§ 3.41 p.m.
§ Read a third time.
§ Clause 1 [Additional powers to obtain information]:
§ Lord Higgins moved Amendment No. 1:
§ Page 2, line 21, at end insert—
§ ("() Requests from a fraud inspector in a local authority for an authorised officer to obtain information from any of the bodies listed above shall be made through a central organisation.").
§ The noble Lord said: My Lords, I believe that in considering Amendment No. 1 it would be helpful to look also at Amendment No. 2, which is somewhat similar but deals with offices of the Department of Social Security rather than local authorities.
§ The Bill before us at Third Reading is significantly different from that which your Lordships considered at Second Reading. In many respects the Bill is a. great deal better, and a number of our concerns have been put at rest. There remain some concerns, to which I shall refer a little later this afternoon. One of the important concerns is the need to ensure that a request for information from the various outside bodies listed in Clause 1—telecommunications companies, credit agencies, banks and so on—is made at minimum cost and as effectively as possible. We have debated two particular aspects of the matter: first, whether the inquiries will be directed to a central point in the organisation which is asked to provide the information; secondly, whether the request for the information itself should also be centralised.
§ We made some progress in this matter at earlier stages, but concern is still expressed, for example by British Telecom, that, although there may be one central point through which inquiries are made, there may be a considerable number of authorised officers at each point. Each will need to be authorised, and that authorisation must be checked by the information providers. Therefore, a considerable burden is placed on those who give the department or local authority the information that it requires to try to detect fraud. It would be helpful, therefore, if the Minister assisted 317 noble Lords, as she has in relation to many previous amendments, by explaining the extent of the problem that has been brought to our attention.
§ As I understand it, first, it is proposed that as far as concerns the department's own inquiries the task should be done regionally, but there will be a considerable number of regions, and authorised officers within them, to be validated. Can the noble Baroness give an idea of exactly how many are likely to be involved, and whether it is possible to centralise the whole operation rather than do it on a regional basis as far as concern the department's inquiries?
§ Secondly, I turn to local authority inquiries. As we understand it, some local authorities will be authorised by the Secretary of State and their own authorised officers will make inquiries. On the other hand, we understand that a number of local authorities will not be authorised by the Secretary of State. Can the Minister provide some idea of the criteria on which such authorisation will be made and the approximate scale of the problem? There are about 400 local authorities. At the moment, we are not clear what percentage of local authorities with their own officers will be authorised and the percentage which will be, so to speak, under an umbrella. At all events, it means that this system is far from the situation in which, say, a bank receives applications for information from a single central point. It will be considerably diffused over a large number of local authorities and a smaller number of DSS regional offices.
§ It has been suggested that there should be a central clearing office for local authority disclosure requests similar to that which is in effect—perhaps I may have the attention of the noble Baroness—with trading standards officers. Apparently, that is centralised to a greater extent than is now envisaged by the department. Obviously, it is important to reduce costs. As the noble Baroness is aware, in that respect particular concerns are being expressed by local authorities. Before we say farewell to the Bill and it goes to another place, I believe it is helpful to be clearer as to the exact extent to which the Government envisage it will be possible to centralise requests for information either within local authorities or the department itself. I beg to move.
§ 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 318 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 319 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 sonic 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 320 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 hank 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 321 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 322 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.
323 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.
§ Lord Astor of Hever
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for that reply. I must be frank and say that we are still concerned about this issue. It is an area of great concern to the outside bodies that have been in touch with us. I take her point that the EOs will be properly trained. I also take her point that they will be supervised, although, of course, they can still make decisions themselves. I disagree with one point made by the noble Baroness. She said that this is not traffic data but communications data. I hope that these points can be tightened up in the revised code of conduct. In the mean time, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ Baroness Hollis of Heigham moved Amendment No. 4:
§ Page 3, line 18, at end insert—
§ ("() For subsection (5) of that section (protection from self incrimination) there shall be substituted—
§ "(5) No one shall be required under this section to provide—
- (a) any information that tends to incriminate either himself or, in the case of a person who is married, his spouse; or
- (b) any information in respect of which a claim to legal professional privilege or, in Scotland, confidentiality as between client and professional legal adviser, would be successful in any proceedings;
§ The noble Baroness said: My Lords, in moving Amendment No. 4, I wish to speak also to Amendment No. 5, which is consequential to it. I hope that the House will welcome the amendments.
§ On Report, I agreed to bring forward an amendment to exempt information subject to legal professional privilege from that which could be obtained under these powers. That was in response to concerns raised from both Opposition Benches about the information to which authorised officers could gain access, particularly in the context of organisations that might be added to the list of persons that could be required to provide information.
§ This amendment amends the current Section 109B(5), which exempts self incriminating information from that which can be required by an authorised officer. It restates the exemption that no one shall be required to provide information whereby he might incriminate himself or, in the case of a person who is married, his spouse, and includes a new exemption that no one shall be required to provide information which is subject to legal professional privilege or its equivalent in Scotland. The wording is closely aligned to that used to exempt information subject to legal professional privilege in the Data Protection Act 1998 and the Freedom of Information Act 2000.
