Social Security Fraud Bill [Lords]

[back to previous text]

Mr. Rooker: The hon. Gentleman is on the borderline—and has perhaps gone over it—of describing persistent benefit cheats as lovable old rogues. They are not. I have sometimes stood at the Bar of the House in the other place listening to Earl Russell and thinking, ``How out of touch can you be?'' There is nothing personal about that—I have never had a conversation with him—but he is not living in the real world.

I freely admit that the sanction is tough; it is intended to be. It is supposed to act as a deterrent to prevent people from becoming persistent benefit cheats. On any reasonable test, we have built in safeguards for some benefits. In other cases, the subject of the sanction will not be the benefit that is cheated on, but a benefit from the list of sanctionable benefits. It is a two-stage process.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned research. We assume that offenders can read. They have already cheated the system, so they must have known how to fill in a form: how to read the questions and lie in response. The first time that someone is convicted by a court of cheating the benefits system, we will put a note into their hands saying, ``If you do this again and get convicted, you're for the high jump, sonny: you'll lose some of your benefit''—assuming that it is a sanctionable benefit. There will be no misunderstanding. The person will not be able to say, ``Oh, I didn't understand; I thought that I would be able to carry on cheating the system. They never explained to me that if I did it again and was taken to court, I would lose money.'' In the past, they might have got away with it—but now, no way.

We must make it absolutely clear that there is a dividing line between us and the Lib-Dems, with their wishy-washy policies. The hon. Gentleman gave the impression that they want to defend benefit cheats. We will not allow cheats up and down the country to make the excuse that they did not understand the consequences of cheating a second time. They will not have that argument, because we will tell them the first time, ``Do it again and bang—we're going to hit you.'' No amount of past or future research can let such cheats off the hook.

As I understand the findings of the jobseeker's allowance research, a majority of respondents said that they would take care and be more wary in future, and that they had become more determined to find work. That is part of the exercise. We aim to get everybody in the country into gainful employment, if physically possible. There is no excuse not to be gainfully employed. The greatest asset that any country has is its people's capacity and willingness to work. If we fail to use any part of that asset, it is bad for us economically as well as bad for the quality of life of the people concerned. That is why we ask people what they can do, rather than telling them what they cannot do. We are trying to change the culture.

I want to spell the matter out as it is, so that there is no misunderstanding. We are not in favour of persistent benefit cheats, but the Lib-Dems are giving the impression that they are, by continually making excuses for them. We will not allow those excuses to go unchallenged.

Mr. Webb: Will the Minister of State give way on that point?

Mr. Rooker: I will give way in a moment, and then the hon. Gentleman can make all the points that he wants. We have plenty of time for that.

It will not be the case that people will not understand what is happening. The people who we are talking about are not lovable rogues, but persistent benefit cheats. We could give many examples of people who have cheated the system twice or even tried to do so a third time. We catch and prosecute them, but all of a sudden, we still have to pay them benefit. My constituents, many of them low-paid taxpayers, wonder what the hell is going on. Why are we allowing that to occur? We have reached the point of saying, ``Sorry, but we are not doing this any more.''

Mr. Webb rose—

Mr. Rooker: In a moment I will sit down, or give way to the hon. Gentleman, but I first want to make it absolutely clear that there is a set of benefits that will not count as a strike. They will not be withdrawn, even if a person defrauds the system and is prosecuted. They are maternity allowance, statutory maternity pay, statutory sick pay, working families tax credit and disabled persons tax credit.

Another list is of benefits that are disqualifying benefits but will not be sanctioned. One is the retirement pension. If a person is caught cheating on that, and prosecuted twice, it will not be sanctioned, but other benefits, such as income support, will be. Others benefits are disqualifying and sanctionable, including income support, jobseeker's allowance, and housing and council tax benefits. There are conditions for hardship allowance. For example, we will not withdraw free school meals, irrespective of the conditions. We have been very strict about what we will sanction. The hon. Gentleman mentioned proportion, but we are talking about the restriction of, say, £20.80 a week—or £10.40 for a person with children—for 13 weeks. That is not 26 weeks, or a year, or for ever. Housing benefit will remain, so the point about shelter is inaccurate.

