Standing Committee F
Tuesday 1 February 2000
[Mr. William O'Brien in the Chair]
The Chairman: Before I call the next amendment, I wish to point out that a slight adjustment has been made to the selection list. On schedule 2, it is now proposed that amendment No. 225 and the associated group of amendments will come before amendment No. 112. On yesterday's list it was the other way round. This is merely a procedural matter, but perhaps members of the Committee will take note of it.
Mr. Eric Pickles (Brentwood and Ongar): On a point of order, Mr. O'Brien. You will almost certainly have seen the announcement by the Secretary of State that problems have arisen with the new computer in relation to calculating the CSA's new formula and computers' ability to communicate with each other. The system is unlikely to be working before April 2001. Given that we have received many assurances about computers in the Committee, can you tell us whether the Minister of State thinks that this is likely to affect implementation of the Committee's decisions?
The Chairman: That is not a point of order for the Chair. I am sure that the Minister of State has noted the hon. Gentleman's remarks. I have not had notice of a statement.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security (Angela Eagle): To help the Committee, I am happy to explain the details for the hon. Gentleman before we begin. We do not have problems. It is simply that, as we negotiate with Affinity, which is the suppliers, we wish to avoid a repeat of what happened when the Child Support Act 1991 came into effect. The previous Government had a start date for child support reforms and wanted a bespoke computer system to be created by its technology agency. The company attempted to achieve that, but half way through the process it discovered that it would not work. The Conservative Government chose not to put back the start date to cope with the unexpected hitch, but instead bought an off-the-shelf computer from Florida, which cannot even identify national insurance numbers. It cannot do many other things either, but we shall deal with that later. They had bought a pig in a poke, which made it difficult for them to pursue their aim of producing CSA reforms in a reasonable manner.
We were determined not to fall into that trap. When first we said that the end of 2001 would be the date by which the computer would be available, we believed it. We still believe that it will be available by that time, but we have been advised by our suppliers, Affinity, that we need a test period to ensure that the computer holds up and works before we begin loading new numbers into it, and we have agreed. Our announcement was made to make it clear exactly when new cases would be put on to the system—which will be April 2002. However, we still expect a computer to be available for our use for testing and commissioning by the end of 2001.
Mr. Pickles: I thank the Minister of State for that explanation.
Applications by persons claiming
or receiving benefit
Mr. Pickles: I beg to move amendment No. 120, in page 3, line 13, leave out `or any other benefit of a prescribed kind'.
It is not my intention to delay the Committee for too long on clause 3. Most of our amendments are of a technical nature. We find it a little strange that the clause refers to ``any other benefit''. The Bill mentions an income-based jobseeker's allowance and ``any other benefit'' prescribed. It is that phrase that we find peculiar, especially as we now know that there are problems with the computer. Although we are grateful for the Minister's explanation, it seems that Affinity and the technology company EDS have found the work much more complicated than they anticipated. The phrase ``any other benefit'' is therefore likely to exacerbate the complexity of the programme being put into the computer.
We did not know about the Government's problems with the computer when we tabled the amendment, but we question the necessity for the phrase ``any other benefit''. If the Government wanted to introduce another income-related benefit, surely the more sensible thing would be to include it in a Bill for that purpose, and amend the current Bill through that new Bill. It may be thought that I am nit-picking, but a seasoned observer of parliamentary procedures would not think so. If Parliament is to remain in control of legislation, it should be able to determine what income-related benefit should be included in an Act and not allow the Secretary of State carte blanche to introduce a new benefit through the statutory instrument procedure.
I fail to see the advantage of the proposed new section 6(1). The Minister may have good reasons. My amendment will give him an opportunity to explain them. Now that we know about the computer problem, not only do we need a technical response explaining why the phrase should be included, we want further particulars because I am concerned that the information technology software and probably the hardware supplier, EDS, is saying something different from what the Minister said. I am sure that the Minister will wish to qualify that. It is not a question of bedding in or testing the new system; it is a more complicated problem than anticipated. One complication would be putting any other benefit into the computer system. We are looking for a response on two levels. We want to hear why this all-encompassing power is necessary and why suppliers say something quite different from the Minister.
The Minister of State, Department of Social Security (Mr. Jeff Rooker): We have had some good-natured debates. But if the hon. Gentleman for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles) continues to repeat the mantra ``problems with the computer'' my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will become extremely irritated because it is not true. We do not know where his quote comes from. Hansard has the answer from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, who announced the start-up date of new cases by April 2002. To the best of my knowledge—I am not an expert—no precise date has been given, but it has been assumed that it will be around the end of 2001. However, as my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary said, we do not want to repeat the mistakes of the past. The fact is that we do not have a computer at present. That is the whole point. We have now done sufficient work with our suppliers to give a date by which we will be confident that we can put the new cases on the system.
Mr. Pickles: I would be grief stricken if I had given the hon. Lady a moment's pain. I am quoting from a newspaper. It is from The Daily Telegraph, so it must be true, as that is our nation's periodical of record. I am not quoting from the hon. Lady or from the Secretary of State but from the suppliers, Affinity, which is led by the information technology company EDS. The company said that the work has been ``more complicated than anticipated''. I shall go on because I may be giving the hon. Gentleman some news. The article says:
``This is because the computer will have to be able to `talk to' other machines at the Benefits Agency and the Inland Revenue to cross-check data.''
That is serious. I hope that now the Minister of State has cognizance of all the facts, he will not think that I have raised this matter just to annoy the Under-Secretary. I have done so to get to the truth. The hon. Gentleman should address this problem. Has he been fully briefed by his suppliers?
Mr. Rooker: The idea that it is an innovation for a new computer system to talk to other systems is worrying. That is one of our problems. In the past, that was never considered. The possibility of data matching and data sharing as a means of cutting down on fraud is very important. However, the computers need to be able to talk to each other. It is nonsense to suggest that suppliers went into the game thinking that we did not want them to talk to each other. The hon. Member kept referring to a problem. There is no problem because we have no computer at present. We have given a date, which has been recorded in Hansard. Heads are on the block from the top down.
Mr. Pickles: Not the right hon. Gentleman's.
Mr. Rooker: We have collective responsibility.
I want to refer briefly to the amendments and respond to the points that the hon. Member has made. Throughout this Bill, cross-references have been made to other legislation and from time to time we have found duplicate powers that have had to be taken out. The hon. Member may have a point: that provision could be in a future Bill if there were a future benefit. We think, on balance, given that we have this primary legislative vehicle, that it would be better to do so now. Clause 3 improves the process by which parents with care can claim or receive income support or income-based jobseeker's allowance or be treated as applying for child support. It will ensure that parents with care on those benefits receive a seamless maintenance service when they claim benefit.
Under the new scheme, parents with care who make a claim for income support or income-based jobseeker's allowance will be treated as applying for child support unless they specifically request that child support should not be pursued. As with the current scheme, there is power to prescribe benefits other than income support and income-based jobseeker's allowance. In the past, disability working allowance has been included as a benefit. Amendment No. 120 would mean that we would no longer have the power to prescribe any benefits, other than the two to which I have referred. We do not intend at the moment to include any other benefits. I will repeat that. We do not intend at the moment to include other benefits. We think it important, however, that the power to do so remains in case other benefits replace or supplement income support for which parents with care may be eligible in future. It is only right in those circumstances that all parents with care should be treated in the same way.