§ The term "legal professional privilege" is well understood. It has been ruled upon over many years by the courts, and is thus well defined in case law. The 324 amendment will prevent authorised officers from requiring any confidential communications between a legal adviser and his client for the purposes of giving or receiving legal advice, or any information obtained or documentation prepared for the purposes of legal proceedings. So we would be able to require details of financial information provided to a building society in the application for a loan to buy a property. But we would not be able to obtain any information which, for example, related to advice that the building society's lawyer may have given about the ownership of the property in question for the purpose of settling a property dispute.
§ The exemption would not extend to any information provided by a person to his solicitor for the purpose of furthering an offence. I am sure the House will understand that. For example, if a person cashed stolen giro cheques and used a "bent" lawyer to transfer the money overseas, the communication that led to the transfer would not be protected. That would depend on whether the lawyer knew where the money had come form; I suspect that in some cases the lawyer might. It would also not enable a person to hide from these provisions merely by using a bank's lawyer instead of another officer in the bank. The privilege applies only to communications arising in the context of the relationship between a professional legal adviser and client.
§ Thus, I think that we have protected a person's ability to communicate frankly with his lawyer for the purposes of legal advice and legal representation while ensuring that he cannot use this protection to continue committing benefit fraud by laundering information and evade punishment for doing so. I hope that noble Lords will welcome the amendments. I have done my best to meet the legitimate and proper concerns of the House and I am very glad to be bringing the amendments forward today. I beg to move.
§ Lord Astor of Hever
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for coming back to the House with these amendments. They meet our concerns precisely. We are grateful to her.
§ Earl Russell
My Lords, I thank the Minister warmly for these amendments. She has developed a habit on this Bill of producing more than she promised. That is a good habit. I was telling the Minister only, but my remarks are addressed as properly to the House.
There is a larger problem here. I did not think that the Minister would succeed in addressing the whole of the problem, and the noble Baroness knows that. She has addressed a rather larger problem even than I hoped when we left the matter on Report. There remains the problem of the confidentiality of financial advice from, for example, one's bank. I do not see an immediate way around that, but I did say that I thought that the Minister had promised all she possibly could deliver.
I like in particular paragraph (b) of the amendment, which privileges,any information in respect of which a claim to legal professional privilege…would he successful in any proceedings".325 That meets the fact that the common law has a capacity for growth, which it continues to exercise. That is something not always appreciated by legislators quite as clearly as it might be. In the future, it will save us a great deal of trouble. For that, too, I thank the Minister.
§ On Question, amendment agreed to.
§ Baroness Hollis of Heigham moved Amendment No. 5:
§ Page 3, line 19, leave out ("subsection (5) of that section") and insert ("that subsection").
§ On Question, amendment agreed to.
§ Clause 3 [Code of practice about use of information powers]:
§ Lord Higgins moved Amendment No. 6:
§ Page 7, line 13, after ("practice") insert ("covering—
- (a) benefits administered by the Department of Social Security, and
- (b) benefits administered by local authorities.
§ () The codes of conduct shall relate").
The noble Lord said: My Lords, this amendment relates to the code of practice, a draft of which the noble Baroness kindly provided at an earlier stage in our proceedings. If this amendment is agreed, the beginning of Clause 3 would read,
The Secretary of State shall issue a code of practice covering
The codes of conduct shall relate",
to the exercise of the various powers enumerated in remainder of the clause.
§ We thought it might be helpful, in the context of our discussions on Report as regards the code of practice, to bring to the attention of the Minister one or two points which might be of interest to her at this stage. The amendment as drafted reflects to some extent a misapprehension on my part. I had thought that we were to have two separate codes of practice but I now understand that there is to be a single code. The reason for the misunderstanding is that we already have a draft of the code to cover the position on inquiries made by the department. However, it appears that the Government are not yet in a position to add to it those parts relating to local authorities. Eventually, it is intended that all the elements will be brought together in a single document, which will then be authorised under this clause and thus put on to a statutory footing. The noble Baroness knows that we welcome that process.
§ We also understand that the remaining elements of the code covering local authorities will be made available to another place when it comes to consider the matter. It would be helpful if the noble Baroness could give an indication of whether that is likely to be around the time of the Commons Second Reading or by the beginning of the Committee stage, given that, in due course, we may be under the restraints imposed by an impending general election. It would be helpful to 326 know the timetable covering when we shall have an opportunity to review the remaining parts of the draft code which she has already promised will be made available to us.
§ A further point which remains a little confusing in the draft is the proliferation of officials, or perhaps it is merely a proliferation of the descriptions of a relatively small number of officials. On reading through the draft code, this appears to be something of a problem. I have established that reference is made not only to "authorised officers" and "fraud investigators" but also, for example, at paragraph 3.5, to "fraud specialists". I am not in the least clear about the distinction, if any, between a fraud investigator and a fraud specialist. If all these titles refer to the same official, then that will not help matters.
§ Reference is also made to "managers of intelligence units". I am not clear about their functions. Furthermore, the code mentions "officers dealing with inquiries". Are those officers the same people as either fraud investigators or fraud specialists, or neither? Even more surprisingly, certain people are described as "decision makers". Are such decision makers the same people as authorised officers—
§ Lord Higgins
My Lords, in that case, I am now completely confused, as will be anyone who reads the code of practice. We need to be clear about whether decision makers are separate from the other individuals to whom I have referred.
