Banks, building societies, utility companies and even Sky TV could all be forced to hand over data to social landlords to help them detect and prosecute instances of fraud.
The Government said yesterday – during the committee stage of Conservative MP Richard Harrington’s private members’ Bill to criminalise unlawful subletting – that it intends to include a list of organisations that are compelled to supply data to social landlords building up evidence of fraud against tenancy cheats. Those organisations could also face criminal charges for non-compliance.
It is thought that between 50,000 and 150,000 social houses are being illegally sublet.
The Bill will make a new criminal offence for the unlawful subletting of social homes but does not yet include powers that would increase social landlords’ access to data to help them recover properties being unlawfully sublet.
It will also ensure profits made from the illegal activity are paid back to the landlord with those found guilty facing fines or even prison.
Yesterday, the parliamentary under-secretary of state for Communities and Local Government, Brandon Lewis (pictured), said the Government intends to create a list of private sector holders of data that are compelled to supply information to social landlords.
When conducting fraud investigations, he said it is important for social landlords to be able to link the tenant to another address, which can provide evidence the tenant is subletting their social home or that they own a home elsewhere.
At present, the Bill says that only persons authorised by local authorities will be able to use the power to require information.
Mr Lewis said: “Only organisations specified in the regulations would be required to comply with an authorised person’s request for information. Discussions with social landlords have suggested that the key private sector holders of data they need to access for the purpose of building up strong evidence of fraud are banks, building societies and utility companies. We intend those bodies to be on the list of organisations that are compelled to supply data.”
He added: “Banks, building societies and utility companies hold information that can indicate that the named tenant has an account registered at another address, and in the case of banks and building societies, account statements can provide evidence of receipt of payments suggesting they are sub-letting for money, and of expenditure suggesting the tenant is making monthly mortgage payments, thereby denoting they own a property.”
A clause in the Bill will also make it a criminal offence for non-compliance in information sharing. “We intend to create a defence in cases where all reasonable efforts have been made to comply with the request,” said Lewis.
In terms of safeguards that should be included in the regulations, Mr Lewis said the Government will consider whether they should specify when requests to a listed body may be made, whether the number of persons that a local authority may authorise should be limited, and whether only persons believed to have committed an offence should be subject to having their data accessed. “We do not intend for sensitive personal data to be accessible,” said Mr Lewis.
Despite the Government saying that it does not currently intend to add any other organisations to the list, Labour MP for Ealing North, Stephen Pound, said in his authority it has found that the “single most useful source of information—although I do not wish to bring Murdoch into this matter—is Sky television”.
He said: “We find that we get more data from Sky subscription channels than from any other source; in particular, we get an extraordinary amount of data from sports channels, which probably says a great deal about my constituents.”
Mr Lewis said the Government will take a look at whether satellite TV subscriptions can play an important part but warned: ”I would be wary of making the list too long and too wide.”
Mr Lewis also agreed an amendment yesterday to ensure the Bill applies to Wales. He said: “The Welsh Assembly Government has now concluded their consultation on the subject and has confirmed that they wish the Bill to apply to Wales.”
Following a question from Labour’s former housing minister John Healey, Mr Lewis also confirmed that the national fraud initiative – run by the soon-to-be axed Audit Commission – would continue and that it would be transferred to another body which the Government has yet to name.
Mr Healey pointed out that since its introduction, the initiative has highlighted fraud and overpayment of around £664 million.