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Earl Russell: My Lords, I thank the Minister warmly for those last remarks. It is a small mercy but it is a real one. For the rest, the argument is slightly less persuasive to me than perhaps the Minister hoped. I remember very vividly the farewell debate of Lord Taylor of Gosforth on the White Paper which preceded the Crime Sentences Bill. Noble and learned Lords packed the Cross Benches; they were almost solid. One speaker observed that it was impossible to know what had happened in a court case simply from reading the press reports. One could not know without reading the transcript. Every one of Her Majesty's judges nodded in unison as if the Mace had passed.
I think that applies to the case that the Minister quoted. It sounded a serious case but it raised two possibilities. I have no idea whatever which of them might be appropriate. First, it is of course possible that the court may have been too lenient. Courts have been known to be so, as everyone else has. The other possibility is that there could have been a peculiar personal circumstance in the case. The remarks that the Minister made about post-natal depression in relation to the absolute discharge could, for example, perfectly well have applied in relation to the case we are discussing. I believe that neither she nor I has the first idea whether it did. It does seem to me to be inherent in just sentencing that it should be appropriate to the particular person who is in the dock as well as to the strict tariff slot-machine principle appropriate to the crime. We are not going in for a 10th century penitential in which an exact level of penance was laid down for every sin the confessor had imagined, no matter whether anyone had ever been known to commit it. There were some pretty strange sins in those days.
We are trying to do justice to individuals. There is something wrong with government thinking as a whole. However, it stretches far beyond the confines of any government or any party and, therefore, far beyond the confines of the Bill. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
The noble Earl said: My Lords, the amendment seeks to delete the words "or loan" from the list of things of which people may be deprived. It invites the Minister to set out what the position is under this Bill about sanctioning of Social Fund loans. Also I hope that she will provide--I have given the Minister notice of this--some explanation of the change in the guidelines on Social Fund loans of April 1999 which resulted in many more people than before being found too poor to receive them. We have had as yet in this House nothing like a full account of that. If the Minister wishes to tell me these two matters are totally independent of each other, I shall be glad to hear it. But as there is a serious possibility of a link between them, I think it could be useful to the House to hear it. I beg to move.
Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, I ought not to be tempted into a general debate on the Social Fund and its adequacy and success. All I would say is that since the discretionary fund was introduced in 1988 something like 17 million loans worth over £3 billion have been granted. In 1999-2000, over 2.2 million awards were made, providing help to more people than ever before. The gross budget for 2001, £596 million, was an increase of £60 million over the previous year's budget. I could go on and specify individual budgets. Both the number of people applying and the amount available to people in terms of the gross sums for the Social Fund have increased. Certainly all of the research from the CAB reports that the noble Earl will be familiar with suggests that the Social Fund by comparison with the alternatives, pawn shops, credit facilities and the like, is a safe, secure and affordable way for people to obtain a larger sum of money than they could normally have access to.
The amendment seeks to remove Social Fund loans from being counted as disqualifying benefits for the purposes of this part of the Bill, even though we know that fraud, particularly girocheque fraud, is not uncommon. I say at the outset that what we shall not do is sanction Social Fund loans. We accept that fraud may be committed against Social Fund loans, in which case it counts for the purposes of disqualifying benefit. But the cuts--that is, the sanctions--will not fall on the loan itself but on either income support or JSA in the first instance. I wonder whether I need to say more. We recognise that that threat may arise but we are protecting the loans for, I think, decent reasons; namely, that these loans are often paid in urgent or desperate situations and to sanction payment of them would be inconsistent with their purpose of seeking to prevent hardship. Therefore, we shall not do it.
Lord Higgins: My Lords, the Bill which we are now being asked to pass is very different from the Bill which the House received and debated at Second Reading. The Bill is in many respects a great deal better. I do not propose to detain the House by specifying all the various concessions which the Government have made and which I believe are entirely justified. I believe that we have greatly improved the Bill. We must hope that the Commons will continue to carry out the role of scrutiny as a revising Chamber.
Some points are still outstanding. On human rights and data protection, no outside body will validate the justification of an inquiry into whether fraud is committed. However, we have made progress with regard to the code of practice and so on. My noble friend referred earlier to the problem about the appropriate official who will consider whether an inquiry is justified, given that there is no outside body.
There are further disputes about the burden of costs which will fall on local authorities. The local authorities state that only two-thirds of the costs are covered although the Government dispute that. My noble friend Lady Noakes dealt with the issue of costs to business. There are still concerns in that respect, and with regard to the Scampion report and so on. Will sufficient resources be devoted to dealing with fraud investigations when considering the increased revenue as a result of such investigations? It seems to be substantially greater than the costs of carrying out such fraud investigations.
