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House of Commons

Monday 17 July 1995

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[ Madam Speaker-- in the Chair ]

Oral Answers to Questions


Incapacity Benefit

1. Mr. Rooney: To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security what proposals he has for monitoring the introduction of incapacity benefit.     [32763]

The Minister for Social Security and Disabled People (Mr. Alistair Burt): A variety of arrangements are in place. They include the collection of statistical information on claims, disallowances, appeals and qualitative assessments of adjudication and the operation of the medical test.

Mr. Rooney: The Minister will appreciate that if the new benefit is to work properly, the quality of medical assessments is vital. Can he give an idea of progress with recruiting medical advisers and their training?

Mr. Burt: So far, 669 sessional doctors have been recruited. It is estimated that the full complement of 800 doctors will be recruited by the end of this month, as well as full-time staff required to evaluate the process. We are well up to date with the recruitment and training of doctors, which builds to some degree on information and work that they previously possessed and undertook. It is clearly vital to keep the benefit under close scrutiny and control. The work has been built up to ensure that that will happen. I will keep a careful eye on matters relating to the medical test.

Mr. Garnier: I congratulate my hon. Friend on his promotion to Minister of State. Can he confirm that people who cannot work and who have been receiving invalidity benefit will continue to receive exactly the same under the new system? How many of the applicants who have been refused incapacity benefit have failed to turn up for interviews?

Mr. Burt: The test's purpose is to focus attention on people who are incapable of work, to make sure that they receive the appropriate benefit, and on those who are unemployed for other reasons, who will also receive the appropriate benefit. We expect that about half the people currently on benefit will be exempt from the new test because of age or the nature of their impairment. Although few cases have come through the system so far, my hon. and learned Friend is right that a number of persons required to attend for the test have not bothered to do so. It is important to keep an eye on that, to make sure that

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people are not missing appointments for reasons which should be taken into account. The fact that some persons have not come forward is quite significant.

Mr. Bradley: I, too, congratulate the Minister on his promotion, which I am sure he feels is long overdue. Recently I visited the Manchester medical centre which is taking the lead with the introduction of the medical test. I was impressed by the sensitive way in which the staff at that centre are dealing with the introduction of the test. Of more concern is the number of disability organisations that have contacted me regarding press reports of the apparent hiring of Dr. John Le Cascio, second vice- president of the Unum Corporation, which is a multinational private insurance company. Dr. Cascio's job, at a reputed salary of £40,000 a year, is apparently to help train doctors in the techniques of the new medical test. Can the Minister confirm that that is the case, and that £40, 000 is the salary being paid? Will he state Dr. Le Cascio's role and comment on whether he feels that there is any conflict of interest between that duty and being vice-president of a private insurance company?

Mr. Burt: I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's initial remarks-- and for those of my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier)--on my elevation; it is for others to decide whether or not it was overdue--I certainly do not feel that way, but I am none the less grateful.

I am pleased that the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr. Bradley) appreciated what he saw at first hand in Manchester and the manner in which the test is being conducted. I urge the hon. Gentleman to continue to rely on the evidence of his own eyes, rather than following magazine reports about people who may be employed by the Department to give help and advice.

Off the top of my head, I do not have straightforward answers to all the hon. Gentleman's questions. I undertake, however, to write to supply the information that he requests. I urge him to continue to use his eyes. I am sure that he will find that his experience in Manchester is replicated throughout the country.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: I, too, offer my congratulations to my hon. Friend on his promotion.

Does my hon. Friend agree that having extensively piloted the changes in assessment, and having widely consulted, it is right that we should now have independent assessment to ensure that we arrive at correct assessments on behalf of those who are claiming the benefit? May I make one suggestion, which arises from constituency cases? There seems to be a feeling that assessment is too short and that there is a failure to listen to questions asked of the doctor. Will my hon. Friend make it clear to those who attend the assessment that a considerable amount of information has been obtained before the assessment is made? Therefore, simple questions often do not need to be asked. Does my hon. Friend agree that the assessments should be perceived as fair if the changes are to be widely accepted?

