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Mrs. Lait: We got almost as close as it is possible to get to having an amendment accepted. I am sorry that we will not have a published list, short though it might be. Obviously, by trawling through the House of Commons

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Library in due course we will all be able to work out with whom the Government have bilateral agreements. In fact, we may add to the cost to the public purse and table questions, which would probably be a more expensive way to get the answer. On the basis of the Minister's reassurance and clarification, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 7

Loss of benefit for commission of benefit offences

6.45 pm

Mr. Webb: I beg to move amendment No. 3, in page 10, line 30, leave out clause 7.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 2, in page 12, leave out line 20.

No. 18, in page 12, line 24, after "any", insert "state".

No. 4, in clause 8, page 13, line 3, leave out clause 8.

No. 5, in clause 9, page 14, line 8, leave out clause 9.

No. 6, in clause 10, page 15, line 18, leave out clause 10.

No. 7, in clause 11, page 15, line 36, leave out clause 11.

No. 8, in clause 12, page 16, line 18, leave out clause 12.

No. 9, in clause 13, page 17, line 1, leave out clause 13.

No. 1, in clause 20, page 23, line 11, at end insert--


'(1A) The Secretary of State may not make an order under subsection (1) to bring section 7 into force before a period of two years has elapsed from the date on which this Act is passed.'.

No. 10, in clause 21, page 23, line 20, leave out--


'7, 10, 11, 12(3), 13'.

Mr. Webb: I am grateful for the opportunity to debate the other main part of the Bill, which relates to benefit sanctions. It may appear that we have gone a little crazy in tabling amendments to delete clauses, but essentially we want to remove clause 7, and as it is referred to throughout the remainder of the Bill, it would not have made sense if we did not seek to delete the rest of the Bill too. Clause 7 is the nub of our concerns, as hon. Members present will know well.

I shall deal first with the amendments that make more modest changes. Amendment No. 2 is the most modest and deals with our desire to remove the threat of sanction from those who are successfully prosecuted twice for war pension fraud offences. Amendment No. 1 seeks to delay the implementation of clause 7 and, by implication, the remainder of the Bill. My hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Burstow) will be hoping to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to speak to that amendment. Amendment No. 3 is obviously our preferred route, which is to remove clause 7 from the Bill altogether.

The House will be aware that we discussed briefly in Committee the matter dealt with in amendment No. 2. I expressed the concern, which had been voiced in the other place, that war pensions are on the list of benefits for which a fraud offence committed twice leads to a

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sanction, but retirement pensions are not. When I raised that point on Second Reading, the Minister of State, who has kindly explained why he cannot be with us, chose to imply, tongue in cheek, that I wanted to bring retirement pensions within the scope of the clause. Of course I want war pensions to be removed, and that is what the amendment would do.

In our Committee deliberations on 9 April the Minister of State gave some information about war pension fraud that we had been unaware of, when he said:


Hardly anyone ever gets done for war pension fraud--there are only six cases in recent memory and none of those led to a prosecution. Yet the provision on war pensions would be enacted only if a person were prosecuted twice. Something that seems not to happen at all would have to happen twice if the provision were to come into force.

One might say that although such prosecutions never happen, it does no harm to have such a provision in the Bill, but it is clear that war pensioners' organisations took offence at the suggestion that there was war pension fraud. As the Bill includes war pensions but not retirement pensions, there is some suggestion that retirement pensioners are deemed to be above fraud but war pensioners are not. Our judgment is that if a provision gives offence to a group who deserve our respect and achieves no practical purpose whatsoever, it should not be included. It achieves nothing.

Ministers are fond of saying that such measures send signals, but it is far from clear to whom this provision sends a signal. Presumably, it sends a signal to the six people who have committed war pension fraud, although none of the cases was considered sufficiently serious for the person to be prosecuted. To give offence to a significant group to whom this country owes a great debt for the purpose of sending a signal to, at best, six people, none of whom would be affected by the provision anyway, seems absurd. I hope that, in an end-of-term spirit, the Minister will look sympathetically on this modest change, which is unlikely to have any effect on the Government's finances or on benefit fraud but which will remove a source of offence to Britain's war pensioner community.

Amendment No. 3 deals with the substantive issue, as it would delete clause 7 from the Bill; the other amendments follow from that. I do not want to go over old ground again and repeat the debate that we had in Committee. I shall, however, summarise the key distinction between us, the Government and, probably, the Conservatives. We are far from the position that the Minister of State sought to parody when he introduced the notion of benefit fraudsters as lovable rogues; we have not used that term, and would never use it. All three parties are united in the view that benefit fraud is serious and needs to be reduced and stamped out. Indeed, that is why we shall not oppose the Bill on Third Reading. There is no difference between us on that.

I hope, though, that we can have a mature debate in the House on sentencing policy. When different parties debating a home affairs Bill agree that something is a crime, but do not know how severe a sentence should be,

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I hope that nobody says that one party is a friend of the criminal just because it thinks it appropriate to have a longer or shorter sentence. It is a matter of appropriateness, and that is what we are debating now. We are not debating whether something is right or wrong; the question is: what is the appropriate sentence?

The Government believe that, in cases of two strikes--two convictions for benefit fraud--it is appropriate to deprive people of part of their income. The biggest problem with that, however, is that it impacts not just on the individuals themselves, but on their dependants, including their children. An unanswered question from our earlier deliberations concerns the fact that the Government have pledged to abolish child poverty. I submit that any child living in a sanctioned household is, at the very least, at risk of poverty. An innocent child, whom we do not hold responsible for the actions of his or her parents, will be living below the poverty line in such a household. How can the Government's stated aim of abolishing child poverty be consistent with putting a child's household below the poverty line? We have not had an answer to that point and I do not suppose that we will, as there is none.

The second problem is the effect of the sanction. The Under-Secretary will say that the Government do not really want to use the sanction because, in practice, there will probably be a few hundred cases. She will say that the Government want to send a signal; they do not want the sanction to be used. Clearly, however, it is envisaged that it will be used in, say, 500 cases. What effect will forcing people below the breadline have on their subsequent behaviour? Is it clear that it is in society's interests for people not to have enough money to make ends meet? If someone has already transgressed the law not once, but twice, what effect will it have if we then find them stealing or doing something like that to make ends meet? It is not clear that that form of punishment is in society's interests at all. We object to the clause for the way in which it affects those incidental to the crime.

Mr. Pickles: I read the hon. Gentleman's contribution in Committee and have listened to him most carefully. So that I am clear, will he say whether Liberal Democrat Members believe that everyone has a right to benefit, regardless of behaviour?

Mr. Webb: We believe that an appropriate punishment for misbehaviour should not deprive people of subsistence. Obviously, we do not oppose putting people in prison for serious offences, but when they are there, they should not be deprived of food, clothing and shelter. Indeed, prisons provide all those things. People can be deprived of their liberty for something extremely serious, but are granted food, clothing and shelter. It is therefore anomalous that, if they do something else that we object to, but which does not warrant a custodial sentence--or, at least, in many cases does not get one--we should think it appropriate to deprive them of money needed for basic subsistence.

As members of society, people have a right to basic subsistence. For society to punish people by depriving them of basic subsistence is inhumane; for their dependants, it is particularly inhumane. If, for example, community service were used to penalise repeat offenders, that would penalise individuals without penalising their dependants or forcing households below the poverty line.

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If a custodial sentence were deemed appropriate for a serial offender, one could debate whether its effect on dependants was better or worse than getting by with no money. However, a humane society should not respond to what, admittedly, is serious crime by depriving people of the basics of life.


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