|Previous Section||Home Page|
Dr. Twinn: Does my hon. Friend agree that fraud is widely resented by the vast majority of benefit recipients and by taxpayers? Does he welcome the £100 million of savings that were made in the last financial year in giro and order book frauds? Does he agree that his proposals will be welcomed in the fight against fraud in the future?
Mr. Arbuthnot: My hon. Friend is right. There has also been a consistent increase in the overall savings from fraud that the Department has made. Last year, the savings were £654 million, which was an increase of 17 per cent. on the year before. That is good news for everyone.
Mr. Skinner: Is the Minister aware that one of the biggest frauds in social security is the fact that about £500 million a year is lost by employers who take their national insurance and tax from employees and do not hand it over to the responsible authorities? Hardly any action is taken against those employers. Why do not the Government do something about it? The Secretary of State can keep his trap shut.
16. Ms Church: To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security when he expects the Income Related Benefit Schemes (Miscellaneous Amendments) (No. 3) Regulations 1994 (No. 1807) on the habitual residence test to come into force.
Ms Church: How can the Minister defend a system that means that thousands of British nationals find, on their return to this country, that they do not have rights to the benefits that they expected? They are people who cannot be described as crooks, drug addicts or undesirables.
Mr. Evans: I am a little puzzled by the supplementary question because the hon. Lady's main question asked when the regulations would come into force. As I pointed out, they came into force on 1 August 1994; 14,789 British citizens have passed the test and 2,086 have failed. The Government take the view that benefit tourism is strongly resented by the British taxpayer and that those who have not paid taxes in this country recently must expect to wait a while.
Sir Peter Hordern (representing the Public Account Commission): I understand that the National Audit Office employs about 370 qualified accountants and 62 qualified accounting technicians. One hundred and twenty -three staff are training for those qualifications. In addition, the National Audit Office contracts out about 10 per cent. of accounts audit work to the private sector. As a result, all accounts are audited by trained staff. The NAO also employs a wide range of professional staff in other disciplines, both to undertake value-for-money work and in administration.
Mr. Marshall: I am sure that my right hon. Friend would agree that the level of fraud within the European Union is one of the biggest scandals in public expenditure. Has the Comptroller and Auditor General had any discussions with the European Court of Auditors with a view to dealing with that scandal?
Sir Peter Hordern: The Comptroller and Auditor General is deeply interested in that matter. I can confirm that he has had discussions with members of the European Court of Auditors with a view to finding out what proposals might be put forward to remedy some of the frauds that have taken place and to present those proposals at the next intergovernmental conference. However, the difficulty remains and it is not so much the establishment of that form of corruption, but the lack of will on the part of member countries to deal with it.
Mr. Flynn: Would it not be a good idea to get the accountants and auditors to look at frivolous candidates in elections so that candidates who do not have a hope of proper victory do not get involved in the election process? Will the right hon. Gentleman note that the Conservatives are to be congratulated on getting more votes in Islwyn last week than the Yogic Flyers and the official raving loony party, and are now the official loony party? Can he reply? Sir Peter Hordern rose --
Sir Peter Hordern: I was only going to say that if the Comptroller and Auditor General had to deal with that matter he might equally be asked to investigate what happened in the rugby match between England and Wales.
17. Mr. Mudie: To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security what is the latest position concerning the payment of pensions to members of the various Maxwell pension schemes; and what are the prospects for further recoveries.
Column 14offers in respect of various claims. I understand that the Maxwell Pensioners Trust has sufficient funds to continue to support pension payments while discussion of terms and conditions takes place. If a final settlement is agreed, the Maxwell pensioners should enjoy a secure future.
Mr. Mudie: The Minister is aware that even the sum agreed is many millions short of what went missing. Will he reassure the House that efforts to get the remaining money will continue? Does he share my concern about the millions of pounds that should be going to the Maxwell pensioners' fund which are being spent on legal fees, and will he do anything about it?
Mr. Arbuthnot: I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman did not take the opportunity to welcome what is very good news for Maxwell pensioners. If the settlement takes place, as we very much hope, it will save large amounts of legal fees because it will avoid the need for litigation.
Sir David Madel: Is my hon. Friend aware that Maxwell pensioners with deferred pensions will welcome that settlement? Will he assure me that the Government will continue to monitor the position closely until a final and happy solution to the dreadful problem is reached and all Maxwell pensioners can breathe freely in the knowledge that all is well?
