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Lord Goodhart: My Lords, perhaps I may begin by saying that I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, does not intend to divide the House on his Motion. If he does, I have to say that I will be unable to follow him. However, from the way in which the noble Lord introduced his Motion, I rather suspect that he does not actually intend to do so.
Having said that, in our view the complaint which the noble Lord makes is entirely justified. We quite understand the Government's difficulties, which result from the fact that the increased generosity of the working families' tax credit may lead to families with well over average incomes receiving the tax credit. Therefore, the Government may well feel that it is inappropriate for everyone who receives the tax credit to receive passported benefits in the way that those who received family credit were entitled to do. We also understand that this will involve the decision being taken by a number of different departments and that that will take some time.
Nevertheless, the fact that we have now reached the Report stage in this House without yet knowing what the Government plan to do about passported benefits, shows a very depressing lack of a sense of urgency. We realise that the right to passported benefits is something which, in the normal course of events, would be dealt with in regulations. The Government have very rightly and properly produced draft regulations as regards all other aspects of the Bill; for example, we have seen the draft regulations which fall under Clause 6 and those which come under Clause 15. We have also seen the draft regulations which amend the existing regulations governing family credit. However, we have still not seen anything that tells us what will happen about passported benefits.
Baroness Fookes: My Lords, I rise to support this amendment to the Motion because I am extremely disappointed that so far we do not appear to have had the slightest indication of what the position might be. I of course understand the difficulty of involving a number of different departments but it was surely this Government who were going to pride themselves upon joined up government. What does that mean if not getting various government departments to act together where it is appropriate to do so? I am not impressed if it is the case that that difficulty is preventing the Government from making any decisions so far.
I ask your Lordships to look at this matter from the point of view of the individual and of individual families. The question of free prescriptions or other free provision is extremely important to people who have small incomes. Obviously the whole point of this exercise is that money will be paid to encourage people into work even when perhaps they cannot earn much when they first enter work. These are matters of great importance to individuals and to families. Therefore it is high time that the Government gave us some information as to whether they will allow passporting, or if that is not to be done as a whole as it was done previously, whether at least certain benefits may be passported, even if not all of them. At least that would give us something to work on. I beg the Minister to try to give us some indication of that.
Lord Swinfen: My Lords, this is a most unusual Motion and one that I do not recall previously in my 22 years in this House. However, it is quite right that the Motion has been put down. This House would be failing in its duty if it did not inquire into the position of passported benefits. I believe the Government have been lax in not coming forward with their suggestions at least by this stage of the Bill, bearing in mind that it has gone through the other place. We are now just about to start on the Report stage. We have Report stage to come and Third Reading only. This position may have arisen because the tax credits are being moved from one ministry to another. However, joined up government means that ministries talk to each other, or should do so. I am certain that if the Minister was sitting on the Front Bench on this side of the House and another party was in power she would be doing something similar to my noble friend Lord Higgins. She shakes her head. She may not have done it in the same way but she would still want the information that is required.
Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, the amendment to this Motion would stop the House moving to Report stage of this Bill until the Government had stated what they proposed to do about prescription charges for those who from October will be on WFTC or DPTC. At the moment those on family credit and disability working allowance are passported on to free prescriptions. Their benefits act as proxy indicators of low income households. However, as your Lordships
As the noble Baroness, Lady Fookes, said, we are all agreed that this is an important issue. It is therefore entirely proper that this issue should be debated at Report stage. I do not disagree with those noble Lords who wish to debate it. I entirely take the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Swinfen. The matter should be debated at Report stage as it was at Committee stage; that is, it should be debated around an amendment in the Bill rather than an amendment to a Motion; namely, that the Report stage be deferred. I made it clear at Committee stage that the Government would make their position clear before the Bill left Parliament. I was in no position to commit us to a faster timetable than that. However, the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, has now moved that we do not proceed to the Report stage of this Bill; in other words, that we abandon today's and next week's business until the Government have made a statement on passporting.
As I say, I believe that this is an issue that matters. However, it is not central to this Bill. It is one of several issues such as childcare proposals and the maintenance disregard which are affected by this Bill, which are consequential on this Bill but which are not central to this Bill. The issue does not require primary legislation and it requires no changes to this Bill. Indeed this Bill builds on family credit and DWA to create WFTC and DPTC by renaming the benefits and then building on those foundations. Other departments--not the Inland Revenue, not the Treasury, not the DSS--notably the Department of Health, name the benefit recipients in their rules and regulations in order correctly to identify recipients. It will in particular be for the DoH to determine eligibility for its low income scheme.
Therefore when the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, said this issue was a matter for this Bill, I am afraid he was wrong. It is not a matter for this Bill. This Bill is about eligibility for tax credits and how they will be determined. It is for the separate departments to legislate in their regulations if they do or do not want to passport WFTC or DPTC as if those same recipients were still on family credit or DWA. As I say, like several other issues--childcare is one and maintenance is another--NHS charges, while properly of concern, are side aspects of this Bill. Therefore in my view it is wrong to seek to delay the entire Report stage of this Bill and to stop the Government getting their business through on a matter which is not central to this Bill and which requires no action in this Bill.
As the noble Lord, Lord Swinfen, said, to force a Division to defer Report stage is without precedent in this House to the best of my knowledge. I do not think any of us can recall a Report stage being deferred in this way, let alone on something not even central to the policy of the Bill and not even part of the Bill's legislation. The resulting dislocation to government business would inevitably be taken seriously. I regret this method of proceeding. As I say, I think it is entirely proper to discuss this issue around an amendment later in the Report stage. However, I regret this method of proceeding even more because the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, gave me no warning either in person or by letter that he intended to take this action.
Following the Committee stage a number of your Lordships around the Chamber wrote to me following up issues of concern. The noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, wrote on issues of care and maintenance; the noble Lords, Lord Swinfen, and Lord Rix, on issues of the disabled person's tax credit; my noble friend Lord Haskel on the issue of affirmative regulations for childcare. In all of the cases where people wrote to me I did my best, as I always do, to respond as positively as I could. Where it seemed that there were points of substance that we could and should take on board I would seek to bring forward either government amendments or to give assurances. As I have said, the style of the House is not confrontational. We take points on board and if we can and should address them we seek to do so.
The noble Lord, Lord Higgins, did not choose to act as his colleagues did by writing to me to see whether we could clear up the matter, which would have been courteous and appropriate. That would have given me the opportunity of setting out a possible timetable by correspondence and clearing up the matter that way, rather than seeking to disrupt the entire Bill. I do not know why the noble Lord should choose the path of confrontation rather than that of discussion, as his noble friends and other noble Lords have done. I regret that he has done so. It is not appropriate to the style of the House.
We are giving careful consideration as to how to strike the right balance between protecting low income recipients of WFTC who would have been eligible while on family credit--a point made so well by the noble Baroness, Lady Fookes--while not at the same time giving free prescriptions to those with much higher incomes.
I have already given a commitment that the Government will state their intentions before the Bill leaves Parliament. I have every expectation that I will be able to set out our intentions at Third Reading. That will give the House the opportunity to discuss the proposals. That would have been clear when we came to discuss the appropriate amendments either tonight or next week. Indeed, I could have made that clear to the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, had he chosen to write to me on the issue, as his noble colleagues did, after the Committee stage. Then perhaps the Motion might not have been necessary.
For all those reasons and the fact that I will be able to give a statement to your Lordships at Third Reading--as I have always hoped I would--I hope that the noble Lord will feel able to withdraw his Motion tonight.
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