It might also be helpful at this stage, in preparation for the Bill's imminent translation to another place, to be told a little more precisely how the Bill is to operate. We understand that the fraud investigator will carry out an initial inquiry and then, provided that he has convinced himself under the terms set out in paragraph 3.6 that the inquiries he proposes to make are "legitimate and necessary", he will then approach the authorised officer and state, "Now I should like you to obtain for me the information from the banks, the credit rating offices and so forth". However, the decision on whether to pursue that course rests solely with the authorised officer. It does not rest with the investigating inspector, under any of his pseudonyms.
§ Lord Higgins
My Lords, if the noble Baroness looks through our earlier deliberations in Hansard, she may find references to that title. Can the noble Baroness outline briefly the process here, in particular in the light of the points made in our previous debate as regards the level of competence at which different functions are to be carried out?
Having made those points, I acknowledge that it has been helpful to have seen the first part of the draft code. We look forward to seeing the remainder in due 327 course. I imagine that we shall then have an opportunity to consider it further if the Bill comes back to us. I beg to move.
§ 4.15 p.m.
§ Earl Russell
My Lords, the Minister will be aware that the Local Government Association has expressed concern about this matter which I think may be appropriately repeated in this House. Yesterday, local authorities were not particularly conspicuous among the recipients of something that might be described as a little smaller than "largesse". One might refer to it as "medium-sizedess".
Local authorities have experienced a bad 15 to 20 years and are now under considerable financial pressure. The Local Government Association has said that:Any additional cost of administration should, however, be borne by national not local government as it is central government that will gain from the reduction in social security expenditure (estimated at between £200m and £400m per annum)".Prima facie, that sounds like a fair point. I am sure that the Minister will say that a certain amount of additional money has been made available in line with inflation. However, she will be equally aware that a number of other tasks, which add considerably to the daily work of local authority housing benefit departments, have come in at the same time. Most notable among those are: the verification framework, which provides a much more backbreaking burden of work for local authority housing benefit departments; the change in housing benefit to payments in arrears; the single room rent; the local reference rent and a good deal more. All these changes have made the conditions covering benefit entitlement rather more onerous.
To add to this a further burden of work which will fall on local authorities and to expect them to pay for it, in a situation where, unlike a private business, they cannot increase their own prices or turnover and where they operate subject to fairly strict central government control, might, at the receiving end, look a little like a vice.
I hope that the Minister might take account of this situation and, before we go into local elections, that she will think about providing us with local authorities which are a bit more financially viable than some of them, in London and elsewhere, are at the moment.
§ Baroness Hollis of Heigham
My Lords, I do not think that I need to say much in terms of explaining how the code of practice will operate because the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, has clarified his position on this and he is right. It is precisely because we want the training and powers of authorised officials, whether in the DSS or local authorities, and the way that they exercise those powers to be absolutely the same and to common standards that we are going for a common code of practice. This has the support of the Local Authority Association. Its view is that where DSS and local authority staff are governed by the same powers, 328 it would prefer them to be governed by the same code. It supports us in drafting one code to cover both the DSS and local authorities.
The noble Lord is absolutely right in his understanding of how this system will operate. It is not yet in the draft because we are still in continuous negotiations with those bodies. The draft which embodies their views and how it will reflect on local authorities will be available, I fear, not at Second Reading but at Committee stage in the other place. None the less, it will be available in good enough time.
As to the second question of the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, as regards language, I take his point. Indeed, our officials have taken his point and they will be going through the code to clarify the language and to ensure that we do not scatter words around. The noble Lord is right, for example, that "fraud investigators" and "fraud specialists" are the same people.
Perhaps I may explain how the system will operate. As in the DSS, there are in local authorities specialist fraud teams which carry out the day-to-day work of checking whether a person is living at the address from which he or she is claiming housing benefit—that is now current practice within local authorities—in the same way that we make approximately 500,000 visits every year to check on the validity of income support and JSA claims and so on. These are the fraud investigators or the fraud specialists; we need a common language.
However, in order to obtain information beyond that which they are normally empowered to gather, under the additional information powers in the Bill they will have to have authorisation from authorised officers, as the noble Lord rightly identified. Those authorised officers, in turn, are managed by the managers of the regional intelligence units in which they are grouped, who will be HEOs, SEOs or more senior.
The decision makers are those people who make the determination of benefit following this information. It is extremely important that, as with the Inland Revenue, you have a Chinese wall between the people making inquiries, the fraud investigators and so on, on the ground—and, indeed, even the authorised officials who authorise the right to pursue certain kinds of information—and the decision makers who will determine whether a benefit is to be altered or continued following receipt of the information. This is a crucial piece of independence throughout the social security system. That is their function.
The noble Earl, Lord Russell, raised a third point. He will forgive me if I do not respond to his bait for a general debate on the local authority financial settlement as reflected in the Budget during the consideration of an amendment on a code of practice at Third Reading.
As the noble Earl will know, local authorities will have a settlement in line with inflation in terms of housing benefits management. They will also, of course, be enjoying a reduced caseload. They will receive an increase of 2.5 per cent to handle a reduced caseload. In that sense, there should be an 329 improvement in real terms in their situation. I am sure that many local authorities will not consider this adequate, but that, I am afraid, is part of an on-going debate between another government department and local authorities when determining the annual financial settlement. I cannot help the noble Earl beyond that.