Overall, I believe that your Lordships' House should be satisfied with the progress of the Bill. Perhaps I may express thanks for the help of my noble friend Lord Astor of Hever, the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, and the noble Earl, Lord Russell. We are glad to see that noble Earl has recovered from his indisposition. Perhaps I may also thank the noble Lord, Lord Grabiner. In a sense, he is the father of the Bill. The Minister has fulfilled the role of midwife. She has done so in a quite extraordinary way. A fairy godmother descended on the House in the form of concessions about codes of practice and whether or not some groups of suspects should be suspect, although in that instance it was clear that any vote would be lost by the Government. Generally speaking, the Minister has carried through the business in an entirely impartial way. On all sides we have sought to improve the Bill which is now significantly better. I do not oppose the Motion that the Bill do now pass.
Lord Brightman: My Lords, I should be grateful if I may take up a few moments of your Lordships' time before the Bill is passed. I wish only to record certain facts and to ask, with great respect to this House, whether we are properly fulfilling our duties as a legislative chamber.
The general purpose of the Bill is to amend Part VI of the Social Security Administration Act 1992. Since that Bill was enacted Part VI has been amended by no fewer than 15 Acts of Parliament. It has grown from 12 to 26 sections to date. Your Lordships may gauge the extent of the amendments from the fact that Part VI now contains sections which are bizarrely numbered 110ZA and 121DA. We are used to that sort of enumeration on Marshalled Lists but I think it is the first time I have ever seen it in a statute.
The history of Part VI is unprecedented. It was first amended in 1992 by the Local Government Finance Act of that year; in 1993 by the Pension Schemes Act; in 1995 by the Jobseekers Act, the Pensions Act and the Criminal Procedure (Consequential Provisions) (Scotland) Act; in 1996 by the Housing Act; in 1997 by the Social Security (Recovery of Benefits) Act and the Social Security Administration (Fraud) Act; in 1998 by the Social Security Act and the Magistrates' Courts (Procedure) Act; in 1999 by the Access to Justice Act, the Social Security Contributions (Transfer of Functions) Act and the Welfare Reform and Pensions Act; and in 2000 by the Powers of Criminal Courts (Sentencing) Act and the Child Support and Pensions Act. Those are 15 amending Acts in all.
Of the original 12 sections in Part VI, all have been repealed or rewritten. Of the 60 subsections into which the original 12 sections were divided, only eight remain intact. Those figures take no account of the further amendments intended to be made by some six clauses of the Bill before us.
What is a person to do who needs to read Part VI of the 1992 Act in its amended form? He has two choices. He can sit down with a pen, a pair of scissors and a jar of paste, turn up each of the 15 amending Acts and rewrite Part VI in its amended form. That will take him a very long time. I know that because I tried it myself. His second choice is to seek access to a properly programmed computer and obtain a print-out of Part VI as amended by the 15 statutes I have mentioned. But that is not a wholly satisfactory course. During Committee stage of the Bill I asked the House of Lords Library if it could give me a print-out of Part VI as amended. It provided a print-out from an online database but regretted that it could not give me a print-out which included the eight pages of amendments made by the Child Support Pensions Act 2000.
I think we should ask ourselves whether we are legislating in a proper form. When an Act, or a part of an Act, has been amended by 15 later Acts, should we not have a new Act rather than force the reader to rely on computer print-outs to which that reader may or may not have easy access and which may or may not be up-to-date? Is there any precedent for amending an Act for the 16th time, as this will be, and for having sections which need to be numbered 110ZA and 121DA?
Part VI of the 1992 Act has become a drafting quagmire. I do not blame the drafting fraternity. I am told that it is undermanned and underfunded. But something should be done to prevent a repetition of
Earl Russell: My Lords, the House is in the debt of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brightman, who has drawn attention to difficulties in what I described on Second Reading as the acrostic method of legislation. This is not the Minister's fault. She saw the problem coming and on Second Reading her private office generously made available to us texts of the 2000 Act. I am sure that they would have done the same for the noble and learned Lord as well had they known he was concerned. However, that is not a satisfactory answer to his problem. The Minister is not answerable. I hope that she will convey the noble and learned Lord's remarks to whoever is answerable. We should return to the issue when whoever is properly responsible--I would be glad to know who it is--is present. In the mean time, this is no criticism of the Minister.
This Minister knows that I have misgivings about the Bill. This is not the time to debate them. However, as a model of how the parliamentary process should work once we have got into the Chamber, our proceedings on this Bill have been excellent. I thank the Minister, the noble Lords, Lord Grabiner, Lord Higgins and Lord Astor of Hever, my noble friend Lord Goodhart and the staff of our Whips' Office, who have done a great deal to get everything in order for us. Within the constraints to which the noble and learned Lord has rightly drawn attention, we have done our best. To that extent, in spite of the genuine and true remarks of the noble and learned Lord, the progress of the Bill still does Parliament credit.
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