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Social Security (Electronic Communications) Order 2011

Volume 727: debated on Thursday 19 May 2011

Motion to Approve

Moved By

That the draft order laid before the House on 14 March be approved.

Relevant documents: 19th Report from the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments.

My Lords, if passed, this order would allow jobseeker’s allowance to be claimed, administered and maintained online and would open the door for some online administration of other benefits. This change would maximise efficiency and improve customer service. In addition, it would reduce the use of paper and develop a platform for electronic claims for other benefits, including the new universal credit. I confirm that the provisions of the draft order are compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights.

First, I shall say a few words on the department’s current position in relation to the Merits Committee. I take the duty to provide sufficient information to Parliament to enable proper scrutiny of this department’s legislation seriously. Senior officials from the department have recently had a constructive discussion with Merits Committee staff with a view to improving how we handle our secondary legislation. I assure your Lordships that I will do everything within my power to make sure that we meet the proper and reasonable demands of this important committee. In this instance, I know we were able to provide the additional information that the Merits Committee requested. I hope that additional information will assist this House during the course of this debate.

The Department for Work and Pensions is improving its customer service delivery by increasing access to its services through self-serve online channels. As part of this, the department would like to introduce a secure, automated online service. Customers will still be able to contact the department by writing or by using the telephone and face-to-face appointments will still be available. The current situation is that, at times, legislation requires the use of paper-based documents or signatures, or at least may be interpreted as requiring this. For example, currently a jobseeker’s agreement must be in writing and must be signed by the customer. This order, which is made under the provisions of the Electronic Communications Act 2000, amends social security legislation to allow electronic communication and storage. The order will also develop the department’s use of electronic signatures.

I shall take a few moments to run through the different possible formats of electronic signatures. I know that they are used in a lot of different ways and, if your Lordships will excuse me for being a little bit techie on this, I think that will help our debate. An electronic signature is something associated with an electronic document which performs a similar function to a traditional signature. It can be used to confirm the authenticity of an electronic communication—in other words, that it comes from a particular person. Another use of electronic signatures is to establish that the document has not been tampered with. Industry use is based on codes and ciphers, which essentially make the signature unique. For example, text can be encrypted and turned into letters or numbers, which can be deciphered only by someone who has the correct password or key. For the vast majority of services a combination of source data from the computer, or some other device and passwords, picture and word combinations, and other means of authentication form the basis of electronic signatures.

Secondly, there is authentication as a form of electronic signature. This involves collecting facts and personal details to enable customers to prove their identity. This may include pin numbers, secret questions and answers, or collecting data such as mother’s maiden name and date of birth. This form of electronic signature means people can log in by answering a series of questions, and we essentially take their successful completion of the authentication process as confirmation that they are who they claim to be.

Finally, there is physically signing an electronic pad, as you do when you accept a parcel. This signature can then be digitally saved and attached to official documents, removing the need to print and store vast reams of paper. Research has shown that the psychology—at least the current psychology—of actually signing a jobseeker’s agreement makes people more likely to follow through on their actions.

The powers that we are talking about allow all of these three ways of getting electronic signatures, although in reality we shall be using only authentication and physically signing an electronic pad.

We have also ensured in Clause 101 of the Welfare Reform Bill that social security legislation will include these broad powers to support the delivery of the universal credit. We will have a chance to debate these matters again when we come to that clause later this year.

In this case, the order will mean that our customers will not only be able to make a claim for jobseeker’s allowance online, but they will also be able to notify us of other changes in their circumstances, such as changes to their income or a change of address. In addition, they will be able to provide their signature using an electronic pad. This would replace current paper signing and would mean signatures collected from people confirming that they meet the conditions of entitlement for jobseeker’s allowance, or agree to the conditions of a jobseeker’s agreement, could be electronically stored.

We know that the majority of customers already regularly use the internet and would welcome the opportunity to do departmental business online. Departmental research has shown that 86 per cent of jobseeker’s allowance customers surveyed were using the internet and 67 per cent had home internet access. So far almost 700,000 customers have used the service, despite very little encouragement or training. With support, the department hopes that, by 2013, 80 per cent of customers will make changes and claims for jobseeker’s allowance online. We know that not everyone will be able to use an online service or will want to. Customers will still be able to contact Jobcentre Plus in writing or by using the telephone. We have no intention to make online services compulsory. We also accept that some customers may need help with online services. Arrangements will therefore be made to provide that support. Interestingly, our research shows that a large number of people with a bit of support can be fairly easily nudged to use this particular channel.