In the light of my explanation, I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, will feel able to withdraw his amendment. I hope that I have been able to clarify the points he raised.
§ Lord Higgins
My Lords, the Minister has been typically helpful in her reply. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ Clause 7 [Loss of benefit for commission of benefit offences]:
§ Earl Russell moved Amendment No. 7:
§ Page 11, line 26, leave out ("shall") and insert ("may").
§ The noble Earl said: My Lords, in terms of wording, this is a very familiar amendment; it seeks to delete the word "shall" and to replace it with the word "may". The effect of the amendment is to make the benefit disentitlement in what is now Clause 7 no longer a mandatory sentence. We on these Benches are opposed in principle to mandatory sentences. This is a mandatory sentence; therefore we object to it as we do to the others.
§ I remember very vividly the noble and learned Lord, Lord Bingham of Cornhill, speaking on the Second Reading of the Crime (Sentences) Bill in 1996, pointing out that when you try to exclude discretion in one place it has the effect of making it creep in somewhere else. I doubt whether this will be an exception.
§ If the Minister looks at her reply to me on Report on Clause 6, she will see that she was herself admitting that some offences of benefit fraud are of much greater gravity than others. As soon as you admit that while at the same time giving an equal punishment to all cases of benefit fraud, you invite the response that you might as well be hung for a sheep as lamb—which, of course, was originally a response to a mandatory sentence. So a certain amount of discretion in this area could be valuable.
§ It is also fairly clear that between fraud and error there is a very wide grey area. Within that grey area there are a great many shades, some of them very dark indeed and some of them very pale indeed. To deprive the courts of the power to respond to these differences between shades of grey is something which, among other consequences, may have the effect of reducing the rate of conviction, which, I think, is not what the Minister intends.
§ Thinking again today about Clause 7 and about the appropriate penalties under this Bill, I wonder why the Government have not provided any penalty as an alternative to loss of benefit. The Minister will remember that she gave me a lot of examples on Report of social security fraudsters who never had any 330 benefit entitlement in the first place; who, by losing their benefit entitlement are losing something that they will not particularly mind losing. I would rather see the Government with something else up their sleeve to use in such cases. I have not ventured to suggest any particular alternative because of some doubt about what the Minister would regard as an appropriate level of gravity on which to base it.
§ The Bill is not yet concluded. The Government have time to think about providing an alternative if they think that is appropriate. Meanwhile, the arguments about the mandatory sentence are familiar and I believe they stand. I beg to move.
§ Baroness Hollis of Heigham
My Lords, I shall come on to the intended effect of the amendment in a moment but, for the record, perhaps I may point out what the actual effect will be. To do so, I need to set out subsection (3) of Clause 7, which this amendment seeks to change, in the context of the rest of Clause 7. I am looking to the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, to tell me whether my drafting is incorrect or is fine.
Subsection (2) of Clause 7 provides that, subject to the exceptions created by subsections (3) to (5), no sanctionable benefit is payable during the 13 weeks sanction period where a person is twice convicted as defined in subsection (1). Subsection (3) of Clause 7 provides the power to make regulations providing for income support to be paid, albeit at a reduced rate, during the sanction period. By changing "shall" to "may", the application of those regulations—that is, the payment of any income support— would become optional; or, as the noble Earl would say, discretionary. However, the provision would set no criteria on which to base a decision not to pay any income support at all. I am sure that the House will agree that this would be fraught with danger, far from good legislation and very unwise.
It may even have the opposite effect to the one that the noble Earl, Lord Russell, intends. I think he intends—we are talking about wording—to seek a discretion to disapply the sanction in certain circumstances. This would mean that claimants on income support could be treated differently from those on other sanctionable benefits. It would also create the potential for disparity of treatment within the income support client group. It would be possible for two claimants, both receiving income support, both having been twice convicted of identical benefit frauds, to receive different decisions on whether the sanction was applicable.
It envisages a state of affairs where a family on income support might not be subject to the sanction because an officer felt that their circumstances did not merit it, whereas a family in identical circumstances, but receiving JSA, would automatically be subject to it. This cannot be fair, but would become a possibility were the amendment to be accepted.
It would also be unfair in another way. The sanction is designed to catch those who repeatedly cheat the benefit system. This is defined not by reference to whether there has been an over-payment of benefit or 331 to the investigating officer's opinion on the claimant's motives, but by the decision of the court. The person must be found, or plead, guilty to benefit fraud not just once but twice. So it is a matter of fact that the person has defrauded the system twice. If a person disagrees that he has been so convicted, there is, of course, a right of appeal.
Having established the fact that a person has been twice convicted, the next question to be established is whether he is entitled to a sanctionable benefit and at what rate, if any, it should be paid during the period of the sanction.
As noble Lords will appreciate, and as we discussed during the earlier stages of the Bill, the effect on benefit will depend on the person's family circumstances. The standard rate by which income support will be reduced will be 40 per cent of the personal allowance—£20.90 at current rates. But that will be ameliorated where a member of the family is pregnant or seriously ill. In such a case benefit will be reduced by 20 per cent of the personal allowance—£10.45 at current rates. For those on income support and jobseeker's allowance (income based), housing costs will, if they are in rented accommodation, continue to be met through housing benefit. Again, there will be a right of appeal.
