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9.30 pm

Mr. Andrew Rowe (Faversham and Mid-Kent): I want to approach the subject from a slightly different angle. What emerges primarily from my experience in my surgeries and elsewhere is that there are too many disincentives to honesty. I consider that to be as big an issue as that of incentives to dishonesty.

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Let us consider the individual who is desperate to get back to work, who may well be over 50, and who is finding it extraordinarily difficult to secure employment. He is on benefit, he has a wife and--perhaps--children to support. He--it is usually a man--is then given the opportunity to try his hand at some employment for two or three weeks. He has been applying for work for months, and has never even been granted an interview; now he has the chance of doing a little work. He then finds that if he declares that he has done the work, he will be denied benefit for several months.

That is bad news. How can it encourage such people to find their way back into work? How can it encourage them to play the system fairly? This is, I think, an enormously important question.

Things are too difficult for people who are trying to set up in business for themselves. The Secretary of State had the goodness to respond with alacrity to information about a case that I encountered, and I am grateful to him for that. I was, however, outraged when a couple who came to my most recent surgery told me what had happened to them. They had been together for 11 years, and had their six-week-old baby with them. The man was trying to set up in business for himself, and was therefore not available for work in the strict sense of the term. He was putting together the equipment that he needed, with assistance from his brother-in-law and other members of his family, and was trying to find premises.

As we all know, the early stages of setting up in business are hugely taxing. The wife was not allowed to go back to work: she was a fitness instructor, her baby had been born only six weeks earlier, and according to the rules of her profession she was not even entitled to take tests to establish whether she was fit to return to work for eight weeks. The Secretary of State now tells me that she was misdirected. The fact remains, however, that the couple were told that they were not entitled to benefit because the man was not available for work. Moreover, one of the kind women at the Benefits Agency told his wife, "You would be a lot better off, dear, if you shed him." What a thing for a woman to say to her partner of 11 years, the father of her firstborn child. I think that such disincentives to truthfulness and honesty lead to much of the fraud about which we are so anxious.

There is another problem, in regard to which I have great sympathy with the Government. In areas such as mine, where unemployment is fairly low, finding appropriate staff is enormously difficult. I realise that the Minister has heard all this so often that he is not the slightest bit interested in what I am saying, but I will continue none the less.

It is often difficult to find staff who are capable of doing the job, given the salaries that social security departments can offer. One consequence of that is that someone who writes three letters in three weeks may find that a different member of staff replies to each one. That leaves the person concerned with no confidence that his case is understood, or that there is any continuity in the arrangements.

Thanks to the reforms of the Child Support Agency, we encounter far fewer CSA-related cases in our constituency surgeries. One case we frequently encounter, however, is that of the spouse who, while claiming to have no income,

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is living the life of Riley, while the--usually--abandoned wife is unable to persuade the CSA either to investigate the situation or to do anything about it. Although it is clear that a man who is running two cars and living in a comfortable house on a substantial income is perfectly capable of maintaining his child, the CSA will not investigate. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman) that it is the refusal to follow up manifest cases of blatant dishonesty that demoralises the honest citizen who is trying to make the system work.

9.35 pm

Mrs. Jacqui Lait (Beckenham): I would like to begin by commending the speeches of my hon. Friends the Members for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman) and for Faversham and Mid-Kent (Mr. Rowe), because this is possibly the last time they will contribute in the Chamber. They have, as ever, made characteristic speeches, as they have been notable for doing all through their parliamentary lives. They have taken up subjects tonight that are characteristic of all the causes that they have espoused over the years. I thank them very much for their contributions and wish them well.

Having wished two of my colleagues well, it would be churlish of me not to try to make the Minister of State, the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker), blush, as almost every other hon. Member has done, by thanking him for his contributions over the years. We shall probably have the pleasure of Question Time on Monday, so this may not be his last outing. Indeed, we may well go into Committee on Tuesday--

The Minister of State, Department of Social Security (Mr. Jeff Rooker): Absolutely.

Mrs. Lait: I am glad to hear that we are not dissolving Parliament on Monday, and I look forward to the Standing Committee. Over the past few years, the right hon. Gentleman and I have jousted with each other often enough, and I certainly appreciate his tremendous contribution to the House.

We started this debate--on a Bill that no one has said they will not support--with a half-hour speech by the Secretary of State, which was characterised by my hon. Friend the Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) as a speech that the right hon. Gentleman would be likely to deliver on a wet Wednesday night during the election campaign in Edinburgh, Central. Edinburgh, Central is a constituency with which I am familiar, because my husband fought the two 1974 elections there against the present Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, the right hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook), in the latter's first campaigns before he did his chicken run to Livingston.

I have some sympathy with the tone of the Secretary of State's speech, but it was not terribly constructive, especially as the Bill has come from the House of Lords amended by my noble Friends Lords Higgins and Astor in a way that has made it a much better Bill. It was unfortunate that the Secretary of State chose to attack our contribution to eliminating fraud, and I was delighted that my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley) not only set the record straight on that, but did so in such a way as to blow apart the Secretary of State's attack on our record on fraud.

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As my hon. Friend the Member for Havant said, we shall abstain in the vote on the Bill. I hope that, when we come to write the legislation in the new Parliament, it will be more understandable than this Bill. Lord Brightman sent up the writing of the Bill on Third Reading and said that he hoped that the Government would listen to his requests for easier reading. Anyone who has tried to read the Bill will have had great difficulty in so doing. That apart, some questions remain that we wish to have answered, and many hon. Members have picked up on them.

I shall begin by talking about the code of practice. I was under the impression, as was the Vote Office, that the only code of practice in existence was the draft one produced in the Lords. I was not aware that the amalgamated one referring to local authorities and the Department of Social Security was available in the Library. Furthermore, it is most interesting that the Data Protection Commissioner, who was particularly concerned when she first read the Bill, has written about her many points of disagreement with it. I shall not go through them all--some were dealt with by amendments tabled in the other place--but the Secretary of State's assertion that she has written what appears to be a one-sentence letter saying that all her concerns have been met worries me greatly, because those points were matters of principle. I should be most grateful if he told us, either tonight or before the Bill is considered in Committee, precisely what exchanges took place between the commissioner, Ministers and officials to make her happy with the measure. I accept that she is happy with it; I just want to know why.

Time and again, the right to privacy has been raised. It is of great concern because information--perhaps inadvertently; perhaps not--could be made much more widely available than one would wish. I hope that we receive in Committee an acknowledgement of the worries of organisations such as the British Bankers Association about the information that will be available. Like many other bodies, it wants reassurance not only that the authorised officers will be properly trained, but that there will be a system whereby the list of authorised officers, which will be made available to private organisations such as the banks, will be kept up to date.

We heard some interesting figures from the Secretary of State. In the other place, Baroness Hollis said that she expected 500 DSS staff and 1,000 local authority staff to be authorised officers. The Secretary of State said that the figure for the DSS or the Benefits Agency is going down to 300, and one would like to assume that the figure for local authorities will be only 600. An enormous number of people will be involved; and allowing for even a normal turnover, it will be difficult to keep the list up to date. It is possible that the private organisations--

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