WIDE-RANGING powers to allow Scotland’s new benefits agency to investigate fraud have sparked “deep concerns” over privacy and confidentiality.

One organisation said officers working for Social Security Scotland would potentially be handed “more powers and latitude” than the police under the plans.

Scottish ministers have now pledged to “consider alternative approaches” and revise some of the proposed regulations.

Social Security Scotland started administering its first benefits last year and will eventually make regular payments to some 1.4 million people in Scotland, with a value in excess of £3 billion a year.

It comes after a tranche of benefits were devolved to Scotland in 2016.

Powers are now being considered to allow the agency to investigate potential benefits fraudsters, including compelling organisations to provide relevant information and giving officers the right to enter and search premises.

But a consultation on the plans received a scathing response from a string of organisations – amid concerns they go beyond the powers exercised by the UK’s Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).

Jo Ozga, of Scottish Women's Aid, said it 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 insisted the proposed legislation 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.”

Mr Scott also raised concerns over powers to allow Social Security officers to search and enter premises – except houses – 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.”

He continued: “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.”

Meanwhile, Rob Gowans, of Citizens Advice Scotland, highlighted the potential for “serious unintended consequences”, adding: “Unlike the current system, which limits the Department for Work and Pensions to being able to request info from prescribed list of bodies, the proposed power appears to bring all organisations…into its scope."

He added: “CAS would also be concerned that the proposals to grant powers of covert surveillance…to social security fraud investigators would not be proportionate, nor consistent with the principles of dignity and respect and a human rights-based approach.

“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.”

NHS National Services Scotland said the regulations were “too wide in scope”, while the Poverty Alliance raised fears charities could be fined £1,000 if they seek to protect confidential relationships.

Elsewhere, David Freeland, from the Information Commissioner’s Office, questioned the “necessity and proportionality” of handing officers sweeping powers to obtain electronic records.

He added: “The ability of authorised officers of the Scottish Ministers to access electronic systems of other organisations presents the opportunity for a significant intrusion into people’s privacy.”

A total of 18 consultation responses were received between August 6 and October 29 last year, with 12 of these coming from organisations – including councils, the NHS and charities.

In its response to the submissions, the Scottish Government said it is “keen to reassure stakeholders that the policy intent underpinning the draft regulations is solely to ensure that appropriate powers are in place to investigate possible cases of fraud”.

It added: “The intention is not to use regulatory powers to cause undue stress to individuals, nor to displace confidentiality between individuals and organisations that provide support and advice.

“Information will only be sought where necessary to enable the proper investigation of a suspected offence.”

However, it added: “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.”

The Government also said it will “revise” regulations relating to entering and searching premises “to make clear that, where the owner and occupier of premises are separate, permission should be sought from the occupier before entry”.

It said it was “not thought possible to prescribe a discrete list of organisations from whom information could be sought” – such as under the system operated by the DWP – as the eligibility criteria for some benefits have yet to be defined.

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.”