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The tax credit system is another issue that I want to discuss. The idea behind the tax credit system is excellent, and I support it. It increases the income of low-income families and encourages them to enter employment, because it makes taking a job more financially worth while. I certainly support the principle behind the system. My postbagI am sure that this is true of all hon. Membersis full of complaints about the tax credit system, mainly from people who were given overpayments through no fault of their own. Those people spent that money in good faith, because they believed that they were entitled to it, but when a demand to pay some of it back comes out of the blue, it puts them into severe financial difficulties. The current scale of the problem is simply unacceptable. Recently published figures show that in the financial year 2005-06 nearly half the tax credit awards in my constituency were incorrect, which is
typical of all constituencies throughout the country. Paying back overpayments has caused terrible hardship to many people on low incomes. The Government must examine the system and devise a less complex model.
Many constituents have come to me after being deluged with conflicting award notices sent out over a very short period of timein some cases, conflicting award notices were sent out on the same day. Under current HMRC rules, however, the onus is still on the claimant to work out whether their award is wrong and what they are due. If people do not do that and spend the money, they can be clobbered with demands to pay some of that money back. The system automatically tries to overcome overpayments without making any effort to establish who is to blame for the overpayment or the financial circumstances of the claimant.
When the ombudsman looked into the matter a year or two ago, one of her most important recommendations was that HMRC should reverse the burden of proof in cases in which the error is caused by HMRC itself. In such a case, the assumption should be that an overpayment is not recoverable, unless the claimant was sent a clear award notice and it should have been obvious to them that it was wrong. Where an overpayment is alleged, the claimant should be sent a letter stating clearly how the overpayment occurred.
At the moment, the claimant is simply told that an overpayment has been made. Instead of that, they should be given clear details of the calculation that caused the overpayment. Instead of then demanding the money back straight away, there should be a pause, and the claimant should be given the automatic right to appeal, which would allow time for a challenge to be made and considered without the money automatically being clawed back and the onus being put on the claimant to go to their MP or a local advice centre. The system is so complicated that no ordinary lay person without proper training can work it out.
I think that those suggestions would greatly improve the system. Many people on low incomes who have been asked to repay overpayments have told me that they will never again apply for tax credits because of the financial hardship and stress that the recovery of overpayments has caused them. I always encourage them to apply, but they should never be put into a situation where they are deterred from doing so.
Also in relation to tax credits, it is clear that the adjudicator and the parliamentary ombudsman are being overwhelmed with complaints. More resources need to be given to those two offices in order for them to be able to investigate and respond to complaints within a reasonable period of time.
Finally, I want to put on record my opposition to the tactics that are being adopted by anti-nuclear protesters outside Faslane naval base in my constituency. I support everybodys right to peaceful protest provided that they do not block anyone elses right to freedom of movement. However, I utterly condemn the tactics of the protest organisers, which involve regular protests that block the road outside the base and prevent people from getting to work and children from getting to school. Not only workers at the base itself get held up. Because the road past the base is a main road, people who are going to work elsewhere get held up, as well as school buses. We have got to the situation where local people in Garlochhead are themselves organising
peaceful protest marches to oppose the Faslane protesters. Those protests are perfectly legal and do not disrupt the road, but the tactics of the anti-nuclear protesters are completely unacceptable. I wish that the organisers would realise that they are not winning any support for their cause by behaving in this way, but merely alienating people, and that they would be much more likely to gain public support if they protested in a legal and peaceful way that did not block the road and stop other people from going about their lawful business.
Mr. Shailesh Vara (North-West Cambridgeshire) (Con): I start my comments on a rather sad note by paying tribute to Lord Renton, known affectionately to most of us as David Renton, who sadly passed away this morning in Abbots Ripton, surrounded by his family. David was approaching his 99th year and was, until recently, very active in the other place. He served Huntingdonshire with distinction, being its Member of Parliament from 1945 to 1979, when he was succeeded by John Major. David was a true gentlemana lovely man who will truly be missed by all of us who knew him. I am sure that I echo the sentiments of the whole House when I say that our thoughts and prayers are very much with his family and friends.
Turning to the Adjournment debate, as always we have had a number of speeches, all of which have been excellent in their own ways and which have covered a broad range of subjects, from the domestic to the international. We started off the debate with a contribution from the hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Shona McIsaac), who pointed out that last time round she was the last person to be called and was obviously delighted that this time her ordeal was over sooner rather than later. There was nothing in her speech that she had not raised in previous debates. She was particularly keen to emphasise the surfacing and noise problems on the A180 road, as well as the tolls on the Humber bridge. It is fair to say that we all have considerable sympathy with everything that she said, and hope that some of the problems will be sorted out sooner rather than later.