Mr. Burt: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his kind remarks. At this early stage we are keeping a close eye on the medical tests and the questions asked. I appreciate my hon. Friend's comments. It would seem important to give the procedure that we have in place--it has been there for

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only two or three months--a chance to work. We shall be evaluating it with the doctors to ascertain how the assessments are going, how long they are taking and how people are responding to them. My hon. Friend is correct in saying that the test has been extensively trawled. It was well trawled in committee. A panel of 80 independent experts consulted to determine how the test should be put together. There were then two evaluation studies. The test was further refined after that. Real effort has been made to ensure that the test will suit the purpose for which it was designed. It will always be capable of further refinement. My hon. Friend and others will find me open to refinements that will improve the system and assist those who need the benefit.

Child Maintenance

2. Mr. Sutcliffe: To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security how much child maintenance was paid as a result of assessments by the Child Support Agency, excluding maintenance paid as a result of orders under the liable relative system, in the latest period for which figures are available.     [32764]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security (Mr. Andrew Mitchell): The amount of maintenance paid direct to the ChilSupport Agency as a result of assessments by the agency for the period April 1993 to the end of May 1995 was nearly £105 million. In addition, the agency assesses maintenance which is then paid direct between the absent parent and the parent with care. In 1994-95 such assessments amounted to £111 million and from April 1995 to the end of May 1995 the amount paid directly between parents was £21,160,000.

Mr. Sutcliffe: Does the Minister realise that that figure is well below the forecast target of £525 million and that the CSA has lost the confidence and trust of those involved? About 40 to 50 per cent. of applications are not dealt with properly or are dealt with incorrectly. Is it not time that the Minister did something about that? We heard in January what the Government intended to do, but the reality is that the CSA is falling further and further behind in its work. The impact that it is having on people's lives is dramatic.

Mr. Mitchell: The hon. Gentleman's question relates specifically to comparisons with the liable relative system. Such comparisons are not especially relevant as that system was inconsistent, haphazard and often very unfair to the parent with care. It tended to cherry-pick and to do individual deals. On the hon. Gentleman's general point, I hope that he will recognise the considerably improved performance of the agency over the past year, although I accept that there is still a long way to go before the service can be regarded as satisfactory.

Mr. Evennett: First, I warmly congratulate my hon. Friend on his well-deserved promotion.

How many parents were traced by the CSA last year in circumstances in which their whereabouts were unknown by the parent with care of the child? Will my hon. Friend confirm that although the CSA has had some problems it has done much good work for parents with care, who can now discover where the absent and feckless parent is?

Mr. Mitchell: I thank my hon. Friend for his kind remarks. Last year, in 77 per cent. of all cases taken on

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by the CSA the absent parent was paying nothing. Every week 1,000 absent parents are found, and 50,000 were found during the whole of last year. Their whereabouts were unknown before the agency tried to find them. There is still a long way to go, but the CSA's performance is improving.

Mr. Ingram: I welcome the Minister to his new portfolio--only time will tell whether it constitutes a punishment or a promotion, as I am sure his hon. Friend the Minister of State will inform him on the basis of his own experience in the Department.

We have heard much from the Government in recent weeks about the need to tackle benefit fraud, but are not the Government guilty of fraud on a grand scale by having continued to peddle the myth that the Child Support Act 1991 and the Child Support Agency are providing long-overdue help for children and parents with care? Who does the Minister think is to blame for the fact that by the end of March 1995 some £87 million was owed to parents with care and to children? Is that the fault of absent parents, civil servants or the Ministers who introduced the whole shambolic system?

Mr. Mitchell: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the kind remarks with which he opened his question.

