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Mr. Wicks: I did not plan to intervene, as I hope to catch your eye later, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but to be fair, past Ministers under the previous Administration dealing with the benefits integrity project made it clear that there should be consultation with organisations representing those with disabilities. That instruction was ignored by civil servants in the interregnum between the previous Administration and the present one. The Select Committee--its Chairman is here--did not attach blame to past or present Ministers.

Mr. Rendel: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, but I shall continue with the important point that I was making, which is still valid. The Conservatives have to take much of the blame for what has gone wrong. The motion, which attacks the Labour Government for their incompetence, must be one of the

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most hypocritical that any Opposition party has ever dared to bring to the House. As such, it does not deserve and will not get any support from the Liberal Democrats.

It is true that the Government did not start with the best hand. The Secretary of State was right when she said earlier that the Government had inherited a social security system that was in a mess. Indeed, in social security, as perhaps in no other sector, most of us felt that the Government had a right to say as they came to power, "Things can only get better," but that was before we had lone parent benefit cuts, council tax benefit cuts, the benefits integrity project and the incompetent handling of the NIRS 2 project.

Unbelievable as it may seem, in the very area where there was total cross-party agreement that reform was needed, the Government succeeded in doing what most people would have thought impossible--making things worse. It is no credit to the Conservatives, most of whose plans have now been implemented by the Government with dire results, but it is certainly no credit to the Government either. If, as expected, the Secretary of State is soon removed from her post, it cannot be said that many Opposition Members, or, I suspect, Labour Members, will be sorry to see her go.

8.24 pm

Mr. Terry Rooney (Bradford, North): When I read the motion last week, I wondered what on earth was going on. I could not believe the words on the Order Paper. Then I realised that there must have been a mind block among the Conservatives--they had forgotten about last year's general election, thought that they were still in power and were referring to their last year in office.

When we talk of confusion, contradictory policies and incompetence, the jewel in the crown must be housing benefit. In 1982, when my local authority received guidance from the Department, it was told that it would probably require six staff to administer the new benefit. Within 12 months there were 154 permanent staff and 48 part-timers--somewhat more than six. As for being contradictory, for many years Housing Ministers were deregulating rents, forcing up council rents and lowering grants to housing associations--which also drove up rents in that sector--while social security departments were picking up the bill. Short-term thinking led to long-term debts; there was no co-ordination or co-operation.

Before the Social Security Act 1988, there used to be a wonderful document called the yellow book--a simple volume detailing social security. The 1988 Act introduced the blue book, which comprised 17 volumes detailing the law relating to social security. In addition, there was the adjudication officer's guide, which now consists of24 volumes. That is the legacy of 18 years of Conservative government.

The most outrageous provision in the 1988 Act was the brainchild of the former Prime Minister. The social fund was a wonderful new system of lending money to the poor to pay for their most basic needs. It now has administration costs of 37 per cent. of money that it handles. By any stretch of the imagination, that is incompetent and contradictory.

Moving on to the 1990s, who can recall with glee the disability living allowance, which is both incompetent and contradictory? It is contradictory to the principles of care in the community and is an example of incompetence on a grand scale in its establishment, implementation,

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organisation and administration. The classic example, which I shall not dwell on because it hurts, was the Child Support Agency. After three major pieces of legislation in seven years, only one in eight single parents get the full maintenance to which they are entitled.

It took until 1996 for the previous Government to recognise that legislation was required to deal with fraud. It took them 17 years to introduce legislation to tackle that major issue. In the same year, they introduced incapacity benefit and the dreaded, discredited, disjointed all work test--a terrible way to assess whether people were capable of work.

The biggest indictment of all of the previous Administration has to be their treatment of the staff who work in the Benefits Agency. When the Conservatives left office, there were some 62,000 staff in the Benefits Agency. More than 5,000 of them were temporary and 13,500 had fewer than five years' service. There was a constant drain on the staff, as people were totally disgusted with the way in which they were treated. Training budgets were slashed, and training became a business unit, which had to attract customers from different parts of the Benefits Agency. As that was in the middle of the three-year plan to reduce running costs by 25 per cent., no one bought in training, and the staff became further and further removed from the legislation that they were being expected to implement.

As a result, decision making went down the pan; it became hit and miss. The incidence of violence against staff was intolerable. Morale was at rock bottom. Decision making went out of the window--so many people appealed against wrong decisions that they now have to wait 10 months for a tribunal. For seven successive years, the National Audit Office failed to sign the Department of Social Security accounts because of confusion, contradictory policies and incompetence.

The Conservative party legacy was inertia in the Department, the dead hand of dependency on claimants and an inactive service that did nothing to help people, but merely served the bureaucracy. Between 1979 and 1997, the social security bill increased in real terms by £43 billion--the only commensurate increase was that in the numbers of people living in poverty. The service did nothing except to drive people further into desperation. For the Conservative party to table such a motion after its 18-year stewardship of the social security system is the height of hypocrisy.