Mr. Arbuthnot: Yes; and I take this opportunity to congratulate and thank my hon. Friend for the considerable work that he has done on behalf of his constituents, many of whom are Maxwell pensioners. He has approached me on several occasions to make precisely those points.
Mr. Arbuthnot: I refer to the answer given earlier today by my hon. Friend the Minister of State for Social Security and Disabled People to my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester, South and Maldon (Mr. Whittingdale).
Mr. Waterson: I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. Can he confirm that some 65 per cent. of recently retired pensioners also have occupational pensions? Does that not underline the great success of this country compared with practically all our European partners in developing a successful and deep-seated private pension industry, which will be further strengthened by my hon. Friend's Pensions Bill?
Berwick-upon-Tweed, representing the House of
Column 15Commons Commission, what is the latest position concerning the setting up of day nursery facilities in the Palace of Westminster.
Berwick-upon-Tweed, representing the House of Commons Commission, what further progress has been made towards the establishment of a day nursery in the House.
Mr. A. J. Beith (representing the House of Commons Commission): The Commission will consider its policy on child care facilities at its next meeting and will take into account the views expressed in the debate in the House on 12 January.
Mr. Barnes: Of all organisations, should not the House of Commons be a top employer in terms of that and many other matters? So that it can recruit and retain experienced staff, is it not important to have creche facilities or, alternatively, child care allowances, for which the unions in this place are pushing strongly? If those are seen as a subsidy, is it not a much more justified subsidy than those which hon. Members receive for car parking facilities, booze and refreshments?
Mr. Beith: The Commission recognises the force of the argument that, as a good employer, it is in the House's interest to ensure that such facilities are made available to staff. The debate was one way in which the Commission sought to bring the matter before hon. Members and to establish whether a creche or voucher scheme, or a combination of the two, was preferred. We shall consider the House's reactions to that at our next meeting.
Mr. Janner: Does the right hon. Gentleman recognise that, in far too many ways, we are not good employers? Hon. Members on both sides of the House are scandalised at how we treat our staff, not least because 4,000 people are employed in the Palace of Westminster with no creche, day nursery, vouchers or special facilities. When the Commission meets next week, will the right hon. Gentleman tell it that an uprising will take place on both sides of the House if it does not move?
Mr. Beith: I would not have described the debate that took place as an uprising, although it was informative. I remind the hon. and learned Gentleman that the Commission, which has not been slow to press this matter on the House, is responsible for the employment of the staff of the House, and not of hon. Members' staff. We are anxious to ensure that any progress made will also benefit hon. Members' staff, but the hon. Gentleman must direct his fire at the appropriate place.
Mr. Jenkin: Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that it will sit ill upon us if we spend taxpayers' money wantonly on improving conditions for our staff when we do not think that those conditions are appropriate for people employed in other walks of life?
Mr. Beith: I understand that the Government think it appropriate that, in some situations, work place nurseries should be provided and they allow tax relief for that purpose. In many parts of the public service, voucher
Column 16schemes have been established for child care. The Commission seeks to ensure that its employment policies are in line with the best practice in the public service.
Mr. Harry Greenway: Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that, in the House of Lords, women employees have an allowance for creche or child minding facilities outside the House, but that is not the case for House of Commons staff? If so, why?
Mr. Beith: Yes, although I should explain that the allowance is not limited to female members of the staff of the House of Lords, but to those who exercise parental responsibilities, whether female or male. The debates in January explored how that had developed, and one of the issues that we considered was whether it would be appropriate to do it in the House of Commons. The Commission will be considering precisely that.
33. Ms Lynne: To ask the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed, representing the House of Commons Commission, when the Commission will authorise expenditure to make the Grand Committee Room fully and independently accessible by disabled people; and when the work will be carried out.
Berwick-upon-Tweed, representing the House of Commons Commission, what further plans there are to improve facilities for disabled people visiting the House.