Jobcentre Plus staff will receive training and support so they are able to assist customers and additional support for staff will be provided through the use of coaches and buddies in each office when the service is launched. Jobcentre Plus staff will play a key role in encouraging take-up of the online service. They will be able to provide assurances about safety and security to those customers who may be nervous about using online services. They will also be able to arrange training for customers who have never used the internet before. We will be making customers aware of where they can obtain access to computers—for example, in libraries—and they may be able to arrange access and training via providers such as UK Online.

Customer security will be crucial and must be protected. The department has worked with security experts from both the private and public sectors to develop a robust online service that people will be able to use in confidence. The Government regularly gather intelligence and work with other security organisations to ensure that we keep up to date with new threats to online systems. Numerous organisations, such as banking and insurance firms, already use online services safely and we will continue to draw on their experience as we design and develop our processes.

Anyone choosing to use the online service will have to go through an identification process before they can set up an account and be provided with a unique pin number. We are aware that some customers may need to use shared or public internet access points and we will provide advice and guidance to people to help them protect their online security. In addition, all identified security risks to the information systems will be assessed and addressed through formal accreditation, in accordance with the departmental information security standards. We will review that biannually.

In conclusion, at one level, this order would allow the Department for Work and Pensions to provide another option for people who need to contact the business. It will bring the service into the 21st century and mean that from 2012 the online service will be available 24 hours a day, seven days a week—allowing people to access services when it is convenient. In addition, the anticipated shift to using online services will improve the services to customers by freeing up advisers so that face-to-face contact can focus on supporting people into work. The technology will minimise the risk of identity fraud because the electronic signing pads will measure pressure, angle of the pen and speed, as well as matching the signature. An electronic signature is actually more secure and much more difficult to forge than it is when it is on paper. Electronic records will reduce the need for people to repeat information to advisers and for advisers to re-input basic information. It will reduce costs, save paper, and help the department to meet its efficiency challenge. Importantly, almost most importantly, as we press ahead with welfare reform, this will provide the basis for the electronic systems supporting universal credit.

I therefore seek approval for this order and commend it to the House.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for such a detailed explanation. He has taken away the need for most of my questions, which were all about electronic signatures, but now that I have more information it gives rise to more questioning. However, I should say that this is about welcoming in the 21st century. First, there was the horse, then there was a car with a man with a red flag in front, and then there was a computer, and people went on to learn about what was inside it. Now, your Lordships are able to use iPads, iPods and, of course, Android devices in the Chamber. We are moving to a change that has to come; and it is one that of course is to be broadly welcomed, because all of us accept that IT should release people. It gives you an ability to do more, to do it more swiftly and, I hope, more securely.

Can the Minister readdress his remarks about electronic signatures and security to this House in the way it votes? After all, my noble friend has given a brilliant explanation of why electronic voting would be absolutely secure in this House. That is a debate that we can have for some considerable time. It may not be appropriate, but it would work.

My questions are twofold. One is about the level of take-up that is likely. Has the department taken any soundings of what sort of numbers of people will want to use these services? What flows from that is therefore the provision that the department might need to ensure that it provides the right level of support for customers and, perhaps, equipment for customers to use. If so much more can be done online, insufficient points will be available in Jobcentre Plus offices. People will want to spend more time on them, and clearly the demand for an increase in the amount of equipment will motor ahead.

My second question relates to security. I think I heard the Minister say—perhaps he can confirm this—that once you have set up an account, access to that account will be by PIN alone. That is slightly worrying because there have been instances of people leaving themselves logged on to a public computer in, say, a library, with the next user simply taking over. Of course, there are very clever people who can identify PINs. That is why we are all asked to do more than simply enter our PIN. If you want to do online banking, you certainly have to do more than just enter your PIN. I wonder whether a double check will be there to ensure that people’s data are secure.

Thirdly, in the previous debate we talked about people’s action plans for their activity in this work-related group. Will those action plans be available to customers online so that they can review them and perhaps engage in some sort of dialogue with the adviser in a Jobcentre Plus online, thereby freeing up time but also giving them much more instant availability?

We are all aware of electronic signatures because the whole postal voting system in this country depends on a signature being scanned and being kept electronically as the test of whether people have voted correctly and are who they say they are in casting their vote. Technology has moved on, and I welcome the opportunity to move forward in this area. I hope that my noble friend will be able to answer my questions, but I am pleased to support the order.

In his reply, will my noble friend include a word about whether the arrangements for blind or severely visually handicapped people will change as a result of this system and, if so, how they will be catered for?

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his explanation of the order and for not straying into too much technical jargon so that some of us, at least, were able to keep up.

We support the improvement in customer service delivery through self-service online channels. It is an approach which can be more convenient for customers and more efficient for the DWP. It is, indeed, a win-win situation.

