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Angela Eagle: Is the hon. Gentleman saying that the only people who are going to commit benefit fraud are those with no money whatever?

Mr. Webb: No, of course not; that is an absurd suggestion. We are suggesting that the sanction policy will leave people below the breadline. In any given week, people already have fixed costs that they cannot avoid. For example, people have to pay their housing costs or else they lose their home, and they have to pay for their gas, electricity and so on. Once all those necessities have been paid for, the amount of discretionary spending may be extremely limited and it gets squeezed.

We have all heard stories of parents on a tight budget who forgo their meals to make sure that their children can eat. Basics such as food get squeezed because many household bills must be paid, come what may. I am therefore rather puzzled by the Under-Secretary's intervention. The intention of the policy is that people will be left below the benefit line, which--especially bearing in mind the children--is not an appropriate way for the state to punish people who transgress. Other forms of punishment are more humane and appropriate for that sort of offence.

In a moment, my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam will seek to explain our thinking in trying to delay the provisions--if that is possible--and will look at the effects of other sanctions in the benefit system. Naturally, our preference is for these measures not to be in the Bill at all, and we wish to persuade the Government that the offence given to war pensioners through the inclusion of the measure in the Bill achieves no useful purpose and only gives offence. It would be to everyone's benefit if it were removed.

Mr. Pickles: The hon. Member for Northavon (Mr. Webb) said that very little would be achieved by clause 7, which was largely symbolic. That is the entire purpose of the Bill. I do not think for one moment that very much will be achieved by clause 7. The rhetoric of the Under-Secretary and the Minister of the State is quite different from the rhetoric that we heard when the Bill was first announced; the Prime Minister made great play of the clause and the policy of "two strikes and out". I recall that the departmental press release led with that item. However, the hard truth is that the provision is not likely to hit more than 500 people a year. Frankly, I doubt that the figures will ever reach that level, as the problem of reoffending is relatively small.

We support the clause on the basis of the assurances that the Under-Secretary has given. On Second Reading and in Committee, she was pressed on a number of occasions to say whether the provision conformed to the European convention on human rights. We are now a signatory to various ECHR protocols and it is part of our law. The Under-Secretary said consistently that we should put our trust in her; she had taken legal advice,

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and she could give us an assurance. The Opposition remain remarkably unconvinced by that argument. We do not believe that the provision will pass scrutiny in the courts, and we are worried about that because, in a few years' time, when we have been in government for a couple of years, we will get the rap. We will find ourselves having to go to the High Court to try to defend those systems. Those who introduced them will either have retired or be in opposition. We shall wait and see.

7 pm

I very much agree with the hon. Member for Northavon on war pensions. There is more than a tinge of post-modern irony in wishing to include them in the Bill. I cannot see the logic in applying the provisions to war pensioners and, frankly, it makes the Bill seem ridiculous. There is exactly the same logic in excluding war pensioners as there is in excluding state pensioners--very few of either category commit fraud. The hon. Member for Northavon said that there have been no prosecutions in the past six months and that there have been only six cases, but he did not say--out of charity, I suspect--that the Government do not know the figures.

The Under-Secretary has said that no study has been undertaken to ascertain the number of people involved, so let us assume that it is ludicrously low and that there is much more war pensions fraud than we think. Instead of six, the figure might be eight or nine, or it might even reach double figures. We are discussing not "one strike and you're out" cases, but repeat offenders whose involvement might run to 10 cases a year, although I doubt whether there would be even one. Why include the provision?

I doubt whether even the most low-brow television soap opera with flagging viewing figures would develop a story line suggesting as credible a repeat fraud offence by a war pensioner. There is no reason to include the provision, which demeans the Bill by its very presence, so I have a lot of sympathy with amendment No. 2, which has been tabled by the Liberals.

Our amendment, No. 18, would clarify the retirement pensions issue by inserting the word "state". I am sure that the measure is intended to cover state retirement pensions, but I would like an explanation of why that word is not included.

In reply to the question whether the Liberal Democrats support a universal right to benefit, the hon. Member for Northavon gave me a number of examples. In fairness, I think that he was saying yes. It does not seem to matter to the Liberal Democrats how the recipient has behaved or how much and how many times he has defrauded.

Mr. Webb: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Pickles: I am about to tell a rather good joke at the hon. Gentleman's expense.

Mr. Webb rose--

Mr. Pickles: I shall take the intervention first.

Mr. Webb: I do not want to ruin the hon. Gentleman's timing, but to clarify the point I should say that we are certainly not querying punishment for benefit fraud.

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Indeed, I referred to community service and imprisonment. Clearly, people who are in prison lose their benefit, so we are not saying that entitlement should be retained come what may, but we are questioning whether removing benefit from someone living in the community is the right penalty.

Mr. Pickles: That was most helpful. I read the exchanges in Committee between the hon. Gentleman and the Minister of State, which at times seemed a little bad tempered. The hon. Gentleman is a very reasonable man, so I cannot understand why the Minister of State was so beastly to him.

Mr. Gerry Sutcliffe (Bradford, South): I can.

Mr. Pickles: No doubt the Whip can, but I am a more tolerant chap.

I would not want to put words in the mouth of the Liberal Democrats, but they seem to be suggesting a strongly worded reprimand as a sanction--a cup of tea and an inquiry as to whether the recipient is getting enough benefit. In truth, I can see the Focus headline: "Liberal Democrats wag finger at fraudster", or "Fraudster told by top Lib Dem that he has been very, very naughty". Their response is wholly inappropriate.

I recall the hon. Member for Northavon quoting on Second Reading Mr. Paul Cavadino, director of policy at the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders. He was wise to do so, because those remarks sum up the objections to the Bill. The quote runs to only three sentences, so I shall read it into the record:

There is nothing inevitable about people committing crime--that is the politics of Danegeld. Why offer bribes to fraudsters to prevent them from committing crime? We should not say, "Here's a nice handout. Take it, and please don't commit crime."

I see the hon. Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Sutcliffe) on the Government Front Bench. He and I know areas of the north of England that are racked with poverty, but we also know that people in those areas do not habitually commit crime. They do not commit crime because they have pride in their neighbourhoods, their lives and their families. Nobody is forced to commit crime; the Government are right that no one has an automatic right to benefits; and we agree with them that there is a contract between the state and the recipient.

For the sake of time, I shall risk oversimplifying the matter. Some people may seek work or offer continuing care as part of that contract, but riding through it all is an obligation to be honest in order to qualify for benefit. The argument about serious crime and providing clothing and food for murderers is spurious, and I do not accept that the measure represents double punishment.

If a person applied for a grant to defraud the taxpayer, we would rightly refuse it, so why should fraudsters have their life style rewarded with continued full benefit? After all, the measure will apply for only 13 weeks; it is only a part-provision and other measures exist. Allowing people

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to continue to receive benefits when they have openly defrauded the benefits system--not once, but twice--represents laughing in the face of that system.

The measure may be symbolic, it may not have vast effect and only a few people may be affected by it. Nevertheless, I believe that it will continue the establishment of an important principle: there is no automatic right to benefit and there is a contract between the citizen and the state in respect of honesty.

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