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Mr. Simon Burns (West Chelmsford): We are grateful, as ever, to the Minister for that brief but comprehensive explanation of the amendments. Listening to him, one would have thought that these were, as he said,

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straightforward, drafting, consequential amendments. If the Minister had read the Lord Advocate's comments in the other place, he would understand that there is a little more--although not a lot--to these amendments than meets the eye. However, in this era of spin doctors, he wants to gloss over that fact.

I shall not detain the House for long in speaking about the certainty of the need for Lords amendments Nos. 10 and 14. However, I believe that the amendments typify the Government's slapdash approach to the Bill. As the Minister has plainly stated, the amendments are simple and straightforward, and ensure the maintenance of current rights of appeal against decisions on cold weather payments and winter fuel payments. The amendments are therefore perfectly reasonable propositions, with which I do not think any hon. Member would disagree.

Nevertheless, the question must be asked: why were the provisions not in the original Bill? The answer is quite straightforward, although the Minister certainly will not give it to us. In the Mandelson school of spin doctoring, anything that the Government do that is wrong or slapdash is to be airbrushed out of existence, followed by a spin to minimise any embarrassment to the Government. The answer, which is straightforward, is that the Government plainly and simply forgot to include the payments in the list of relevant benefits. That was an extraordinary oversight.

The Government's approach to the amendments was--as I said, and as our consideration of subsequent groups of amendments will show--typical of their general approach to the Bill. The need for the amendments is but an episode in a long-running saga of mistakes, slip-ups and incompetence, which have been typified by administration of the winter fuel payment scheme announced last November by the Chancellor. Although the Minister will not find it terribly palatable, the need for this group of amendments demonstrates the problems in the Government's approach.

One problem, for example, is that 40,801 out-of-date cheques were sent to pensioners, who tried to cash them at their local post offices, but could not. Pensioners living in residential homes who should not have received a cheque received one. To compound the problem, pensioners who quickly cashed their cheque will be allowed to keep the money, whereas those who did not cash their cheque will be penalised by having to return it.

There have been problems in determining the payment amount--£10 or £20--that pensioners should receive. My constituents have written to me about that problem, as I am sure that other constituents across the country have written to their hon. Members. I realise that Ministers are embarrassed by such problems, which show that, in their rush to impose the scheme, they have acted negligently and not properly thought through the scheme. They have been caught making some crass mistakes.

Nevertheless, we welcome the fact that, as the Lord Advocate said in another place, the Government have at least had the nous to spot the mistake before the legislation is passed--thereby avoiding not only the need for further legislation to deal with the problem, but further problems with the legislative timetable in this Session.

Lords amendments Nos. 11 and 44 deal with the thorny issue of the difference between "decision" and "revision". The issue is probably more important to aficionados and

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to those who have taken the time to read the Bill than it is to those who are not and have not. We dealt with the issue in Committee, and I am pleased to note that the Government--as they have been forced to eat humble pie--are prepared to make the amendments.

In Committee, we made the point on the difference between the two words. The Minister assured us that there was no need to do anything about it, because the Government had got it right. They have now accepted that there is a need to change the Bill's wording, which is the purpose of Lords amendments Nos. 11 and 44. In the words of the Lord Advocate, the amendments are simply to improve or correct minor errors in the drafting of the Bill.

I see that the new line from Millbank tower is to emphasise the fact that the Government are a listening Government. The Minister never fails to use that soundbite whenever possible. I have to tell him, in the nicest possible way, that if he really believed that and did not simply pay lip service to the concept to keep the Minister without Portfolio happy, he would have listened--[Interruption.] I can hear what the Under-Secretary of State for Social Security, the hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham) said; there is no need for him to be quite so cruel. If the Minister were genuinely prepared to listen, he would have listened to the points that we made time and again in Committee and would have tabled amendments at that stage, which would have saved the House's time today.

