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Proposed Powers For Scotland’s Benefits Agency Sparks Privacy Fears

Dominique Adams

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money

Being compelled to provide access to electronic records, which contain intimate details about domestic abuse, is an appalling invasion of privacy, according to Women’s Aid.

Proposed powers to enable Scotland’s benefits agency to investigate fraud are “too-wide ranging” and could hand the agency “more powers and latitude” than the police, critics have said.

Organisations such as Scottish Woman’s Aid and disability charity Inclusion Scotland have voiced concerns that the wide-ranging powers could infringe on people’s right to privacy and confidentiality. In response, Scottish ministers have said they will “consider alternative approaches” and will revise some of the proposed regulations.

Scotland’s first-ever benefits agency, Social Security Scotland, started administering benefits in 2018 following a number of benefits developed to Scotland in 2016. Eventually, the agency will be responsible for dispensing payments to roughly 1.4 million people in Scotland – a value of more than £3 billion per year.

The powers, intended to enable the agency to investigate benefit fraud suspects, would allow it to compel organisations to provide relevant information, and give officers the authority to enter and search premises.

A consultation on the plans saw it highly criticised by a number of organisations over fears they eclipse the powers exercised by the UK’s Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).

In her submission, Jo Ozga, of Scottish Women’s Aid, said the charity was concerned “the wide-ranging powers outlined in the proposed regulations, which compel individuals and organisations, including charities and service providers, to provide individual information, are disproportionate”.

She said they would “seriously compromise how Women’s Aid and other women’s essential services, such as Rape Crisis, are able to continue to provide confidential support to women and children”.

Her submission continued: “Being compelled to provide access to electronic records, which contain detailed case notes and personal and intimate information about individual women’s experiences of domestic abuse, is an appalling invasion of privacy and a total breach of the relationship between Women’s Aid and the women and children we support.”

Bill Scott, from disability charity Inclusion Scotland, said it had “very deep concerns about the extension of investigatory powers to compel any and all agencies and individuals to comply with requests for information”.

He added: “We believe that this would make it impossible for third sector agencies, and their employees, who provide services to their clients on a confidential basis to continue to offer such services on that basis in the future.”

Scott also voiced concern over the powers that would allow agency offers to enter and search premises – except homes- with the permission of owners or occupiers.

He said: “That would mean that staff of third sector agencies could turn up for work and find that Social Security Agency fraud staff were raking through filing cabinets, accessing computer records, seizing timesheets, volunteer rotas, etc. etc. etc. having been given no prior notice of the intention to enter the premises nor having had permission sought from themselves – as their landlord’s permission would be sufficient.

“We are also concerned about the fact that the investigatory power regulations appear not to require reasonable grounds of suspicion, that there is no judicial oversight for exercise of powers of entering and searching premises or requiring information from third parties, to ensure that there are reasonable grounds for use of these powers.

“We believe that there are human rights implications here, which give more powers and latitude to the social security agency than would be available to the police.”

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Other organisations, such as Citizens Advice Scotland, NHS National Services Scotland and the Information Commissioner’s Office, also raised concerns over the regulations, describing them as “too wide” with potential to cause undue stress.

Rob Gowans, of Citizens Advice Scotland, said: “The legislation proposed to be relied upon, the Regulation of Investigatory Powers (Scotland) Act 2000, is most commonly associated with counter-terrorism and national security matters, which would not appear to be appropriate for investigations of alleged social security fraud, which as noted above is relatively uncommon.

“The proposed safeguards outlined would not appear to be sufficient to treat people with fairness, dignity and respect.”

In its response to the submissions, the Scottish Government said: “Information will only be sought where necessary to enable the proper investigation of a suspected offence. Nevertheless, taking into account the potential negative impacts of any displacement of confidentiality between support organisations and their client, and to address the concerns raised by respondents in the consultation, the Scottish Government is engaging with stakeholders to consider alternative approaches.”

In a foreword to the consultation, Social Security Secretary Shirley-Anne Somerville said: “While I am pleased that most of the questions in the consultation received, on average, predominantly supportive responses, I recognise that a number of stakeholders raised issues of concern that the Scottish Government is giving careful consideration to.”

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Dominique Adams

Staff Writer, DIGIT

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