This package of safeguards ensures that application of the sanction will not put vulnerable people at risk. I believe that the element of discretion that the noble Earl is seeking to introduce in this aspect is, therefore, unnecessary. As I say, it is already the case that someone who is vulnerable will have legal protection, as we have specified, and will have a much reduced sanction as a result.
I understand what the noble Earl is seeking to achieve. However, I believe that he is turning the issue into a lottery as regards which benefit a person is receiving—for example, whether he is receiving income support or JSA—and what opinion the investigating officer might have of the claimant's motives, rather than leaving it to the independent judgment of the court. I believe that that would be an unwise route to follow. With that explanation, I trust that the noble Earl will feel able to withdraw his amendment.
§ 4.30 p.m.
§ Baroness Amos
My Lords, I should remind my noble friend that this is the Third Reading stage of the Bill, and the Minister has already spoken.
§ Earl Russell
My Lords, if the noble Lord wishes to intervene before the Minister sits down, I believe that that would be in order.
§ Earl Russell
My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply, which was both careful and thoughtful. Indeed, one would expect no less of her. Some parts of her response I take very seriously; some parts of it are 332 worth considerable thought; and some I take rather less seriously than others. Clearly my amendment was not correctly drafted. I returned to the House after illness just two hours before the last time for tabling amendments. I offer the Minister my apologies in that respect.
The difference between the treatment of income support and JSA is clearly indefensible. Had I been minded—which I was not—to press the amendment, that would have been sufficient to dissuade me from so doing. However, when the Minister talks about lotteries, I am slightly less persuaded than she hoped. The noble Baroness says that my proposal would mean that two cases of benefit fraud would not be treated identically. I do not have any problem with that: two cases of dangerous driving are not treated identically, as we were painfully reminded yesterday. Two cases of dangerous driving are not necessarily equally iniquitous or equally serious. The same goes for two cases of benefit fraud.
I believe that it is perfectly proper, and has been for a long time, for sentences to be appropriate to the particular case before the court. That was all that I sought to achieve. I do not believe that there is any great problem involved. The Minister invoked the categories of vulnerable people. I believe that she knows that I am not quite as impressed by that as she would wish: first, because I do not believe that there is spare fat on income support to allow sanctions below income support level to provide adequate support for vulnerable people; and, secondly, I have never been able to persuade myself that vulnerability is entirely confined to those categories that happen to have been foreseen by the DSS.
In particular, I asked the Minister a question during the last stage. I have asked her previously and, as she has raised the point, I shall take the liberty of asking her this question again: can she tell us, before I withdraw the amendment, why in DSS thinking single people cannot be vulnerable? Is the Minister prepared to help me on that point?
§ Baroness Hollis of Heigham
My Lords, single people can be vulnerable if they have, for example, a disability. I am talking in broad, general DSS terms that do not apply specifically to this Bill. They can also be vulnerable if they are suffering from a severe illness and if they are pregnant. Similarly, former offenders, and so on, can be vulnerable. So single people can be vulnerable; but being single does not make them vulnerable. People may suffer from conditions that make them vulnerable, whether or not they are single or, indeed, are living in a family household.
§ Earl Russell
My Lords, they may not fall into a vulnerable category; they may be destitute without being vulnerable. This puzzles me. However, I do not believe that we shall move any further on the issue tonight. We shall have to return to it on a future occasion. The point is a general one, to which we shall also return in the future. In the meantime, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.333
§ Earl Russell moved Amendment No. 8:
§ Page 13, line 11, leave out from second ("references") to ("to") in line 13.
§ The noble Earl said: My Lords, this is another amendment that leads us to consider whether the mandatory sentence is entirely appropriate. It relates to the provision that says that references to a conviction shall include cases where the court makes an order for a conditional discharge. I made the point a short while ago that one case is not necessarily as severe as another. It is a reasonable presumption that a case where the court has ordered a conditional discharge is not as severe as one where the court has thought that something rather more serious was wanted.
§ I wonder whether there is a slightly "slot machine" approach in the insistence that cases involving a conditional discharge shall be treated as being of exactly the same level of gravity as anything else. I shall listen with great interest to the Minister's reply. I beg to move.
§ Baroness Hollis of Heigham
My Lords, the effect of this amendment would be that any conviction resulting in a conditional discharge would not count as a "strike" for the purposes of these provisions. It would have two additional effects: first, it would exclude around a third of our successful benefit fraud convictions in England and Wales from the scope of these provisions—something like one-third of those cases where someone is found guilty by the courts in England and Wales result in a conditional discharge. Secondly, it would create a disparity of treatment in relation to the application of the provisions in Scotland. I know that the noble Lord, Lord Astor, is keeping a watchful eye on such disparities.
We have given most careful consideration to the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, in Committee, which were raised again today by the noble Earl, Lord Russell. Where the court discharges the offender conditionally, we believe that that should be treated as a conviction for the purposes of these provisions. I could go into detailed argument on the matter, but it may assist the House if I give an example of the kind of situation that I have in mind.