8.31 pm

Mr. Archy Kirkwood (Roxburgh and Berwickshire): I welcome the opportunity to have another debate on this important subject. In tabling the motion the day before the House is told the outcome of the departmental spending review, the Conservative party show a brilliant sense of timing. Arguably, the most important thing that the Secretary of State does in any year is to have a battle with the Treasury over the departmental budget. We should see the results of that tomorrow, so to discuss social security tonight on an Opposition Supply day is premature, to say the least.

Many interesting things have happened in the past 12 months. The Government's welfare-to-work scheme is very important, especially in the long-term cultural shift that I hope it will achieve. It is not pejorative to say that the jury is still out on the scheme's success, but the policy is courageous--the Government have taken the debate a long way--and I wish it well.

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The Government badly misjudged their policy on single parents, and they have wholly failed to correct their mistake. The Green Paper contains much that is of interest. The success measures, in particular, are an interesting tool for future policy development, although it remains to be seen whether we have got them right. Nevertheless, they represent an interesting departure, and I hope that the whole House will apply its collective mind and will to making the best of them.

I wish the Minister well in his deliberations on pensions reform. The delay in the deployment of policy is beginning to become a wee bit worrying. I am known as someone who is always in favour of hastening slowly and taking the appropriate amount of time to get things right, but there are worries that the delay is becoming a paralysis.

We must not forget the recommendations of the pension provision committee, which is admirably chaired by Tom Ross. There are two sides to pensions policy; the Minister is interested in developing stakeholder plans, but we must also remember the current pensioner population. Some of the committee's recommendations provide important lessons that we should all take on board. I see some Labour Members waving copies of the report, so I look forward to their contributions.

The introduction of tax credits also represents an interesting and potentially important departure, although the detail may thwart some of the Government's more laudable aims. In particular, there are some real misgivings about the details of the proposed disability tax credit for disabled people.

Much has happened, and much has yet to evolve from the Government's plans. I want to look forward and to concentrate in particular on the Government's plans to work with the Benefits Agency to promote the notion of modern service, which I believe to be an important part of the Government's programme. The administration of benefits must be simplified; administrative systems must be put in place that can deploy modern benefits efficiently. The system must be transparent to claimants and proof benefit eligibility gateways against the fraud about which we are all rightly concerned.

I am nervous that the comprehensive departmental spending review will say that the Department will have to pay for its administrative budget through savings from fraud. The Government are now saying that estimated losses to fraud have increased from £4 billion to £7 billion, but that figure is notional--I would dearly love to see the methodology tightened up, so that the data were more robust and policy makers could make more rational and sensible decisions.

To tell local authorities that, if they drive down fraud by 50 per cent., they can keep 10 per cent. of the money they save is to invite them to look for fraud. However, as the Select Committee's report on the disability living allowance showed, there is a fine line between inaccuracy and fraud. People may not intuitively perceive that they need to report changes in circumstance, so they may claim benefit to which they are not entitled, but whether that is fraud depends on whether they are deliberately deceiving the system. It is hard to know how central Government can produce a policy to deal with fraud, but we must be careful about saying that fraud costs £7 billion and that everyone is at it, which stigmatises people who need to claim benefit.

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We must adopt a balanced approach. We should concentrate on the prevention rather than on the detection of fraud, and I welcome the fact that the Green Paper does that. However, fraud will not be detected until the administrative budget can pay for data matching, home visits and all the other mundane, run-of-the-mill matters that any ordinary private business would have to attend to if it were to have any chance of solving such problems.

I fear that tomorrow the Treasury will say that the programme of change and the 25 per cent. reduction in administrative budgets over three years--which is now beginning to bite into the bone, not the fat, of the Benefits Agency area offices--will have to continue.

It is absolutely essential that, in applying for benefits, people can act as they do when they buy an insurance policy. They phone up and speak to operators who have a screen in front of them. The form is filled in and sent out to be signed; when it returns with the accompanying documents, it is processed. That is the way in which modern commerce deals with the equivalent of a benefit application. With its current budget, the Benefits Agency is light years away from that level of service.

It is senseless for jobseeker's allowance to be spread across the Department for Education and Employment and the Benefits Agency. It is madness for the Department to act as a gateway and the agency as a processing arm. That is yet another example of how the previous Government could never make up their mind. I do not care which way it goes, but the Department or the agency should be assigned the whole process.

In a Benefits Agency office the other day, I saw an officer holding a sheet labelled "Workaround 115". A workaround is what the staff have to do to make the computer system get round a procedure that it was not designed to do in the first place. Cheat sheets show staff how to get round the inadequacy of the software. They spend more time on finding workarounds than on almost any other task.

My hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Mr. Rendel) mentioned the plastic benefit card. The delays are worrying, in terms of both efficiency and combating fraud. It is a classic case of a project that should be given high priority.


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