I can reassure the Minister by saying that, because the amendments merely redress Government mistakes and slip-ups, we have no intention of opposing them. We welcome the fact that the Government are correcting their own mistakes prior to the legislation reaching the statute book. However, as the Minister would not answer our questions in Committee, I suggest that the next time he has the satisfaction of being in Committee, he listens more carefully to the Opposition's valid points and accepts them then, instead of wasting time on the Floor of the House to correct the Government's mistakes.

4.15 pm

Mr. Swinney: I hope that the Minister appreciates how difficult it is being on the Opposition Benches when one has to follow the line of argument pursued by the hon. Member for West Chelmsford (Mr. Burns)--it is often terribly challenging.

At various stages during the passage of the Bill, the sense has been abroad that the appeal rights of people entitled to benefits were being compromised. I think that the Minister will agree that that sense has prevailed and that it causes enormous concern to people who depend on particular forms of benefit. I am sure that we have all received representations from such people. Whether a conspiracy involving Millbank tower, Mandelson or anyone else is at the root of the problem, I appeal to the Minister to ensure that legislation is designed in such a way that it takes into account the anxieties felt by various groups of people who are dependent on benefits, and does not cause the unease that has been experienced in recent months.

Mr. Keith Bradley: The crucial philosophy behind the Bill is to ensure not only that people retain their right to

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appeal but that they get justice much more speedily than the current system allows. One of our constituents' biggest anxieties is the length of time that they have to wait for their appeals to be heard. Another is the lack of opportunity to clarify genuine mistakes and errors or to have a second look at the benefit calculation or entitlement at an early stage.

The purpose of the Bill is to streamline the process without denying people their rights during that streamlining process. The amendments ensure that that element, which had been omitted from the Bill, is now included. Again, we have listened, and are ensuring that the Bill is as clear as possible.

I commend the amendment to the House.

Lords amendment agreed to.

Lords amendment No. 11 agreed to.

Clause 11

Decisions superseding earlier decisions


Lords amendment: No. 12, in page 6, line 29, leave out ("subsection (3)") and insert ("subsections (3) and (3A)")

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security (Mr. John Denham): I beg to move, That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said amendment.

Madam Speaker: With this, it will be convenient to discuss Lords amendments Nos. 13, 72 and 103.

Mr. Denham: Members of the Standing Committee that considered the Bill will recall that I announced on 25 November last year our intention to introduce this measure, but it may be helpful if I explain exactly what it will do.

When a company owes a contributions debt and fails to pay the debt in full, there will be an investigation to see whether the failure to pay the debt is due to the negligent or fraudulent behaviour of any or all of the directors or officers of the company. If it is, the Secretary of State may decide to transfer the debt and any associated penalty to the directors personally.

During discussions in another place, peers of all parties supported the principles behind the measure. The Government are determined to stamp down on the minority of dishonest business people who defraud the national insurance fund of money that funds benefits for their own employees and other benefit claimants and pensioners.

It is clearly essential that a power to transfer large debts to individuals should be accompanied by a robust appeal system. The clause provides for that, and I am pleased to draw the House's attention to the fact that, following discussions in another place, the Government amended the original drafting of the clause to strengthen the appeal arrangements. In particular, the Bill now states clearly that the onus of proving guilt will fall on the Secretary of State. A tribunal considering an appeal will undertake a complete rehearing of the facts.

We intend that the measure will be used primarily, although not exclusively, to catch phoenix-type directors who deliberately and repeatedly fail to pay

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contributions--and usually PAYE tax--and then put the company into insolvency, having made a personal financial gain.

The measure demonstrates the Government's determination to clamp down on business fraud. It will help small, honest businesses by tackling the unscrupulous minority who cheat both trade creditors and the Government of moneys owed. We cannot tolerate money that belongs in the national insurance fund to pay people's benefits ending up in the pockets of fraudulent directors.

I hope that hon. Members on both sides of the House will fully endorse the amendments. I commend them to the House.


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