My hon. Friend the Member for West Chelmsford (Mr. Burns) gave a thoughtful and knowledgeable speech, with special reference to two issues. The House was brought to attention when he asked in Prime Ministers questions about the link between learning disabilities, such as dyslexia, and criminality. We all applaud the excellent work of Jackie Hewitt-Main, a remarkable woman, who is a volunteer and conducts a project at Chelmsford prison. I hope that other prisons will follow the example of Chelmsford prison. He also raised another difficult but prominent issue, which affects many of our constituencies. He presented a measured and reasoned argument about the allocation of social housing. The subject needs to be tackled delicately and sensitively, and my hon. Friend did that.
The right hon. Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz) made his usual contribution to the recess Adjournment. As ever, he was witty as well as serious. He was right to point out that several lessons need to
be learned from reality television and I hope that they will be taken on board. He was also keen to emphasise the outrage that members of the judiciary feel about the newly created Ministry of Justice. He underlined the fact that many members of the judiciary were not consulted or, if they were, the consultation was purely nominal. I hope that he will participate in consideration of the Legal Services Bill, which the House will debate on the first day back after the Whitsun recess. I would like him to be able to make some valid contributions to the debate.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) delivered a passionate speech about the difficulties of the rural way of life. He mentioned post office closuresa subject that recurred in several subsequent speeches. It is interesting to note that, when the current round of closures is completed, one third of the post office network will have closed since 1997. He was right to point out that post offices are often the lifeblood of local communities and that their closure is a sad loss to many.
My hon. Friend also mentioned food security, which is especially serious given that many farmers are considering giving up farming or diversifying. That is an important issue, which does not get enough attention. I hope that it will be taken on board today. He also mentioned labelling foods, especially those that are processed and manufactured overseas but then tackled in some token way in this country and marketed in our shops as British produce. The Trade Descriptions Act 1968 needs to deal with that quickly.
The hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) made several points, most of them of a critical nature. He spoke with considerable passion. He discussed the lack of consultation with the judiciary and also the endless reorganisations by Governments. He reminded us that several reorganisations will happen under the Prime Minister-elect. If he will forgive my saying so, effective leadership, proper management anddare I say itperhaps a change of Government are required, not reorganisation.
The hon. Gentleman rightly pointed out that he asked the Home Secretary a simple question on 30 April about splitting the Home Office. It is a straightforward question that deserves a straightforward answer. Perhaps the Deputy Leader of the House will convey that to the Home Secretary.
The hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr. Leech) made a passionate case for retaining the Marie Louise gardens. It is extraordinary that, despite the restrictive covenant, the local council plans to build more flats there. I hope that he will have joy in ensuring that the gardens remain.
My hon. Friend the Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) reminded us that he was speaking in his first Adjournment debate, and may I say what a welcome contribution he made? [Hon. Members: Creep!] I am simply telling the truth. My hon. Friend spoke of the need to maintain the integrity of the electoral systeman issue of concern not only to the House, but to all of us who value proper democracy. He raised serious points on a wide range of aspects of the electoral process. In an intervention on him, my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley commented on the Council of Europe. It is indeed a sad state of affairs that the Council of Europe, which monitors
elections in places such as Albania, Ukraine and Russia, should be considering monitoring elections in the UK, which is of course quite keen on telling the rest of the world about the importance of free and fair elections.
The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) spoke on the subject of post offices, too, and made particular reference to the fact that access to private transport is denied to many people who are elderly, disabled or young parents. I wish him well in trying to sort out the difficulties with the A303, which is clearly causing a lot of difficulty not only to his constituents but to the many people who drive through his constituency.
The hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Mr. Reid) also touched on the issue of post offices, and he listed an impressive number of place names in his constituency, which I will not even attempt to repeat. He rightly concluded by commenting on the tax credit system. I am sure that almost all of us in the House have strong connections with that subject, by way of the post that we receive from our constituents. He spoke of the hardship that is experienced when people have to repay sums of money that they have been overpaid, and he particularly mentioned cases in which people informed the authorities of a change of circumstances but that information was ignored. I am sure that we all have considerable sympathy with what he said.
Finally, I hope that the Deputy Leader of the House will take on board the important point of order raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox). That is obviously a matter of great importance, particularly given that the recess will very soon be upon us.
