HL Deb 09 July 2002 vol 637 cc643-5

7.59 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Work and Pensions (Baroness Hollis of Heigham)

rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 17th June be approved [33rd Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, this order will put in place a legal framework that will give child benefit customers the choice of transacting business with the Department for Work and Pensions through a secure Internet-based channel.

The order is using the affirmative procedure as required by Section 9(4) of the Electronic Communications Act 2000 in an order to which Section 9(3) does not apply. It uses the powers contained in Section 8(4)(g) of the 2000 Act and in March 2000 the noble Lord, Lord Sainsbury, gave an undertaking that, the affirmative procedure would be adopted for new issues on important subjects".—[Official Report, 14/3/00; col. CWH 23.] Security has been one of two main considerations in the development of the e-service. Preserving the privacy of customers' personal information and ensuring that benefit is paid only to those who are entitled to receive it will be achieved through adoption of thoroughly tested systems using recognised industry, government and departmental security standards. I am confident that the proposed electronic service will be no less secure than the current service.

The second main consideration has been that of facility of use. This service will not just be an alternative channel to sit alongside paper and telephone-based services, although these will remain available. The service will be available at all times, often suiting better the disrupted daily clock of the new mother or busy family. It will use modern technology to give greater help to customers when completing forms, often at times when no other help would be available. When necessary, additional data appropriate to customers' individual circumstances will be gathered without the need to await receipt of extra paper forms.

Once the order comes into force on 28th October—both Houses of Parliament so willing—the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions may approve the detailed method of electronic claim and authorise people to use it. However, before doing so my right honourable friend will obviously want to be satisfied that the new system is robust, secure and reliable, and that it has been thoroughly and successfully tested. If there is any doubt on these matters then he will, as I am sure that the House would expect, take a cautious approach towards introducing the electronic service until he is satisfied.

Responsibility for the administration of child benefit will transfer to the Inland Revenue in April 2003 and development of the new channel has taken place in close consultation with Inland Revenue colleagues.

The preamble to the order provides the statutory assurance that the availability of any records created for the use of electronic communications and storage for the purposes provided for by this order will be as satisfactory as in other cases. My department manages data about customers in electronic form in accordance with the Data Protection Act and appropriate security standards. Records created as a result of this new channel will be subject to the same rigorous standards and equally available.

Articles 3 and 4 provide the legal framework for customers to claim child benefit, provide information and report changes of circumstances electronically.

Schedule 9C sets out conditions to be met to complete a valid transaction; for example, that the identity of customers must be authenticated in an approved manner. These protect both the customer and my department from misuse of the service, and allow for proof in legal proceedings, that the identity of the sender, the fact of, and time of, delivery and the content of the electronic communication will be presumed to be that recorded on an official computer system.

I am satisfied that these provisions are compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights and I commend the order to the House. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 17th June be approved [33rd Report from the Joint Committee].—(Baroness Hollis of Heigham.)

Lord Higgins

My Lords, the order shows touching faith in the reliability of the department's computers which past experience may not wholly justify. The order is limited to claims involving child benefit and guardian's allowance. Are other benefits dealt with in other orders?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

No, my Lords, we are introducing the measure through the order. There is little fraud in regard to this benefit; it is a universal benefit. If this introductory method works, it may or may not be extended to other benefits in future.

Earl Russell

My Lords, I can see no reason to object to the order. It brings child benefit into the age of e-mail. I am glad that it is permissive. The Minister will be familiar with my concern for the rights of illiterates. I shall continue to press a similar concern for the rights of e-illiterates. Only today I discovered that an important brief containing an amendment that I should have moved today is floating somewhere in the e-ether and has not come anywhere near me. As soon as the Minister or her successors forget about the permissive quality, I might start to make some objections. I make none now.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, so would I as I belong to the same generation as the noble Earl. I am grateful for the comments of the noble Lord and the noble Earl.

On Question, Motion agreed to.