The debt accumulated by the agency is not classic bank debt in the normally understood sense; it relates significantly to interim maintenance settlements, which account for some 70 per cent. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will wish to continue the bipartisan approach which ensures that the principles behind the policy are fully accepted, while emphasising the importance of continuing to make the improvements that have already been made--which, I hope, will be evident tomorrow from the CSA's annual report.

Expenditure Growth

3. Mr. Whittingdale: To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security by how much planned social security spending for the year 2000-01 will be reduced compared with plans published in "The Growth of Social Security".     [32765]

The Secretary of State for Social Security (Mr. Peter Lilley): Since publication of "The Growth of Social Security" in 1993, projected expenditure in 2000-01 has been reduced by nearly £8 billion. More than half that amount is due to policy changes announced since 1993; the rest is largely due to improved economic and social performance over the last two years. In the longer term, total savings so far announced will be £14 billion a year.

Mr. Whittingdale: I thank my right hon. Friend for his answer, and congratulate him on his efforts to contain the growth in social security spending.

How much of the social security budget is currently spent on asylum seekers? Does my right hon. Friend agree that that part of his budget should be subjected to particularly rigorous scrutiny?

Mr. Lilley: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his support for the changes that we have introduced. As I recall, the total cost of benefits going to asylum seekers is some £200 million a year. Fewer than 10 per cent. of those people are ultimately granted refugee status,

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although an additional number are granted exceptional leave to remain. They are the subject of considerable interest in my Department.

Mr. Frank Field: As everyone is congratulating everyone else this afternoon, would it be in order to congratulate the Secretary of State on not moving?

Does the right hon. Gentleman recall saying, in his Mais lecture, that it cost every person in work an average of £13 a day to pay the social security bill? In his Social Market Foundation lecture, he said that that amount had risen to £15 a day. The right hon. Gentleman is supposed to be a cost-cutting Secretary of State; what is his estimate per day for those in work at the millennium?

Mr. Lilley: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for welcoming my continued presence at the Dispatch Box. To echo the earlier observation of his hon. Friend the Member for East Kilbride (Mr. Ingram), I do not know whether it is a promotion or a punishment but I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman remains opposite me as Chairman of the Select Committee on Social Security.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the rise in the cost of the social security bill per working person per working day from, in round numbers, £13 to £15 over a three-year period. That is a growth of 2.7 per cent. per annum in real terms--slightly below the long-term trend of 3.3 per cent. The figure in real terms at the millennium will be about £16 per working person per day as a result of the changes that I have introduced. It would be considerably higher if we had not made those changes, and I remind the House that the Opposition opposed nearly all of them.

Single Parents

5. Mr. John Marshall: To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security what is the latest estimate of the cost of benefits to single parents in 1995-96.     [32767]

Mr. Lilley: It is estimated that total benefit expenditure on lone parents in 1995-96 will reach some £9.5 billion.

Mr. Marshall: My right hon. Friend is known as a supporter of the Institute of Economic Affairs. Would he like to comment on the pamphlet produced by that organisation in which Dr. Morgan says that the tax system penalises those mothers who stay at home while the benefit system helps lone parents? Does he agree that the single parent's premium, which costs taxpayers some £250 million, must be re-examined?

Mr. Lilley: We keep all benefits under review as part of our long- term review of public expenditure. Although we must recognise that some of the £9 billion would go to those parents even if they were not lone parents, the cost of lone parenthood adds about £1,500 a year to the taxes of married couples who are supporting their own children in addition to paying to support others. That is why we have to look rigorously at those benefits. I hope that my hon. Friend welcomes the £10 per week family credit premium that we have announced today for those working more than 30 hours a week. That will be particularly beneficial to married couples, who will constitute some three quarters of the 350,000 receiving that extra help, thus encouraging self-supporting families.

Mr. Wicks: As many lone parents would love to have the independence that a proper job brings, why in the last 16 years has a growing proportion of lone parents had to

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depend on income support? Why have the Government not taken action through education, training and child care to move people away from dependency, which they do not want, to independence, which they do want?