I have before me some cuttings from the Derbyshire Times dated 22nd February 2001. One cutting describes how police were waiting when a woman tried to carry out her third benefit fiddle at a Post Office. I shall not give the woman's name, but she was given a replacement income support book after having reported her original book lost. She cashed one slip worth just under £100 from the "lost book", obtained a further £100 on a second visit and then called again for a third time at the Post Office. The police prosecuted. The woman admitted obtaining money by deception in November 1999. She had previous convictions for the same offence, for handling stolen goods and for conspiracy to defraud; and was given a one-year conditional discharge with £148 costs.
334 Far be it from me to comment on the appropriateness of the sentence; indeed, like your Lordships, I do not have knowledge of the full background. All I have for reference is the press cutting from a local newspaper. I looked through the other cuttings and found several cases that resulted in a conditional discharge; for example, someone was given a two-year discharge and asked for 22 other similar offences to be taken into account, and so on. In such circumstances, where something like a third of all those people found guilty are given a conditional discharge, I honestly do not believe it to be reasonable for us not to count that as a benefit offence for these purposes. We want those who have been found guilty but are given a conditional discharge—as I say, far be it for me to say that this is not an appropriate sentence—to take it seriously and to know that a repeated offence will jeopardise their benefit.
However, there is also a Scottish dimension to this issue. In Scotland, the nearest equivalent to a conditional discharge is an admonishment. As with conditional discharges in England and Wales, around a third of our successful prosecutions in Scotland result in admonishments. An admonishment is basically a "telling off" by the court. No other penalty is applied and there are no conditions applied. But under Scottish law an admonishment is a conviction.
If, as the noble Earl suggests, a conditional discharge in England or Wales is not to be treated as a conviction, we have an inherent disparity of treatment in relation to Scotland. We face the possibility of two people being treated differently either side of the Border. We would have a disparity of treatment regarding cases where a court in Scotland makes a probation order which my amendment on Report removed. As your Lordships may recall, under the Criminal Procedure (Scotland) Act 1995, such cases are deemed not to be convictions. However, the position in England and Wales differs in that cases where the court makes a probation order are convictions.
Therefore, not only do I think it inappropriate that conditional discharges should not be counted as a conviction—I have just referred to one case but I could have referred to many more—but the noble Earl's amendment would open up the very disparities in treatment between Scotland and Wales that previous amendments on Report sought to overcome.
However, I may be able to help the noble Earl in one respect. We have thought long and hard as to whether absolute discharges should be treated as convictions—these are a much rarer category, perhaps 10 or a dozen a year—and have concluded that they should not be so treated. It may be valuable to the House to spell that out. Although the person is undoubtedly guilty, the granting of an absolute discharge is equivalent to the court saying, "This case should not have been brought before us". It may be, for example, that the offender was suffering from post-natal depression or had recently suffered a bereavement which came to light 335 only at the hearing or in a pre-sentencing report provided by the Probation Service. Although at the time of the offence someone was in good health, at the time the sentence came to be determined that person may be found to be suffering from some serious illness.
In order to ensure parity of treatment both sides of the Border, we have decided—I hope that the House welcomes this—that absolute discharges should not be treated as convictions for the purposes of the benefit sanction. It is not on the face of the Bill and does not need to be given under the Powers of Criminal Courts (Sentencing) Act 2000. Given that we have responded to some of the earlier concerns of your Lordships and have made the decision that the very special cases of absolute discharges should be exempt, I hope that the noble Earl will feel that he has at least made some headway today and in the light of that will feel able to withdraw his amendment.
§ Earl Russell
My Lords, I thank the Minister warmly for those last remarks. It is a small mercy but it is a real one. For the rest, the argument is slightly less persuasive to me than perhaps the Minister hoped. I remember very vividly the farewell debate of Lord Taylor of Gosforth on the White Paper which preceded the Crime Sentences Bill. Noble and learned Lords packed the Cross Benches; they were almost solid. One speaker observed that it was impossible to know what had happened in a court case simply from reading the press reports. One could not know without reading the transcript. Every one of Her Majesty's judges nodded in unison as if the Mace had passed.
I think that applies to the case that the Minister quoted. It sounded a serious case but it raised two possibilities I have no idea whatever which of them might be appropriate. First, it is of course possible that the court may have been too lenient. Courts have been known to be so, as everyone else has. The other possibility is that there could have been a peculiar personal circumstance in the case. The remarks that the Minister made about post-natal depression in relation to the absolute discharge could, for example, perfectly well have applied in relation to the case we are discussing. I believe that neither she nor I has the first idea whether it did. It does seem to me to be inherent in just sentencing that it should be appropriate to the particular person who is in the dock as well as to the strict tariff slot-machine principle appropriate to the crime. We are not going in for a 10th century penitential in which an exact level of penance was laid down for every sin the confessor had imagined, no matter whether anyone had ever been known to commit it. There were some pretty strange sins in those days.
We are trying to do justice to individuals. There is something wrong with government thinking as a whole. However, it stretches far beyond the confines of any government or any party and, therefore, far beyond the confines of the Bill. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.336
§ 4.45 p.m.
§ Clause 13 [Interpretation of sections 7 to 12]:
§ Earl Russell moved Amendment No. 9:
§ Page 17, line 33, leave out (", credit or loan") and insert ("or credit").
