Tax Credits Bill

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Mr. Webb: The Minister raises the important issue of the new deal, which is a major program that coincides with the over-25 threshold. She made a fair point. The minimum wage changes when people reach 21 or 22 years of age. That is an argument for a different threshold, but I take her point.

The hon. Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) intervened on the subject of relative poverty rates. I presume that the Minister was referring to rates of persistence of poverty, rather than cross-sectional poverty. The incidence of cross-sectional poverty is much higher for the under-25s.

Under the amendment, we envisaged an age threshold of about 21 years. Clearly, it would be going too far to lower the age to 16. For that reason, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Mr. Webb: I should like to raise an issue that I told the Minister I would raise this morning. We have not yet covered it in our discussions on the amendments. It

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is how the definition of ''remunerative work'' affects expectant mothers. Maternity Alliance raised the issue with me, and pointed out that under the proposed rules, when a woman shifts from paid to unpaid maternity leave, she could fall foul of the remunerative work rule as she had ceased to do remunerative work, and could lose the working tax credit. Under the existing working families tax credit, there would be no adjustment because of the fixed six-month rule, and once the money was awarded, the expectant mother would receive help. Will the Government consider whether, under the provisions for remunerative work, mothers whose maternity pay ceases after birth would still be entitled to the working tax credit?

The Government have an agenda for maternity and paternity leave. In general, it will not be paid by the state beyond statutory minimum levels. If the Government want to encourage parents to take that leave, making the working tax credit available would create more of an incentive for them to do so.

The final issue raised by Maternity Alliance is whether people come into eligibility only after the birth of the child. That relates to the clause, because whether one receives the working tax credit and is subject to the relevant hours threshold depends on whether one has children. The Government might consider whether a woman during her period of confinement, or in the latter stages of pregnancy, might start to come within the scope of the working tax credit or child tax credit, given the strong evidence that maternal welfare during pregnancy has a strong bearing on the welfare of the child and its subsequent development. Do the Government have any thoughts along those lines? The question of remunerative work and whether women receiving maternity pay would lose it under the new system should be addressed.

Mr. Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire): One of the attractions of opposition—they are few—is that those who normally remain silent are occasionally allowed to give voice. In that, I have an advantage over the hon. Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Sutcliffe). I hope that he and the Minister will think that it is appropriate that I allow myself the luxury of a few words.

I am glad that the hon. Member for Northavon spoke first, as he highlighted the inadequacy of this and several other clauses in the Bill. In a sense, the Minister's response to what he just said is terribly easy. She can just say, ''We'll deal with that through regulations when they are drafted.''

My concern, which I have not expressed in previous debates—as I am a member of the usual channels, it is an especially lively concern—is the extent to which the Bill and the clause confer regulation-making powers on the Government. The Minister will be familiar with my concern, which she will have heard expressed in other Standing Committees, and which her Government colleagues will have heard from other Opposition Members on previous occasions. I am genuinely puzzled by the number of occasions on which, increasingly, Bills merely confer order-making powers on the Government. This Bill seems to be a

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classic example. It provides the Government with permission to go away and do what they choose, how and when they choose to do it.

Arbitrarily, I have alighted on clause 10 as an opportunity to make that point. There are other clauses under which matters that could have been determined subsequently by regulation are spelled out in considerable detail. Clause 11 seems to be one such—the Minister may correct me on that—whereas clause 10, which contains important provisions in relation to the workings of the Bill, leaves it to regulation. The definition of work in relation to the working families tax credit is subject to regulations, whereas the next clause spells out a maximum rate in considerable detail. Why is that?

By my arbitrary calculation, I reckon that clause 10 represents the seventh occasion in the Bill on which we have been invited to confer on the Government the power to make regulations. In this instance, the regulation is rather straightforward. I chose not to speak on earlier clauses because they contained matters of substance that the Committee had debated, and I was anxious that we should make progress. I shall not labour this point, as you would rule me out of order if I did, Mr. Beard, but clause 4 is another example, and clause 6 in particular is merely a list of regulations that the Government could make. Arguably, a whole series of regulations could be made. By my calculation, power is conferred on the Government to make regulations on 19 separate occasions in the Bill. Clause 6 is one of the worst examples—

The Chairman: Order. The hon. Gentleman should return to clause 10.

