Local authority and DSS benefit fraud investigators will be bound by a statutory code of conduct, social security minister Baroness Hollis told peers. She said the government was in continuing negotiations with local government about the content of the code, which was now in draft, and would be amended before the Social Security Fraud Bill was scrutinised by the commons.
The government bowed to pressure from all sides of the lords and the private sector affected - mainly banks, building societies and other financial institutions - who had asked for the purpose and provisions of the code of practice to be included in the Bill. The minister introduced an amendment to achieve this as the measure completed its report stage in the upper house.
Although authorised investigating officers who do not follow the code will not face prosecution or civil proceedings because of that, the code will be admissable in any civil or criminal proceedings.
The amendment requires the secretary of state to consult on a draft of the code before it is published and on a first draft after the Bill becomes law. It also allows regular revision of the code. Baroness Hollis said it was suggested that should be after three years.
She added: 'We think that might be beneficial to all concerned. It would enable private sector organisations to provide feedback - the sort of research we discussed earlier as regards any complaints about how things were working. It would give both the private sector organisations and authorised officers in both DSS and local authorities an opportunity to say whether or not they find the code helpful.'
The minister said the draft code addressed the key issues of what the powers are, who will use them and how they will be used. At present it made no reference to local authorities because the DSS was still in consultation with local government. 'We had a helpful meeting last week, but we still have to do further work with them as to what shape the code will take,' she explained.
Baroness Hollis continued: 'It is a code which is primarily aimed at authorised officers. It is designed to instruct them on how they must use the powers. But we want it to be intelligible and legible to business and to any private individual who wants to find out more.
'We have endeavoured to set out what is and what is not reasonable in the exercise of the information powers. For example, we have stated that authorised officers should always consider the option of making a direct approach to the customer if they need information about them. Unless there are grounds for thinking that an investigation would be compromised by approaching the customers direct, this would be our immediate route for obtaining information.'
The Bill awaits third reading before going to the commons.
Hansard 27 Feb: Column 1082-1157