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David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): Does my hon. Friend agree that the type and level of investment about which he speaks would also secure mining jobs in the midlands and elsewhere? A major coalfield around Asfordby in north-east Leicestershire has 800 million tonnes of clean coal and is waiting for investment. There is a future for coal in the United Kingdom, although we are in the last-chance saloon and the lights are being switched off.

Mr. Hughes: My hon. Friend is absolutely correct. Coal has been the fuel of the past and, with the new

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technology, it can be the fuel of the future. In fact, it could have a bright new future. We as a Government and a country should seize this opportunity and get ahead of the game with the emerging hydrogen economy that is coming this way.

4.37 pm

Mr. Steve Webb (Northavon) (LD): Earlier in the debate, reference was made to some of the Government's large-scale IT projects, and in the few moments available to me this afternoon, I want to refer to just two of them. At the start of the new parliamentary Session, I want to plead for an end to the Panglossian assurances that all is well with those IT projects and the implication that it is impertinent of us to suggest that things might be otherwise.

First, I wish to refer to the tax credits computer system. I was not at yesterday's sitting of the Public Accounts Committee, when it heard evidence from the head of the Inland Revenue and from EDS about the state of the tax credits computer, but now that the truth is coming out, it is clear that the assurances that we were given at the time that all this was a triumph and that everything was going swimmingly were very far from accurate.

The head of the Inland Revenue, whose position must be open to question, said that the tax credit launch had gone "spectacularly wrong"—not a phrase that we have heard Ministers use in the past six months—and that the computerised payment scheme had repeatedly crashed, forcing hundreds of thousands of people who live on the breadline to wait weeks. As all hon. Members know, hundreds of thousands of emergency payments were necessary, and there is now evidence that billions of pounds may have been overpaid, again because of problems with the system.

One of the things that I find incredible is that we can have blundering and administrative error on that scale but we barely bat an eyelid any more; we just expect it. We assume that huge Government computer projects will be a shambles. Given that up to £2 billion has been mistakenly paid, it is astonishing that Ministers have not made emergency statements to apologise to the House for the poor state of play. Instead, we get press releases from the Paymaster General and others saying that everything is a triumph. Sometimes I think that I have slipped into a parallel universe where all is well. Behind the scenes, the truth is very different.

Our constituents know that the truth is different. They have been messed around by the tax credits scheme from day one. Many have had to wait long periods and some have fallen into debt and lost serious amounts of money. They were told that they could claim compensation, but to do that they had to ring the very helpline that they could not get through on in the first place. We had a letter from the Paymaster General this week that said that 1,600 people, out of 5.75 million, had received compensation payments of a grand average of £30 each. If I had led a life of misery earlier this year caused by the tax credits system and I had to go through it all again for £30 compensation, I would not bother.

The spin from the Government is that the small number of people who received compensation must prove that there was not really a problem. However, if

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high enough hurdles are put in the way, people will not claim compensation. I suspect that many of us have had 1,600 complaints about the system just in our constituencies. The Government's complacency and unwillingness to be honest with hon. Members about the state of the problem are incredible. We get bland assurances that all is well, when we know from our constituency surgeries that all is not well. My plea to the Government for the coming Session is for honesty and openness when things go wrong. The new scheme is a massive undertaking. The head of the Inland Revenue even said that the system should not have been introduced as quickly as it was. We are told all the time that nothing is wrong, but that is so much at variance with the facts that we must wonder whether we live in a mature democracy and treated as mature representatives of our constituents or being patronised like children who cannot be trusted with the truth, perhaps because it is too horrible to be told.

This year has seen not one EDS computer catastrophe, but two. The same company is responsible for the Child Support Agency computer system, which was 18 months late in arriving and is still a shambles. In the six months to the end of September, 150,000 families asked the CSA to arrange maintenance but barely 5,000 had received the money by that date. What is the point of the child support system if it is not to get maintenance through to people? If 150,000 families go in at one end and only 5,000 come out, we must surely question the efficiency of the system.

The shifting of old cases on to the new system is to be delayed indefinitely, as far as we know, and that mess is costing real families real money. A family that does not receive maintenance loses out. For a family in work, every penny of maintenance that they do not get is a penny that they lose because the failure to receive maintenance has no effect on their tax credits. Although arrears build up and may be recovered later, they may not. We all know of cases in which the arrears run to tens of thousands of pounds that are never recovered. The Government may claim that things are getting better, but some of the money will be lost for ever to the children involved.

Families on benefits lose the money permanently. As I understand the situation—the Minister may be able to clarify it for me—a lone parent on income support who receives maintenance can keep £10 a week of it before losing benefit. If instead of getting £10 a week for 52 weeks she gets £520 in a lump sum, because the CSA has delayed getting the maintenance, she can still keep only £10. She has therefore lost the benefit of £510 of child maintenance disregard. Does she lose that disregard permanently because of the delay? I suspect that that is what will happen.

There is a further problem. All the families on the existing system cannot be moved over to the new system because of the computer problems. That matters because every mum on income support on the old system loses every pound that she receives in maintenance from her income support. If she moved on to the new system, she could keep £10 a week. Leaving aside the gainers and losers from the change in systems, every mum on the old system is losing £10 a week for every week of delay.

These are not abstract problems or delays that do not really matter; they involve real money for real children, and much of it is money that will never be recovered.

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When a gentleman from EDS was asked in a Select Committee yesterday to talk about how much money the company was being penalised and other things, he was about to reply but was then shut up by a civil servant because the man from EDS is not supposed to tell people such things. It is all commercially confidential. We have a shambles, but we are not allowed to ask questions about it. We do not know whether taxpayers are receiving value for money because the information is all commercially confidential.

David Taylor: Does the hon. Gentleman believe, as I do, that this case points up the utter inadequacies of the private finance initiative and public-private partnership schemes to which, I regret, my Government have been wedded for almost seven years? Is he shocked at the lack of penalty clauses built into the private arrangements with EDS and other companies?

Mr. Webb: I share the hon. Gentleman's concerns. In fact, I think that the situation is so bad that the Treasury is now not doing new PFI on information technology projects. Yet here we are lumbered with a system that is so bad that we understand from a letter that we received from the Department for Work and Pensions that staff members at the CSA are using pocket calculators because they are more reliable than the new computer. All we get from the Minister responsible for the CSA are bland and Panglossian assertions—they are the only words that one can use—that all is well with the world, that the system is getting on and that we are gaining momentum. In fact, real families are losing real money.

There are penalty clauses in the EDS contract and I understand that some money is being withheld but whether permanently or temporarily I cannot be told. I have asked in the House, and I have been told that I cannot be told. I cannot be trusted with such information; it is all very hush-hush.

The House needs to know the truth about what is going on, it needs to know when things are going wrong and it needs to know about the finances. How can we, on behalf of our constituents who are suffering, hold the Government to account if we are treated like children with incomplete and inadequate information and a refusal to tell us the facts? Such situations happen over and over again and, on behalf of our constituents, I urge the Secretary of State to be honest and open with us in all circumstances so that together we can hold these companies to account and ensure that efficient systems are put in place to deliver the benefits and the maintenance that our constituents have a right to expect.

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