Mr. Luff: I take your advice, Mr. Beard, and am grateful for it. I certainly will. However, I do not want to rise each time that a clause mentions a regulation-making power. The Government Whip would think that I wanted to delay the Bill unnecessarily, and I do not want to do that. If you could give me a modicum of indulgence, I will not refer to such issues again during our proceedings.

There are about 19 separate occasions that specify the way in which the regulations under clause 10—and most worryingly those under clauses 60 and 61—will be applied. I shall not refer in detail to clauses 60 and 61, because I do not wish to debate them now—

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The Chairman: Order. I have allowed the hon. Gentleman a modicum of latitude, but he should stick to clause 10.

Mr. Luff: It is important to say that the clause relates strictly to clause 61, because that defines each regulation, including the one under discussion, as being implemented by the negative procedure. The hon. Member for Northavon raised an important point about the treatment of expectant women, but such regulations cannot be amended or even debated. That is a worry. I will not labour the point, Mr. Beard, because you have already chastised me on several occasions.

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I read the explanatory notes to clause 10, to see why regulation-making powers are necessary. They are the most unilluminating notes I have ever seen. They simply repeat the clause using different words. In one sense, that is a tribute to the parliamentary draftsman, because clause 10 is easy to understand. One of the reasons why I did not speak to earlier clauses was the fear that I might get dragged by interventions into discussing the details, which, frankly, I have often not understood. Members of the Committee include a barrister, a professor of social policy and a distinguished figure in the City of London, all of whom have detailed understanding of such matters.

Clause 10 is the type of provision under which regulations are unnecessary. Clause 1 introduces the working tax credit, and surely it should define work without relying on a subsequent definition introduced under the negative procedure at a later date? That is a most unsatisfactory procedure.

Although there have been rulings that there be no stand part debate, there has, in fact, been no yearning for one, because members of the Committee take the Bill seriously and are anxious to make progress. In response to clause 10 stand part, will the Minister explain why clause 10 does not define work without relying on a regulation-making power at a subsequent date? Will she also say why the Bill relies so heavily on regulation-making powers at a later date with regard to almost everything of any importance that it wishes to do? That is a serious flaw. Perhaps the hon. Member for Bradford, South and I should be pleased about the negative procedure because it means that we spend little time discussing regulations in Committee.

The issues are important for the people that they will affect. The Government are rushing the Bill through—particularly clause 10—before they have finished thinking about what they want to be in it. Had they delayed for a month or two, they could have provided a definition of work. The issues—the number of hours worked, the age of the claimant, the disability, the responsibility for a child—are spelled out in both the clause and the explanatory notes. With a little more time and consideration, the Government could have paid members of the Committee the courtesy of a definition of work under the Bill.

The Chairman: I hope that the Minister will not accept the hon. Gentleman's invitation to go beyond clause 10.

Dawn Primarolo: I would most certainly not accept such an invitation. I wish first to deal with the regulation-making powers. I remember making similar points to those made by the hon. Gentleman when I was a member of Her Majesty's Opposition before the general election in 1997. Under our parliamentary system, Opposition parties are duty bound to make such points. Government have also determined what is—and what is not—to be provided for under regulations for a considerable time. I remind the hon. Gentleman of when his party proposed similar legislation and the extensive regulation-making powers that they used. Certain Bills and regulations allow us to alter some of the variables according to changes in circumstances, without recourse to parliamentary time, because primary

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legislation requires more time and is more difficult to programme.

For the record, I inform the Committee that the levels at which family credit—the system introduced by the Conservative party—was paid were set out in regulations and subject to the negative resolution procedure, and so was the mechanism by which family credit was withdrawn, although we have set that out clearly under the Bill. The definition of work in respect of family credit was determined under regulations and, guess what, they were negative resolutions.

I shall save the hon. Gentleman's blushes. Although I may damage his political career, I must say that I like him.

 
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Prepared 17 January 2002