Mr. Beith: I refer the hon. Members to the reply given by the hon. Member for Ogmore (Mr. Powell) to the hon. Member for Tooting (Mr. Cox), on 8 February, Official Report , columns 343-46 , which describes in detail the conclusions of the review by the Accommodation and Works Committee into access for disabled people. The Committee's recommendation for access to the Grand Committee Room is the replacement of the chairlift with a platform lift, which would allow disabled people to remain in their wheelchairs. In addition, it is proposed that the design work for the conversion of the Westminster Hall cafeteria into a visitors' centre should consider how a lift can be incorporated into that area.
Ms Lynne: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. Can he tell me what time scale we are talking about, because, as he is no doubt aware, two weeks ago, disabled people lobbied Parliament and were discriminated against yet again in this House? They could not even hear their Members of Parliament speaking, because of a ban on microphones being used in Westminster Hall. In the meantime, before the Grand Committee Room gets a lift, would it be possible for Members of Parliament to be able to use microphones in Westminster Hall when there is a disabled people's lobby of Parliament?
Mr. Beith: Subject to the feasibility study, which is already in progress, it is hoped that work to convert the lift into a platform lift will be carried out this year. I do not anticipate that finance will be an obstacle to that.
The use of microphones in Westminster Hall is not a matter for the Commission, and Madam Speaker explained to the House on 9 February the reasons why the use of the microphones is restricted to the staff in the Department of the Serjeant at Arms. As I understand it, the Hall was fulfilling the function of the Central Lobby
Column 17rather than that of a meeting room. I have no doubt that the appropriate authorities will have noted my hon. Friend's point and will give it further consideration if that need arises before the work has been done.
Mr. Skinner: Why should disabled people, when they come to lobby their Members of Parliament, be shunted into draughty, cold Westminster Hall? Why is it not possible for disabled people to come into Central Lobby in the same numbers as ordinary, able-bodied people? Can the right hon. Gentleman tell us how much it would cost to ensure that 200 disabled people can get into Central Lobby as easily as able-bodied people rather than having to wait for about two hours to get through all the various securities, lack of lifts, and so on? Why do not he and his Committee tell the Government exactly how much it would cost to provide equality, and tell this tin-pot Government to provide the necessary money and the wherewithal in the Government's supposed Disability Discrimination Bill, which is before the House?
Mr. Beith: The Accommodation and Works Committee decides the priorities and made the proposal for the changes that I have described. So far as I am aware, the Commission has placed no obstacles in the way of any improvements that the Committee has recommended.
34. Mr. Austin Mitchell: To ask the right hon. Member for Berwick- upon-Tweed, representing the House of Commons Commission, whether the Commission will make it its policy to ensure that a House photographic unit is set up.
Mr. Beith: The Commission's normal practice is to consider expenditure on new services for Members only when a recommendation has been received from the relevant domestic Committee. I understand that the hon. Gentleman recently put such a proposal to the Administration Committee, which rejected it.
Mr. Mitchell: The Administration Committee was looking not at that but at allowing photography by members of the public. Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that photography is an essential part of both popular education and communication? It is a means of showing people what this place does and its activities, and encouraging interest in that. Would it not be better if we set up a proper photographic unit to do those jobs--as most grown-up Parliaments do--rather than pretend that photography has not yet been invented? Or do he and the Committee believe that photography steals a part of people's immortal souls, that Members are so irredeemably ugly that they should not be photographed or that we cannot compete with a medium that never lies?
Mr. Beith: I have had my photograph taken by the hon. Gentleman several times--usually when I was not expecting it. I hope that it has done no harm to my soul. The Commission is not responsible for the rules that determine where photographs may be taken, and the hon. Gentleman should direct his inquiries appropriately on that point, but no proposal has been put to us for a central unit. I am not sure that it would meet the wider educational purposes that he described for there merely to be a central unit. I think that he has a wider use of photography in mind.
37. Mr. Tony Banks: To ask the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon- Tweed, representing the House of Commons Commission, what financial provisions are being made to improve health awareness throughout the House.
Mr. Beith: No direct financial provisions are being made, but since 1991 an expanded occupational health service has been funded as part of the Serjeant's Department. In addition, a number of training courses in health and safety are provided for staff of the House, and the Gymnasium is available for the improvement of personal fitness.
