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I apologise for my absence during the last part of the previous debate. I am sure that hon. Members will appreciate the reasons. I am grateful to the Under- Secretary of State for Social Security, my hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Angela Eagle), for dealing with the last group of amendments.
This is a short Bill, which I described earlier as a technical adjustment of the Government's anti-fraud measures. It is a modest measure, but a necessary one. Each year the Department loses at least £2 billion through benefit
The Bill contains a range of measures. It is not necessary to list them in great detail. The key measure will require banks, building societies and other institutions to provide information when there is a reasonable suspicion that a person has committed or intends to commit benefit fraud. The Bill contains strict safeguards to ensure that that power is not abused. The code of practice will be properly consulted on, as I said earlier. It will be the guiding light under which the powers in the Bill are operated and it will be able to be used in court cases.
As my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Social Security said in the earlier debate, there is a balance to be struck. We could have left things as they were, although they were unacceptable, or we could have taken draconian measures. Instead, we have taken the modest measures in the Bill and will use our best endeavours to attack the level of fraud with which we have to cope.
The Bill also contains a power to exchange information with social security administrations in other countries to combat transnational benefit fraud. This is a limited, modest measure that will rightly be curtailed by proper Government-to-Government agreements. The Bill also introduces the "two strikes and you're out" sanction.
We make no great claims for the Bill, which is designed to be a deterrent. We do not think that it will affect more than 500 people a year. We do not know how many of those will have children, but the fact remains that it is designed to be a deterrent. We must be seen to be taking some measures, in the public interest, against the hard core of repeat benefit fraud offenders.
The Bill contains a power to apply civil penalties swiftly when an employer has colluded with an employee's benefit fraud. Such collusion is serious, but we want to be able to offer the employers concerned a quick civil penalty as an alternative to prosecution. We think that that will be in their interests, while also--we hope--acting as a deterrent. The amount of evidence must be the same, and the case will be dealt with by means of either prosecution or acceptance of the civil penalty. There is no question of there being no proper investigation of collusive employers.
We make no major claim for the Bill. We do not suggest that it will eliminate benefit fraud. As in all walks of life, there will always be crooks and fraudsters. We believe, however, that the Bill constitutes a reasonable attack on the current scale of benefit fraud in closing some of the more obvious loopholes that we have encountered in recent years. I hope that it will be given an unopposed Third Reading.
Mrs. Lait: I was concerned for a moment, because I feared that we would not have a Third Reading speech from the Minister, and with it an opportunity to offer the ultimate valedictory wishes--or is it penultimate?
Discussion of this Bill has been interesting, easy and amiable. The cast of characters has been similar to that of previous debates. Perhaps the only moment of excitement occurred during debate on the last group of amendments, when the words "benefits unit" were used instead of "households", "people" or "individuals". It struck me then that the social policy professor, rather than the politician, was coming to the fore.
We have debated all the issues at some length. In one or two respects we shall still want reassurance in the form of Government action, although of course we never know: by 7 June it might be our action that is required rather than that of the present Government, in which event we might implement the Bill and ensure the provision of effective fraud prevention measures.
I have just noticed that, according to the television monitor, I should be talking about NHS appointments and political bias--in Westminster Hall, moreover. The monitor is clearly very confused. I do not plan to talk about political bias in NHS appointments, although it is obvious that it exists; I shall talk about the Social Security Fraud Bill, and the various matters that we shall monitor to ensure that the Government's intentions are implemented.
The Government have given me some reassurances about how closely they will listen to consultation, and about their negotiation--which we hope will take place--on the code of practice. As the Minister said, the code of practice is the key to many of the provisions relating to authorised officers, single points of contact, trawling and costs. We hope that a Government, or a Department, may be generous enough to produce a list of overseas countries with which contracts will be exchanged. We hope it might even be possible for the Government to see their way to becoming a member of CIFAS. We also hope very much that consultation will be productive, and that the fears and concerns expressed by various organisations will be dealt with. We trust that that will involve negotiation leading to agreement, rather than a stand-off.
The Bill makes a mockery of the programme motion system. It has gone through its stages largely as a result of agreement, although there may have been disagreement on certain points. There has been no trouble at all. The fact that we should have been debating Third Reading between 9 pm and 10 pm shows that the programme motion system is far too rigid, and that we would be better off with the old system.
I have no intention of opposing the Bill. We have supported its principles; we are just sad that it has taken the Government four years to produce them. We hope very much that, modest measure as it is--at this point I recall Winston Churchill's comment that Clement Attlee was a modest man with much to be modest about--the Bill will achieve what the Government want it to achieve.
I think I am right in saying that the Bill we are discussing now is identical--apart from the reference to privilege--to the Bill that we discussed on Second Reading. However, the House will be relieved to know that I will not repeat my Second Reading speech.
It is symptomatic and regrettable, as I said in Committee, that the Department's strategy on Bills does not involve seeing the contributions of Opposition parties as a chance to improve them. Once Bills have been to another place, where the Government are forced to listen to the other side, the strategy is to steamroller them through. Debates such as the one on war pensions illustrate the fact that this Bill could have been made better, even without the sacrifice of any great points of principle. It is a pity that the opportunity was not taken.
As I said earlier, the Liberal Democrats will not oppose Third Reading. Notwithstanding the parodies of our position that we have heard, we are as committed as anyone to the elimination of benefit fraud. As we see the passing of new powers for the Government, it strikes me that they have failed to use existing powers. The fact that they can use those powers to force local authorities to crack down on fraud but have done so only once in the past 12 months, in the case of Northampton borough council, suggests that when seeking new powers Governments might be asked to use the powers that they have rather more effectively. Why that has not happened in this case remains a mystery to me.
We hope that the obtaining of third-party information will help to identify fraud. We have yet to be convinced that the seeking of some three quarters of a million bits of information each year can be policed very effectively, even if only a limited number of people are doing it. If I were an authorised officer, I could cover my tracks fairly effectively in the midst of a blitz of requests for information, with one or two rogue ones. I am still not convinced that we shall not have to return to the supervision of authorised officers. Fresh in our minds is the debate about sanctions, which I will not rehearse but which constitutes our principal misgiving about the Bill.