§ The noble Earl said: My Lords, the amendment seeks to delete the words "or loan" from the list of things of which people may be deprived. It invites the Minister to set out what the position is under this Bill about sanctioning of Social Fund loans. Also I hope that she will provide—I have given the Minister notice of this—some explanation of the change in the guidelines on Social Fund loans of April 1999 which resulted in many more people than before being found too poor to receive them. We have had as yet in this House nothing like a full account of that. If the Minister wishes to tell me these two matters are totally independent of each other, I shall be glad to hear it. But as there is a serious possibility of a link between them, I think it could be useful to the House to hear it. I beg to move.
§ Baroness Hollis of Heigham
My Lords, I ought not to be tempted into a general debate on the Social Fund and its adequacy and success. All I would say is that since the discretionary fund was introduced in 1988 something like 17 million loans worth over £3 billion have been granted. In 1999–2000, over 2.2 million awards were made, providing help to more people than ever before. The gross budget for 2001. £596 million, was an increase of £60 million over the previous year's budget. I could go on and specify individual budgets. Both the number of people applying and the amount available to people in terms of the gross sums for the Social Fund have increased. Certainly all of the research from the CAB reports that the noble Earl will be familiar with suggests that the Social Fund by comparison with the alternatives, pawn shops, credit facilities and the like, is a safe, secure and affordable way for people to obtain a larger sum of money than they could normally have access to.
The amendment seeks to remove Social Fund loans from being counted as disqualifying benefits for the purposes of this part of the Bill, even though we know that fraud, particularly girocheque fraud, is not uncommon. I say at the outset that what we shall not do is sanction Social Fund loans. We accept that fraud may be committed against Social Fund loans, in which case it counts for the purposes of disqualifying benefit. But the cuts—that is, the sanctions—will not fall on the loan itself but on either income support or JSA in the first instance. I wonder whether I need to say more. We recognise that that threat may arise but we are protecting the loans for, I think, decent reasons; namely, that these loans are often paid in urgent or desperate situations and to sanction payment of them would be inconsistent with their purpose of seeking to prevent hardship. Therefore, we shall not do it.
§ Earl Russell
My Lords, the Minister has told me what I most wanted to hear. I thank her warmly and I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ An amendment (privilege) made.337
§ 4.50 p.m.
§ Baroness Hollis of Heigham
My Lords, I beg to move that the Bill do now pass.
Moved, That the Bill do now pass.—(Baroness Hollis of Heigham.)
§ Lord Higgins
My Lords, the Bill which we are now being asked to pass is very different from the Bill which the House received and debated at Second Reading. The Bill is in many respects a great deal better. I do not propose to detain the House by specifying all the various concessions which the Government have made and which I believe are entirely justified. I believe that we have greatly improved the Bill. We must hope that the Commons will continue to carry out the role of scrutiny as a revising Chamber.
Some points are still outstanding. On human rights and data protection, no outside body will validate the justification of an inquiry into whether fraud is committed. However, we have made progress with regard to the code of practice and so on. My noble friend referred earlier to the problem about the appropriate official who will consider whether an inquiry is justified, given that there is no outside body.
There are further disputes about the burden of costs which will fall on local authorities. The local authorities state that only two-thirds of the costs are covered although the Government dispute that. My noble friend Lady Noakes dealt with the issue of costs to business. There are still concerns in that respect, and with regard to the Scampion report and so on. Will sufficient resources be devoted to dealing with fraud investigations when considering the increased revenue as a result of such investigations? It seems to be substantially greater than the costs of carrying out such fraud investigations.
Overall, I believe that your Lordships' House should be satisfied with the progress of the Bill. Perhaps I may express thanks for the help of my noble friend Lord Astor of Hever, the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, and the noble Earl, Lord Russell. We are glad to see that noble Earl has recovered from his indisposition. Perhaps I may also thank the noble Lord, Lord Grabiner. In a sense, he is the father of the Bill. The Minister has fulfilled the role of midwife. She has done so in a quite extraordinary way. A fairy godmother descended on the House in the form of concessions about codes of practice and whether or not some groups of suspects should be suspect, although in that instance it was clear that any vote would be lost by the Government. Generally speaking, the Minister has carried through the business in an entirely impartial way. On all sides we have sought to improve the Bill which is now significantly better. I do not oppose the Motion that the Bill do now pass.
§ Lord Brightman
My Lords, I should be grateful if I may take up a few moments of your Lordships' time before the Bill is passed. I wish only to record certain facts and to ask, with great respect to this House, whether we are properly fulfilling our duties as a legislative chamber.
338 The general purpose of the Bill is to amend Part VI of the Social Security Administration Act 1992. Since that Bill was enacted Part VI has been amended by no fewer than 15 Acts of Parliament. It has grown from 12 to 26 sections to date. Your Lordships may gauge the extent of the amendments from the fact that Part VI now contains sections which are bizarrely numbered 110ZA and 121DA. We are used to that sort of enumeration on Marshalled Lists but I think it is the first time I have ever seen it in a statute.