Mr. Lilley: The hon. Gentleman, who has always taken an informed and intelligent interest in this subject, is right to say that there was a rather disturbing disparity in the trend, with married women going out to work in increasing proportions while lone mothers were increasingly staying at home. That trend reversed about two or three years ago, partly as a result of the measures that we have taken--the introduction of the child care disregard in family credit and increasing efforts to get maintenance from absent parents. Both those measures have helped lone parents to go out to work and an increasing proportion are doing so. I know that the hon. Gentleman will welcome that as much as I do.

Mr. Alan Howarth: We hear much about plans for a crackdown on social security fraud--and no doubt it is right to do that--while the appetites of the affluent are being whetted for future tax cuts. Would it not be at least as attractive for the Government to emphasise their plans for the relief of the unemployment and poverty traps? As my right hon. Friend wishes to see honest work rewarded, will he state his plans to improve the position of lone parents on income support who have benefit deducted pound for pound on earnings above £15 a week? I do not think that that disregard has been uprated for seven years, and there is no allowance for the cost of child care or other work-related expenses.

Mr. Lilley: My hon. Friend is right to say that we have to crack down on fraud, but he is wrong to suggest that the primary support for that comes from the affluent. In my experience, the greatest support for these measures comes from what might be called the hard-working class--people who take home very modest sums as a result of working hard 40 hours a week and who see other people manipulating the system to obtain full benefit while not declaring some earnings. That is greatly resented by the hard-working class. My hon. Friend asks what we are doing to improve incentives to work: I point out to him the new £10 family credit supplement which is being introduced this very day.

Non-uprated Benefits

6. Mr. Flynn: To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security what proposals he has to uprate those benefits that have not been uprated since they were introduced.     [32768]

Mr. Lilley: The next uprating is due to take effect in April 1996. I shall be announcing my proposals at the appropriate time.

Mr. Flynn: Why are the widow's payment and 23 other important benefits still frozen? That payment replaced a benefit--the widow's allowance--which was increased by the rate of inflation every year. The Government have refused to increase it. If they had increased it by the level of earnings, it would now be worth not £1,000, which was the amount when it was first announced, but £1,881. To fund an election bribe to 5,000 of the richest people in

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Britain, the Government are cheating the widows, the sick, the elderly and the recently bereaved. Is that not mean and despicable?

Mr. Lilley: No, it is absolute nonsense. We keep all benefits, including the widow's benefit, under review. There is an increasing proportion of people with life insurance and other provision to protect their widows in the event of their early demise. Uprating all the benefits to which the hon. Gentleman referred would have cost more than £1 billion a year. He should ask his right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition, who gaily declares that a radical reform from a socialist perspective will somehow save money, where he will get the money to meet the promises that the hon. Gentleman is willing to throw out.

Mr. Jenkin: Does my right hon. Friend agree that we have been able to uprate benefits in the social security system because we have developed a dynamic enterprise economy? Would not a less punitive regime of capital gains tax improve the dynamism of the economy and make us more able to uprate social security benefits?

Mr. Lilley: My hon. Friend is right. The best counterpart to a good welfare state system is a dynamic and vibrant free enterprise economy generating the wealth to pay for it, which is what we have, and creating opportunities for people to work and to make provision for their own retirement. Lower taxes of all kinds help that; that is why the Labour party's approach of raising taxes across the board would hit the growth of our economy on the head and ultimately undermine our ability to help those most in need.

Further Education Students

7. Mr. Ainger: To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security how many further education students have had their benefits suspended in each of the last two years.     [32769]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security (Mr. Roger Evans): This information is not available

Mr. Ainger: As the Minister knows, because I have written to him on a number of occasions--as, I am sure, have many other hon. Members--part- time further education students have had their benefits suspended. Does he agree that that is a scandal, bearing in mind the fact that both his party and the Opposition want to see a highly skilled and highly educated work force? We are actually encouraging people to give up their studies in an effort to make ends meet by living on benefit. Are the Government not truly encouraging people to be totally dependent on benefit?