Mr. Banks: May I remind the right hon. Gentleman that, although the House may not be a dangerous place in which to work, it is certainly an unhealthy place in which to work? Many hon. Members are killing themselves through their own lifestyles. I am not making a special plea for Members of Parliament, but surely it is wrong for anyone in this country to die of ignorance--and ignorance, or lack of health awareness, is clearly a major factor in mortality rates. Is it not about time that we had a proper programme that set an example? Is it not time that we in the House had healthy minds and bodies?
Mr. Beith: I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is right, and I hope that many of us do have healthy minds and bodies; but the Commission's responsibility has mainly been to its staff. A number of initiatives have been taken for staff health and safety, including measures to deal with back injuries and to promote awareness of the dangers of smoking.
The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Tony Newton): Each week since the Christmas recess, I have been able to give the House more information about the second week than under previous practice, particularly in relation to business on the second Thursday. I am glad to say that it has not yet proved necessary to change any business of which an advance indication has been given, although it has sometimes been necessary to add to it.
Mr. Bruce: I thank my right hon. Friend for his answer, and for the valiant efforts that he is making to give the House more notice of, in particular, occasions on which we may be able to accept speaking engagements outside the House.
Will my right hon. Friend give special attention to the way in which Bills are announced? Last Thursday, he was able to announce that we would be dealing with one Bill and eight orders, but that effectively gave us only two working days' notice. If our constituents want to lobby us in order to tell us that any of the many worthy measures with which we are to deal offends them in some way, they
Column 19have only two or three working days in which to do so. May we be given some idea of future business at least a fortnight in advance?
Mr. Newton: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for acknowledging the efforts that I have undoubtedly made to give more notice than before. However, his reference to a day on which a number of orders will be dealt with leads me to observe that days like that may involve quite a lot of juggling until a late stage: that is one of the difficulties to which I have constantly adverted.
As for the Bill that my hon. Friend mentioned, I shall be frank about the difficulty. Two weeks ago, there was some doubt about whether it would have completed its Committee stage at the relevant time. Although I should be more than willing to be told that hon. Members would not mind me making a pre-judgment in such circumstances, tradition suggests that the announcement of a Bill's Report stage before it had emerged from Standing Committee would receive an adverse reaction.
The hon. Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor) looks sceptical. If she can assure me that the Opposition would not object, in certain circumstances, to the announcement of a debate on the remaining stages of a Bill before its Committee stage had been completed, no one would be more pleased than I.
First, can we try to minimise unnecessary confrontation in Committees by means of either a Select Committee-type inquiry into a Bill or the publication of a Green Bill? That is now done in many Parliaments. If a draft Bill were published for discussion purposes, we could get the non- controversial aspects as right as possible before embarking on the debate.
Column 20Secondly, could we guarantee that, at least once a year, one of the reports of each Select Committee can be debated in full on the Floor of the House, at the Committee's instigation?
Those are two of the many ideas for reform that are currently in the pipeline.
Mr. Newton: The hon. Gentleman's second question is perhaps more relevant to the question of procedural reform than the first. Obviously, it could be considered; the Procedure Committee might care to examine it in the course of its own review of the changes made before Christmas.
I must repeat something that I have said on a number of occasions. This is yet another demand for more consumption of time on the Floor of the House, which appears to be at variance with the basic thrust of the Jopling reforms.
Secondly, the publication of Bills is not really a matter for the procedures of the House. It is observable that in recent times Bills have been published in draft before being finally presented. I am keen to see that happen wherever it is practicable. That happened in the case of the Shops Bill, and with a significant part of the Environment Agencies Bill and it happens with significant technical parts of Finance Bills. It is about to happen with a proposed Reserve Forces Bill.
Mr. Dykes: As my right hon. Friend might welcome any opportunity to reduce his horrendous workload, which I know personally, does he agree that generally in this place happiness would be fewer public, Government Bills and more private Member's Bills?
Mr. Newton: I am not quite sure that I agree with that. It possibly depends on how one defines happiness and whose happiness one has in mind. I am glad to say that in the present Session, we appear to be making good progress on both fronts.
Motion made, and Question put forthwith pursuant to Standing Order No. 101(3) (Standing Committees on Statutory Instruments, &c.).
That the Local Government (Compensation for Redundancy or Premature Retirement on Re-organisation) (Scotland) Regulations 1995 (S.I., 1995, No. 340) be referred to a Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c.-- [Mr. Andrew Mitchell.]
Question agreed to.
|Next Section (Debates)