The history of Part VI is unprecedented. It was first amended in 1992 by the Local Government Finance Act of that year; in 1993 by the Pension Schemes Act; in 1995 by the Jobseekers Act, the Pensions Act and the Criminal Procedure (Consequential Provisions) (Scotland) Act; in 1996 by the Housing Act; in 1997 by the Social Security (Recovery of Benefits) Act and the Social Security Administration (Fraud) Act; in 1998 by the Social Security Act and the Magistrates' Courts (Procedure) Act; in 1999 by the Access to Justice Act, the Social Security Contributions (Transfer of Functions) Act and the Welfare Reform and Pensions Act; and in 2000 by the Powers of Criminal Courts (Sentencing) Act and the Child Support and Pensions Act. Those are 15 amending Acts in all.
Of the original 12 sections in Part VI, all have been repealed or rewritten. Of the 60 subsections into which the original 12 sections were divided, only eight remain intact. Those figures take no account of the further amendments intended to be made by some six clauses of the Bill before us.
What is a person to do who needs to read Part VI of the 1992 Act in its amended form? He has two choices. He can sit down with a pen, a pair of scissors and a jar of paste, turn up each of the 15 amending Acts and rewrite Part VI in its amended form. That will take him a very long time. I know that because I tried it myself. His second choice is to seek access to a properly programmed computer and obtain a print-out of Part VI as amended by the 15 statutes I have mentioned. But that is not a wholly satisfactory course. During Committee stage of the Bill I asked the House of Lords Library if it could give me a print-out of Part VI as amended. It provided a print-out from an online database but regretted that it could not give me a printout which included the eight pages of amendments made by the Child Support Pensions Act 2000.
I think we should ask ourselves whether we are legislating in a proper form. When an Act, or a part of an Act, has been amended by 15 later Acts, should we not have a new Act rather than force the reader to rely on computer print-outs to which that reader may or may not have easy access and which may or may not be up-to-date? Is there any precedent for amending an Act for the 16th time, as this will be, and for having sections which need to be numbered 110ZA and 121DA?
Part VI of the 1992 Act has become a drafting quagmire. I do not blame the drafting fraternity. I am told that it is undermanned and underfunded. But something should be done to prevent a repetition of 339 this sort of thing. We do not produce Acts of Parliament for ourselves but for those who will have to read them. That is where our duty lies. To sum up, I question whether we are providing a satisfactory service so far as concerns some of our statutes. I have ascertained that there are no current plans in the Law Commission for a consolidation Bill covering Part VI of the 1992 Act. I hope that I have not unduly delayed proceedings.
§ 5 p.m.
§ Earl Russell
My Lords, the House is in the debt of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brightman, who has drawn attention to difficulties in what I described on Second Reading as the acrostic method of legislation. This is not the Minister's fault. She saw the problem coming and on Second Reading her private office generously made available to us texts of the 2000 Act. I am sure that they would have done the same for the noble and learned Lord as well had they known he was concerned. However, that is not a satisfactory answer to his problem. The Minister is not answerable. I hope that she will convey the noble and learned Lord's remarks to whoever is answerable. We should return to the issue when whoever is properly responsible—I would be glad to know who it is—is present. In the mean time, this is no criticism of the Minister.
This Minister knows that I have misgivings about the Bill. This is not the time to debate them. However, as a model of how the parliamentary process should work once we have got into the Chamber, our proceedings on this Bill have been excellent. I thank the Minister, the noble Lords, Lord Grabiner, Lord Higgins and Lord Astor of Hever, my noble friend Lord Goodhart and the staff of our Whips' Office, who have done a great deal to get everything in order for us. Within the constraints to which the noble and learned Lord has rightly drawn attention, we have done our best. To that extent, in spite of the genuine and true remarks of the noble and learned Lord, the progress of the Bill still does Parliament credit.
§ Lord Elton
My Lords, as the Government Chief Whip is present, I wonder whether it is proper to ask whether the very important issue raised by the noble and learned Lord could be referred to the Procedure Committee.
§ Lord Carter
My Lords, as I understand it, this is not a matter for the Procedure Committee as such. The team involved in the statute law electronic database—I believe that that is what it is called—has done a great deal of work on the issue and that work is not yet complete. If it is of any interest to your Lordships, I asked the same question about eight years ago when I was in opposition.
§ Baroness Hollis of Heigham
My Lords, I wonder whether the noble Lord, Lord Elton, was able to give my noble friend a response.
I think that all your Lordships agree that we have made a number of important changes to the Bill, in particular on the circumstances under which 340 information may be obtained under the powers in Clauses 1 and 2 and on the code of practice. Almost everyone who has taken part in the debate—although that is not a very large number of people—particularly from the Opposition Benches, owns an amendment or a change in the Bill. It is truly a House of Lords Bill, not just a government Bill.
I thank your Lordships for your unfailing courtesy and good humour and for our informed debates. Like others, I pay a particular tribute to my noble friend Lord Grabiner for his excellent report, which was the genesis of the measures in the Bill, and for his many interventions to share his expertise in our debates.
The noble and learned Lord, Lord Brightman, has made a good point, to which my noble friend the Chief Whip has responded. I am grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Russell, for explaining that we had recognised the problem and done our best to overcome it. ft is a bigger problem than the Bill can handle. We shall need consolidating legislation eventually. The electronic database of statute law that my noble friend referred to may well address those problems in future.
I am delighted that the Bill has gone through without Division, though with substantive change. I hope that it is treated in the same conciliatory and positive way in the other place.
§ On Question, Bill passed, and sent to the Commons.