Our policy is moderate in scope and tough in intent. It is designed to provide a deterrent and to ensure that the overwhelming majority of taxpayers and benefit claimants who are law abiding—neither benefit cheats nor persistent benefit cheats—do not suffer. The small minority who are persistent benefit cheats will be dealt with. The clause makes a technical adjustment of the benefit system to achieve that. I give way, as it looks like the hon. Gentleman has something more to get off his chest.

Mr. Webb: On a point of order, Mr. Maxton. The Minister has repeatedly refused to give way, so I would rather make a separate contribution.

The Chairman: I call the Minister.

Mr. Rooker: I have finished speaking.

Mr. Webb: One can always tell when the Minister has things wrong—he will not accept interventions. He goes along creating a straw man in order to knock it down. The phrase ``lovable rogue'' came from his lips, not mine, and it was not said by my noble Friend Earl Russell. If the Minister had been listening, he would know that I said that everyone agrees that people who defraud the benefit system are doing wrong and deserve appropriate punishment. No one claims that these are nice or good people who should not be punished. A mature, grown-up debate would be about what punishment is appropriate. The Minister has simply asserted that the punishment in the clause is right on the basis, practically, of no evidence.

Let us examine the available evidence. Research reported in the Allbeson study suggests that a majority of people questioned did not fancy being ``close to destitution'' and might try harder next time. Any fool can impose a severe sanction to force people to do what he wants; the key question is whether, in a civilised society, the sanction is appropriate or excessive. That is our key point. It is not that we like these people or defend what they do; it is simply that the Government's sanction is not proportionate but excessive.

I specifically asked the Minister about children in affected families, but he ignored the question, perhaps accidentally. The report used the word destitution and the Department's researchers found that families with children were the worst affected. The Minister glossed over that, because it is good knockabout politics to pretend that other parties are soft on benefit fraud. What about the children? The Minister has not responded. One presumes that he believes that because parents should not defraud, it does not matter what happens to their children. These children suffer as a result of the present sanctions. The Minister is about to introduce new sanctions, which will mean more innocent people suffering. He offered no defence, because he has no defence.

Before we go further down the road of sanctions, the Liberal Democrats want the Department to recognise their effect—so far the Department has chosen to ignore what little evidence is available—and to take account of it in framing the pattern of sanctions. Instead, the Department has opted for this populist nonsense and suggested that we are soft on benefit fraud. We agree that fraud is wrong; we agree that it should be punished; but the question in a mature democracy is what punishment is appropriate. The punishment in the clause is inappropriate, so we shall oppose the clause.

Question put, That the clause stand part of the Bill:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 11, Noes 2.

Division No. 1]

Atkinson, Mr. Peter
Burden, Mr. Richard
Eagle, Angela
Hepburn, Mr. Stephen
Humble, Mrs. Joan
Lait, Mrs. Jacqui
Mountford, Kali
Pearson, Mr. Ian
Prentice, Mr. Gordon
Rooker, Mr. Jeff
Watts, Mr. Dave

Burstow, Mr. Paul
Webb, Steve

Question accordingly agreed to.

Clause 7 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 8 to 14 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 15

Colluding employers

6 pm

Mrs. Lait: I beg to move amendment No. 56, in page 17, line 35, leave out from `where' to end of line 36 and insert

    `the Secretary of State or an authority that administers housing benefit or council tax benefit is satisfied'.

The amendment should not detain us long. We tabled it not because we wish to raise yet again the definition of ``appears'' but to try to tease out from the Government the process that they envisage for dealing with colluding employers. Do they envisage an either/or situation of prosecution and penalties simultaneously, or prosecutions or penalties first? We thing that the best way to encourage employers not to collude is not necessarily to prosecute them, but I should be grateful if the Minister enlightened us about the general philosophy behind the Government's approach.

Previous Contents Continue

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries ordering index

©Parliamentary copyright 2001
Prepared 9 April 2001