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10.26 pm

Mr. Lilley: Like the Minister of State and my hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire), this is my maiden speech in a programme motion debate. I am puzzled about why a motion has been tabled to end the Committee stage by Maundy Thursday. If the Prime Minister intends to have an election, there is no reason to table such an insulting idea. He could at least pretend that that is not the case by giving us ample time to consider the Bill. However, instead of letting us have holy week off and completing our deliberations after Easter, he has decided to insult us. Perhaps he is not going ahead with the election but has still decided that the Committee must finish by Maundy Thursday without saying why.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham): Is not the Government's difficulty compounded by the fact that yesterday's timetable motion on the Adoption and Children Bill gave an exit date of 12 June?

Mr. Lilley: Indeed. The Government compound absurdity with absurdity. Why must the Committee conclude by Maundy Thursday? Will that give us time to get the answers to the unanswered questions that my hon. Friends and I raised in detail? In an otherwise admirable summing up, the Minister, in what is possibly his swansong

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in a Second Reading debate, did not answer my question about whether a study has been conducted of the savings that were made from the Social Security Administration (Fraud) Act 1997, which I introduced. That was the precursor to this Bill and gave data-matching powers for data within government. Only when we have that information can we decide whether the detailed measures in the Bill are likely to bring about similar savings.

The Bill might not be worth the candle and we might have to re-tailor the provisions to make the savings that the Government have suggested. They assume that there will be 800,000 inquiries. It is estimated that each will cost about £9 and will result in benefit savings of an average of £225. The Committee will want those figures explained, and the Government need time in which to work that out.

Mr. Redwood: Given my right hon. Friend's great experience of trying to combat social security fraud, does he think it likely that many amendments will be needed to the Bill from the Government, to try to make the measure work practically in all the detail that he is describing? Until we know how many amendments will be tabled, is it feasible to know how long it might take to discuss them?

Mr. Lilley: My right hon. Friend makes a good point, and one that undermines the concept of programme motions. Unless and until we know the sort of changes that will be needed in the course of considering a Bill, we cannot allocate time.

We know that the Bill required changes even in the other place, a less contentious place than this place. It was changed quite significantly as it passed through the House of Lords, and it is likely to be changed even more in Committee--if we are given time to make changes, and if we are given time for the Government to answer the questions that we raise, which they have not answered today.

I raised the crucial issue of why fraud is increasing under the Government, despite their claim, in opening the debate, that it is falling. Why did they not subsequently apologise for misleading the House? We know that they try to justify the statement by saying that if errors are allowed as well as fraud, there is a slight fall in fraud. That is not a significant fall, although they were telling us that it was. They have not explained why they made that claim, even though it was not valid.

In Committee, we shall want to consider whether the Bill's provisions will bear down on fraud or on what the Government call errors. That might take some time.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South): From the right hon. Gentleman's experience and from his knowledge of the Bill, will there be time to consider not only fraudulent claims by those seeking benefit, but the actions of those within the Department, who are mostly honest people? I am thinking of one of my constituents who was recently convicted and fined for £250,000-worth of fraud from the inside?

Mr. Lilley: I do not think that we shall have time to consider that activity or to amend the Bill to cover it. If the hon. Gentleman has evidence that that is serious

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and important fraud--and the numbers to which he refers suggest that it is--we should be able to amend the Bill to take account of it.

I was raising the distinction that the Government draw between fraud and error. They say that if errors are thrown in, they are succeeding in their task. I have not noticed that.

Mr. Chope: Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is important that we should be able to reach consideration of clause 16 in Committee? It might then be possible to introduce a presumption of fraud where someone forgets to declare £200,000 of income?

Mr. Lilley: I can guess what my hon. Friend is referring to. Usually, the sort of error that we are discussing does not include forgetting £200,000 of one's income. The average benefit claimant does not forget that, but I gather that it is quite normal on the Government Benches to forget that sort of amount. We should know whether that will be classified as error or fraud, and we will want to consider that at length.

When on that subject, we shall want to consider whether to amend the Bill to give power to the Government or social security officers to obtain information that has been uncovered by DTI inquiries. If they can obtain information from banks and credit card owners, why cannot they get information about people who have been examined in the course of DTI inquiries, especially if there is provision, as there is on the statute book--despite what the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry says--for releasing such information to a designated body that is fulfilling a public function?

It would be possible to take such matters into account in Committee if only there were time. I suspect that the Government want to rush through consideration in Committee because they do not want that sort of embarrassing discussion shortly before a general election. That is why they are trying to curtail discussion by means of a draconian programme motion. They want consideration to be completed by Maundy Thursday. They do not want to allow us the sort of discussion that we shall need to give the Bill the inquisition that it deserves.

10.34 pm

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold): I would like to make a few remarks on the programme motion. Following the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire), I should like to ask why there is a need for the motion at all? Did the Government try to come to an informal agreement through the usual channels?

We shall spend three quarters of an hour debating the motion, plus the vote, making one hour. The Programming Sub-Committee will perhaps take an hour or two; there will be another half-hour debate on the programme in Committee and a vote, making three quarters of an hour. That may take the time up to three and three quarter hours. This motion makes provision for a programme motion to be introduced on Report and Third Reading, making another three quarters of an hour, together with a vote, bringing the total to an hour. So a total of four and three quarter hours could be spent on

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debating the timetable for the Bill to get through the House and the other place, which is the equivalent of a half-day debate in the House.

Before introducing the programme motion in the House, it would have been much more sensible of the Government to try to see whether a voluntary agreement could be reached. Had the Government introduced sensible proposals, I am certain that a voluntary programme could have been entered into; more than four hours could have been usefully devoted to debating the Bill at greater length or debate could have been foreshortened. I am not sure why, under paragraph 3 of the motion, the Government want to complete the Committee stage of the Bill by Maundy Thursday. Unless a general election on 3 May is a racing certainty, it seems that the Government will run out of legislation to introduce. What on earth will we do if the election is delayed until October? Will there be another Queen's Speech? What will happen? We will be scratching around for motions to debate in the House.

The Government are wasting our time because it is practically a racing certainty that we will have an election. However, assuming that we do not, we must deal with the Bill's timetable. I have dealt with one or two timetables before, and there are a couple of things that could be usefully incorporated in future. Why, for example, does the final sitting of the Committee have to be brought to a conclusion at 9 o'clock on a Tuesday or 6 o'clock on a Thursday? I have some Committee experience and, very often, the Committee suddenly gets into a panic towards the end of its consideration of the Bill and an awful lot is discussed on the last day. Given my experience of serving on Committees with timetables, it would make eminent good sense--if one has to have a timetable--to conclude proceedings at midnight. That is not unreasonable.

The worst thing in the timetable motion is paragraph 7, which makes provision for a timetable for messages from the Lords, and states:

If ever there was an abrogation of the democratic tradition of debate in the House, that is it. Whatever amendments the Lords make to the Bill, whatever messages they send to us, we shall have no time whatever to debate them. That is totally undemocratic.

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