Mr. Evans: No. The 21-hour rule in income support is a concession to the normal requirement that people should be available for work as a condition for benefit. It allows unemployed people to occupy their time in part with useful study while being available for and actively seeking work. It was never intended to provide financial support for people who are primarily concerned with continuing their education. The rule has applied to income support and its predecessor, supplementary benefit, since 1971.

Mr. Hawkins: Can my hon. Friend confirm that unemployed people will continue to be able to study part

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time provided that they remain available for and actively seeking work, and that those arrangements will continue under the jobseeker's allowance?

Mr. Evans: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The arrangements will continue under the jobseeker's allowance with the exception that instead of the 21-hour rule, which includes time for homework, there will in due course be provision for 16 guided learning hours, to reflect the changes in Further Education Funding Council- funded courses. It is estimated that the same number of people will benefit under the new rules as under the old.

Child Support Agency

8. Mr. Gunnell: To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security how many payments of compensation on the grounds of error, maladministration or delay have been made by the Child Support Agency at the latest date for which figures are available.     [32770]

Mr. Andrew Mitchell: A special payment may be considered where, for example, a clear and unambiguous error or unreasonable delay by the Child Support Agency has resulted in a measurable financial loss. To date, 44 special payments have been made as a result of error or delay on the part of the agency.

Mr. Gunnell: Does that reply not indicate that the criteria for giving special payments are extremely narrow? Every hon. Member must have written to the Minister's predecessor about cases of delay in administration. The Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration has commented on a number of those cases. What exactly are the criteria for making special payments? Is it not time that the criteria were widened? Is it not time that the £44--or whatever the exact sum is--that people pay for the administration of the Child Support Agency was remitted to those who find that the administration causes them endless grief?

Mr. Mitchell: The compensation is made for measurable financial loss. It is clear, however, that the Department's scheme needs to be reassessed in the light of the unique nature of the Child Support Agency's business. I have therefore asked officials to speed up the process and to report to me urgently on the options available. On the two specific cases that have been raised by the hon. Gentleman with my Department, the administrative improvements will help his constituents greatly, in terms of both better information systems and better help lines. The Child Support Agency can make special payments so long as a clear and unambiguous error by the agency, resulting in actual financial loss, has been made.

Mr. Anthony Coombs: I welcome my hon. Friend to his post. Does he agree that if anything proves the necessity to have the Child Support Agency, it is precisely the fact that 77 per cent. of lone parents contacted by the Child Support Agency last year were receiving no help whatever from the absent parents? Does he also agree that hon. Members are receiving more and more correspondence from parents with responsibility, who now want the agency to act on their behalf? Will he do all that he can to ensure that it acts much more competently and professionally than it has hitherto?

Mr. Mitchell: I thank my hon. Friend for his kind remarks. Correspondence with Members of Parliament is

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much improved. Work on hand today is 60 per cent. down on last year and I am determined that there should be further improvements. On my hon. Friend's general comment, the administration is clearly improving. There are now much better information systems and a welcome emphasis on accuracy. Staff training has improved and there are better links with outside bodies. I shall visit all six of the Child Support Agency centres in the next few weeks to see for myself what is happening on the ground.

Ms Lynne: Is the Minister aware that my constituents and many others throughout the country still have horrendous problems with the Child Support Agency? It is not just a question of bad

administration; the Child Support Act 1991 is flawed and should be scrapped. Does he agree that, had it not been for the shameful collusion of Labour Front-Bench Members, we might have had a fair and workable maintenance system in place?

Mr. Mitchell: Far be it from me to defend Labour Front-Bench Members on this issue, but it is a great pity that at a time when those difficult principles were widely supported both within and outside the House, while the Labour and Conservative parties have stood firm by those principles and the changes announced this year, the Liberal party turned turtle and fled the field.

