enable them to target their social offerings on the people who most need them. Recently, Sam Laidlaw, the chief executive of Centrica, said in an Energy Select Committee debate on 24 June:
We recognise that this is an important new step in the use of government information. The amendment would legitimise for the first time the supply of DWP information to multiple private commercial bodies. The Government recognise that this naturally gives rise to concern and I can assure noble Lords that we have not acted hastily. We have involved all the major stakeholders and have their support. The Fuel Poverty Advisory Group has strongly advocated the sharing of government data with energy suppliers. We have also gained support for a beneficial data share from organisations representing older people such as Help the Aged, Age Concern and the CAB, and from those representing energy consumers such as energywatch, National Energy Action and uSwitch. They recognise that the sharing of government data is not to be taken lightly but, on balance, welcome this as an important development in getting to people direct help with their fuel bills.
In addition to the legal safeguards already available through the Data Protection Act 1998, the amendment allows the Secretary of State to provide in regulations for a new criminal offence to penalise anyone who unlawfully discloses these data. We have also involved the Information Commissioner in our proposals and we will continue to work closely with his office on the detail to ensure that all practices are fully compliant with the highest standards of data handling, including their security.
We will be working closely with energy suppliers, BERR and Defra over the coming months to ensure the detail of the use of the data and to make sure these agreements are sound and enforceable. We say to energy suppliers that it is up to them to make this work and we have started discussions with them on the detail of their offer of assistance to pension credit recipients. It may reassure noble Lords that we will share our customers information only when we are satisfied that what is on offer from the energy suppliers is good enough to warrant data-sharing. The offer must be proportionate and customers must be offered a guaranteed benefit. We recognise there may be some concerns that once the suppliers have the information, they may use it for purposes other than awarding help with fuel costs, but each supplier will receive data only on their existing customers and these data may be used only for purposes in connection with enabling the provision of assistance to persons in receipt of state pension credit. Noble Lords will remember that last year the Government secured, by voluntary agreement, extra spending from energy suppliers to help vulnerable groups. This amendment builds on that and allows energy suppliers to identify and offer help with fuel bills to some of the poorest pensioners. I beg to move.
Lord Skelmersdale: The Ministers amendment to this Bill has, to a certain extent, been foreshadowed by an amendment tabled by my noble friend Lord Jenkin of Roding to the Energy Bill on 1 July relating to the sharing of information with the energy companies to help them identify those vulnerable to fuel poverty. The Minister has explained the predicament. In
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We must be sure that any sensitive information being shared can deliver the outcomes that we are looking for, is appropriately protected because the safeguards are in place and can be delivered in a way that is consistent with data protection and human rights legislation.
All of this I fully agree with. The information we are talking about sharing is intensely personal. To hand over private financial information without the proper safeguards would be worse than irresponsible. That the information is a marker of poverty makes it yet more sensitive. How many more pensionersthe whole exercise is not about pensioners per sewould choose to suffer rather than accept state handouts if they were not completely confident that such a step would remain confidential? The Minister might incidentally balk at the word handouts but I have used it and I will stick by it.
We cannot accept that pensioners are going to be made guinea pigs in this exercise. Can the Minister explain why the Government have decided to treat pensioners like what one of my noble friends recently described as a canary down a coal mine? They are proceeding with this amendment and have announced their intention to implement a policy of sharing sensitive information when they have admitted that the entire process has not been fully thought through and the safeguards they know are necessary have not been finalised. Either the Government have done the necessary groundwork and my noble friends amendment is perfectly reasonable and proportionatealthough clearly the noble Lords colleague thought notor much more work must be done before any data-sharing can be thought of.
The noble Lord said that the information of fuel companies must be good enough. I should be extremely grateful if he could expand on that rather remarkable statement. In the way that he said it, I found it not exactly readily explicable. Does the Minister not consider a more responsible way forward would be to establish how a power was going to be used before coming to Parliament and demanding it? Before he responds, I suggest to him that using the word flexible when talking about what he considers to be acceptable standards of safety would not be appropriate.
Lord Kirkwood of Kirkhope: I have a brief contribution to make on this important change being introduced by the Government. First, I assume from the way in which the Minister introduced the amendment that the regulations that will flow as a consequence will be affirmative and not negative. I see him nodding, which is a comfort, because it is important for Parliament to be careful about how this power is used. I am in favour of data-sharing, and very much in favour of using the technology sensitively to produce better services for our most financially disadvantaged families.
There is an issue of consent here, which slightly troubles me, because I know from previous experience that a number of pensioner householders in this country do not want to apply for pension credit. They do not want to become involved in the system at all as a matter of principle. Those who do want to become involved in it still consider it, rightly or wrongly, to have a stigma attached to it. When the Government and the electricity and gas-supplying authorities get together to share this information, they must be very careful about how they use it, because they are using it without consent. I guess it is impossible to acquire the consent of everyone involved and to be able to take advantage of some of the consequences that might flow from it. However, we must be very careful about consent as we go down this route.