As the equality impact assessment indicates—supported by research by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation—digital services can, in particular, assist disabled people to complete transactions and arrangements personally, thereby reducing reliance on others.

As the Explanatory Note makes clear, the order is enabling rather than mandatory. It asserts that those who do not wish or have the means to take on the new arrangements can continue to use the existing postal, face-to-face and telephony channels. However, it goes on to say that existing claimants will be “invited” to switch to the new service. New claimants will be able to access it via the Directgov website and will be encouraged to do so. As we have heard, the aim is for 80 per cent of all JSA claimant transactions to be done online by 2013. The obvious question to the Minister is: what practical safeguards will be available to prevent customers being encouraged to use the new arrangements when they are unfamiliar with the technology? This could clearly act as a deterrent to individuals claiming or sustaining a claim.

The equality impact assessment explains that all jobcentres will have a “digital champion”, whose role will be to act as ambassador for online services to improve customer confidence and the take-up of digital services. Particularly given the news reporting of job cuts at JCPs, can the Minister say how many jobcentres have a champion in place and what the plan is to complete this commitment? Can he also say something about special customer records and the capacity of the system to provide for appropriate levels of security for these particularly sensitive cases? How are these being catered for within the system?

There is—and has rightly been—strong emphasis on training for Jobcentre Plus staff, especially to be sensitive to customers who may have mental health conditions, fluctuating conditions or communication difficulties, which might be identified at various stages of the customer journey. Is the Minister satisfied that these opportunities are not diminished by the use of online services? Will system failures automatically be factored into compliance failure decisions to prevent people being chased—or potentially sanctioned—simply because the system has gone down?

With those few brief questions, we are happy to support this order.

My Lords, I thank noble Lords for joining in this debate. I particularly agree with the point made by my noble friend Lord German about how nice electronic voting would be in this House, particularly given the business of the road outside. As contributors to the debate have pointed out, the provisions are really about getting the department into the 21st century, whether with iPods, iPads or Android devices.

My noble friend asked a question about take-up. As I said, our aspiration is to get to 80 per cent. At the moment, 67 per cent of people have access to a PC. Noble Lords may not be surprised to know that we have done quite a lot of research on this. I might share some of those early findings, because they are rather interesting. Well over half of people in the JSA group are now in a position to take this up. The two categories at the top—“Ready, willing and able” and “Able and persuadable”—take us well over half. Then we go through “Nudgeable”, “Unconfident” and so forth, and end up with a small group—below 20 per cent—made up of what we call “Intensive support required” and “Multiple barriers”.

My noble friend Lord Elton made the point that some people will always find this difficult. Some blind people are able to use electronic things, or telephones that translate information; but clearly we are not talking about first-order processing at the moment. For those groups, we are staying with other methods. The noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, made a point about capacity. By freeing up the capacity of Jobcentre Plus from looking after people who can essentially look after themselves, we can concentrate that time and energy into the people who really need the help.

My noble friend Lord German asked about action plans. They are not the first things that will go on, but in time they will. Clearly, the whole structure of the universal credit is to put it all online; enormous activity is going on in the department at the moment to structure that electronic relationship.

My noble friend asked about the security of PINs: he was cynical about whether the PIN would be enough. The answer is that security is changing all the time. I could give you an answer today, but the department is looking all the time—as are banks and anyone with sensitive online access systems—to change and develop. A war is going on between cybercriminals and those who maintain the systems, and security levels change. I am convinced that whatever we have today in the way of PINs and other security, we will be watching all the time to make sure that we do not get caught out.

We aim to give a lot of information and instruction to people who are not using their own, more secure computer, but a more public computer, that they should log off. We are looking at systems that will make sure that once a file is closed, one cannot get back into it. We are looking at very active systems. That is one of our biggest relative insecurities when compared, for example, to banking products: people may be using not their own computer but a more public one. We are looking at that in great detail.

The noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, asked rather fewer questions than usual. However, the difficulty and quality of those questions was absolutely up there with his normal track record. He asked about system failure. Clearly we will look to include that under “good cause”. It would be unreasonable to penalise someone who was unable to access our system because it had broken down. I think that I answered his point about training and releasing people to do more face-to-face interviews. Of course, sensitive records will be very tightly controlled as part of our security. On the question of safeguards, we are looking to make sure that when people who are less confident with the system are helped into it, they will be helped in a comprehensive way and we will not do anything that will leave them more vulnerable. That will be part of the process.

This will not be the last time that we discuss technology: I suspect that we will discuss it much more than we have done, in this and many other contexts. I thank noble Lords for their contributions and commend the order to the House.

Motion agreed.

House adjourned at 5.39 pm.