Mr. Tredinnick: I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend on his promotion. Although I accept that the administration of the Child Support Agency has improved, does my hon. Friend agree that problems exist when it comes to reassessing people's claims of changed circumstances? Will he keep a critical eye on that aspect?

Mr. Mitchell: Yes, my hon. Friend is right to flag up that aspect of the Child Support Agency's work. Clearly, the second tier of appeals and appeal tribunals has been sharply speeded up, and a centralised unit is being set up. I am conscious of the importance of what my hon. Friend said.

Mr. Dewar: I, too, add my congratulations to the new Minister and I am impressed that he got all his friends in the parliamentary Conservative party here to cheer his first appearance at the Dispatch Box.

May I remind the Minister that, although we stand by the principle that parents should contribute to the upkeep of their children, we are not satisfied with the present system and will press for further change? I genuinely welcome his announcement that the compensation system is to be reviewed as 44 payments is a shaming total in view of the widespread public concern about how the agency has been operating and the scarifying criticism that has come, for example, from the National Audit Office and from Select Committees.

May I ask the Minister about one other aspect? Does he remember that the White Paper "Improving Child Support" contained a pledge that, from last April, in cases where delay was clearly the fault of the agency, consideration would be given to waiving all but six months of accrued arrears? Has that power been used and what sort of guidance has been given to define the situations in which consideration could lead to payment?

Mr. Mitchell: On the hon. Gentleman's latter point, I understand that that is now in process and, following what he has said, I shall follow developments all the more closely. This year's changes are of immense importance.

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My hon. Friend the Minister of State, who took them through the House of Commons, has shown that, by listening carefully to what hon. Members on both sides of House say, improvements to the formula could be made. We have managed to knock off some of the rough edges from the formula, which all hon. Members agreed was necessary, and in some cases we have gone further than the Select Committee on Social Security urged us to go.

We have also ensured that, for the rump of hard cases, the departure system will be introduced as soon as is practical. All that makes the Child Support Agency's work and the targets that we all want it to attain, that much more readily attainable.

Pensioner Earnings

9. Mr. Spring: To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security by how much the real earnings of pensioners have changed since 1979.     [32771]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security (Mr. Oliver Heald): Pensioners' average incomes have increased by 50 percent. in real terms since 1979. Earnings represent a small proportion of the total.

Mr. Spring: I warmly congratulate my hon. Friend on his thoroughly deserved promotion. Will he confirm, not only that pensioners' average incomes have risen faster than those of the population as a whole, but that three quarters of pensioners under a Conservative Government now have an income flowing from their own investments and savings?

Mr. Heald: I thank my hon. Friend for his kind comments. The Government's policy of providing a sound basic pension, of encouraging private provision, and of targeting through the benefit system the poorest pensioners has been working well, but it has been underpinned by the Government's economic policies, especially the policy of low inflation. What pension members will have to consider is, having bought into the disreputable Labour old banger--the vehicle of state that it produced in the 1970s--whether they now want to buy the same vehicle just because the salesman smiles more sweetly and there are "go faster" stripes on the side.

Mr. Pike: Does the Minister accept that the increased level for older pensioners is less than that for younger pensioners? Is it not derisory and an insult to those people that when they reach the age of 80, they still receive only 25p extra a week? Is it not time that that sum was increased?

Mr. Heald: The hon. Gentleman is making what, in a way, is an obvious point: as time has gone on, the position on pensions has improved, but he should know that the poorest pensioners are still better off. They are 15 per cent. better off in real terms than in 1979 and that is under a Conservative Government.

Mr. Forman: I welcome my hon. Friend to his new duties and pay tribute to this Government's record in price-protecting the value of pensions. Does it none the less remain the case that a small and declining group of pensioners is solely dependent on the state pension, that they often have to rely on income support as well, and

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that the Government should think of being more generous to them in a targeted way? Will my hon. Friend give his considered support to that proposal?