This issue will probably expand, rather than contract, in the way in which the Government interface with financially disadvantaged households. I am keen to hear more about how the Government will handle informed consent, and I will certainly raise the matter in proceedings on any affirmative regulations that come before the House as a result of this amendment to the primary legislation.
The issue of fuel poverty is hugely important now. We are living at a time when energy prices will stay high. They may not all be in the $150-per-barrel league, but we are far removed from $30 a barrel and are not going back to itof that I am absolutely certain. The Government must therefore do everything that they can to anticipate the hardship that is an inevitable consequence for disadvantaged households in this country. Fuel poverty will become even worse because the economy will, at least in the immediate future, see something of a downturn. For all these reasons, urgent action needs to be taken.
If this all works, and if everything that can go right does go right, we may end up with a two-way dialogue that gives information back to the DWP and that informs it, perhaps for the first time, that things are much worse in some of these households than it currently imagines. The Government cannot simply say that it is for the electricity and gas-supply industries to deal with the consequences, although there are lots of important things that can be addressed, such as metering and the unfair treatment of people who pay cash and do not have debit cards or pay by direct debit. We all know about this. Some issues have been on the stocks for many years that need actively to be resolved. Surely the DWP must accept some responsibility if the flow of information that starts as a result of this amendment throws up new situations. It should be big enough to stand behind that change, recognise that it
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Lord Mogg: It may be a little surprising that I enter for the first time into such a dramatic Bill as this, but declaring my interest as the chairman of Ofgem, the energy regulator, may explain my interest in the debate. It might be useful to give notably the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, a little of the background to this welcome proposal, introduced by the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie.
The authority, which I chair, is under statutory guidance, issued by Parliament, to pay particular attention to fuel poverty. That measure was introduced several years ago. The problem is now reaching crisis proportions because of existing and anticipated price rises; the newspapers speak of very high percentage increases over the next few months. My concern as the authority chair, and as an individual, is to act under the authoritys responsibilities. Fuel poverty is of profound importance in dealing with such a large population in their day-to-day activities. I should draw the attention of the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, to the fact that pensioners over the age of 60 represent 50 per cent of those in fuel poverty in this country.
Lord Mogg: I am grateful for that intervention and will come to it at the end of my contribution. What will the Government do for people in fuel poverty? It is such a huge problem; we estimate that 3.5 million to 4 million households are already affected, and the figure could go up to 5 million. Among those affected are single occupancy households and really quite poor pensioners, and I do not forget single mothers, the disabled and the disadvantaged. My question to the Minister is: what do the Government intend doing to make similar provisions? This assumes a satisfactory negotiation of the regulations, which we will come to in relation to this Bill. Can the Minister give a clear indication that all the extra money provided voluntarily during the last Budget will not be absorbed by this particular group, important though it is?
I now give some background. It was interesting that the Minister did not mention my own organisation, Ofgem, the gas and electricity markets authority. In April it held a fuel poverty summit, which I chaired. The important point is not that I chaired it but that there were five Ministers present, including one from Wales, two Secretaries of State and five of the six major energy suppliers. Of even greater significance, the front-line agencies that deal with this issue face to face were present. They had seen the worst of the issue and the breadth of the problems. All sides of the argument were in the room. The purpose of the summit was, not to tell the Government to supply more money, although my authority has been among those saying that, because fuel poverty is of such importance; rather, it was to say, crudely, let us try to get the best bang for the bucks, and to ensure that the money already in the
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From the summit, a few weeks later, a fuel action plan, involving all parties, was produced to try to tackle thisI will not burden your Lordships with the range of issues raised. I underline with passionif I may use the word in this Housethat it is important that this is dealt with now and in the future. What came very clearly out of the discussions was the need for government help in this area. While I understand the concern of the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, over the remaining half, it was vital that for the first time the Government were willing to address the problem of using the resources and information they have properly protectedan important point, again, to which I will comefor dealing with this.
I draw noble Lords attention to Age Concerns analysis; it gives a cautious welcome to the measure, precisely because of the DWP data that will help energy suppliers to identify those most in need, rather than the scattergun approach that tends to be taken. I hope all sides supported rapid progress with the measure. I pay tribute to Mr OBrien for the measure he took and the speed with which he seized the opportunity to use this, if I may say so, slow-moving legislation to open a door that had been bolted as a policy issue and a methodology. What we need, of course, are regulations, hence the Bill. These are of central importance to identify who will be targetedI understand that it is to be the over-70s on benefits, or perhaps an even older group. The figures are large even on that basis. Moreover, the data security will be protected not only from the Governments point of view, but also from that of suppliers, because they will use the information to identify their customers in order that the two sides can meet.
Thirdly, on how this system would operate in practice, I understand very well the concerns of noble Lords opposite about possible abuses. Indeed, in the past the Government have had one or two problems in this area. I am grateful for the confidence shown in my own organisation when it was suggested that it should be the intermediary between the twothe trusted third party to manage the process. I think I have convinced the Government that we are not the right body because we are not experienced in large data manipulation, but it is important that there should be a trusted intermediary capable of managing large amounts of data. That is not unusual; many organisations have such experience.
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