Mr. Heald: It is right, of course, always to review these issues, but the fact is that, as from next April, the poorest pensioner couples will receive £100 a week in benefits through the system. It is also right at this point to mention the campaign by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Security against benefit fraud. In targeting benefits on the poorest pensioners, every pound counts and it is right that we should use every penny that we can for proper purposes. We should welcome the response that the fraud campaign has had, not just from the general public, but from newspapers such as The Sun , which, through its hotline, will provide valuable information to the Government.

Family Credit

11. Mr. Bennett: To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security how many people have lost family credit in the last 12 months on the basis of money awarded by the Child Support Agency and have not yet received the award.     [32774]

Mr. Andrew Mitchell: None. Family credit is assessed on the basis of income actually received before the claim. If maintenance is not being paid, it will not be taken into account in assessing family credit.

Where maintenance has reduced as a result of the recent child support changes, recipients will receive compensation for the remainder of their family credit award.

Mr. Bennett: When does the Minister expect the Child Support Agency to work efficiently and effectively?

Mr. Mitchell: I have already answered that question this afternoon. On the hon. Gentleman's specific point about family credit, the CSA is the solver of the specific problem which he mentioned, not the reverse, because it adds to the amount due, but not paid to the bill, and chases it up. That did not happen under the old system.

Mrs. Roe: May I also add my congratulations to my hon. Friend on his promotion and wish him every success in his new role? Can he confirm that the 30-hour premium on family credit has been launched today, which will give an extra £10 a week to those new claimants for family credit who are working full time? I understand that that could benefit up to 345,000 claimants.

Mr. Mitchell: My hon. Friend is right. That welcome news, which has been received today, will affect 345,000 claimants. It will give extra encouragement to those on low pay, who are working full time. My hon. Friend may be interested to know that three quarters of those affected are married couples.


Roger Levitt Case

29. Mr. Mike O'Brien: To ask the Attorney-General if he will make a statement on evidence to the Treasury and Civil Service Committee by the director of the Serious Fraud Office that he did not authorise plea bargaining in the Roger Levitt case.     [32753]

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The Attorney-General (Sir Nicholas Lyell): The director of the Serious Fraud Office gave oral evidence to the Select Committee on 12 June and again on 11 July. The extent of his involvement in the discussion of possible pleas in the Levitt case has now been fully explained by him to the Committee.

Mr. O'Brien: Surely the Attorney-General cannot expect to get away with that reply. The Treasury and Civil Service Select Committee, of which I am a member, has received damaging evidence from senior QCs that the Serious Fraud Office and its counsel misled the Attorney-General; that, in turn, he inadvertently misled the House; that the prosecution of Levitt was bungled and that a cover-up was instituted, which involved attacks upon the judge in that case. They are serious allegations, which cannot be left unheard, and we need an independent inquiry into the facts. If confidence is to be restored in the Serious Fraud Office, I believe that the director of it, George Staple, must go.

The Attorney-General: I do not think that the hon. Gentleman is being at all just to the director of the Serious Fraud Office. I do not believe that an independent inquiry of that type is called for, as I shall explain. First of all, the hearing in the case was in public and the matters which took place before the judge were all recorded by a shorthand writer.

The hon. Gentleman, and other members of the Select Committee will know that there is an unhappy background to the case in that it gave rise to a complaint by leading counsel for the Crown against leading counsel for the defence. It is the subject of disciplinary hearings that are still to take place before the disciplinary committee of the Bar Council, which will comprehend, in one form or another, most of the matters which the hon. Gentleman has raised in his question today.

Finally, the Select Committee has its own proper interest in questions such as the interplay between the Serious Fraud Office and the regulators and the wider question of plea bargaining in the American sense, if that were ever to be appropriate here. I believe that we have quite enough public inquiries as it is.

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