I conclude by wishing a happy Whitsun recess to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, to all the staff of the House of Commons, to all Members and their staff and, importantly, to the security staff, some of whom will continue to work throughout the recess.
The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons (Paddy Tipping): May I begin by reinforcing the point that the hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Mr. Vara) made about Lord David Renton? He had a distinguished career, both in this House and the other place, and that was preceded by a fine career at the Bar. He was a man who had bottom, as Denis Healey would say. He had interests outside this place, and he was extremely interested in cricket; that must run in the blood in Huntingdon, as his successor followed him in that regard. I note that Lord Renton was interested in people with a physical or mental disability, and I highlight his role as chairman of Mind for an important period in that organisations history.
When I summed up in the Easter recess Adjournment debate, I wished Opposition Members a relaxed and enjoyable holiday, but I counselled my hon. Friends to get out and campaign for the elections of 3 May. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz) said, we had some successes. Like him, I compliment my old friend, Councillor Ross
Willmott, on all his achievements in Leicester. I would like to highlight the real success in North Lincolnshire andlet me blow the trumpet for my own part of the countryNottingham, where the city council, under John Collins, gained five extra seats. So it seems that people heeded my words and got out on the campaign trail with some success, but as the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) will be keen to remind me, that success was not universal, either in the English counties, or in Wales and Scotland.
This has been a wide-ranging debate, moving from the colour of the cats in Immingham and the spots on washing there to a discussion about the EU. In addition, I shall of course take up the point made by the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) about the investigation into what I shall call the kidnapping in Iran.
It is interesting that hon. Members have welcomed this debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Shona McIsaac) said that it was a marvellous opportunity, and called it democracy at its best. The hon. Member for Ribble Valley took the opportunity to get rid of his pent-up feelings and to escape from the straitjacket in which some of usand especially his colleagues on that side of the Houseare very keen to keep him.
Many constituency issues were raised in the debate, and some important themes emerged. I think that the House dealt in a very sensitive and thoughtful way with the question of race, which is clearly a major preoccupation in this country. The hon. Member for West Chelmsford (Mr. Burns) talked about housing allocation policya real issue for many hon. Membersin a very professional and thoughtful way.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East raised similar points about the Big Brother television programme. Channel 4 has acted in an ignorant and arrogant manner right from the beginning, when it pretended that there was no problem. Even today, its chief executive denied that any difficulties had arisen, but I hope that the channels bosses will look at the Ofcom report very carefully and that their patronising attitude of the past will be replaced by something more humble and thoughtful.
Roads were a major theme of the debate, and I shall certainly draw the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes about the A180 and the Immingham bypass to the attention of colleagues in the Department for Transport. The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) talked about the A303 and I have some sympathy with what he said, as the A46 between Newark and Widmerpool in my area needs to be widened. There, the debate is about whether the Department for Transport has central responsibility for the project, or whether it should come out of the budget devolved to the regional assembly.
The hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) talked about the need for noise reduction measures on the M1. I hope that he will not consider me indiscreet if I reveal that I once drove him down that part of the motorway and delivered him safely home. However, I shall draw all his comments to the attention of the Minister of State, Department for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet (Dr. Ladyman)
Post offices were another theme of the debate. The hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Mr. Reid) made the point that the Post Office itself believes that its commercial network will operate through 4,000 outlets. Let me be clearthe Government do not agree. We believe that post offices have a social as well as a commercial value, and that is why we have spent £2 billion already on supporting the network, and why we are making a further £1.7 billion available through to 2011.
I hope that that money will stabilise the network. We must remember that it is run by private franchisees, who want some certainty about the future. They did not enjoy the announcement that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry made, but they have welcomed the certainty about the future that it contained.
Again, we must be clear about the fact that there has been a change in the demand for post office services. These days, 98 per cent of new pensioners claim their money not from post offices but through their bank accounts.
The hon. Member for Blaby said that he was a novice when it came to the e-mail, but we are all e-mailing now, even Luddites like me. That too has its effects on the post office network. I have just renewed my vehicle licence over the telephone. It was easy. Given those changes, there will have to be changes in the post office network. We do not like it. It is painful. It will affect my constituency, and it will affect our constituents. It will be hard and difficult, but hard and difficult choices will have to be made, and they will have to be made at a local level.
The Post Office is now saying that from this summer, over the next 18 months, it will examine groups of post offices in parliamentary constituencies, 50 or 60 at a time, and make choices to provide the most accessible and sustainable network possible. I understand that that will not be easy, and that people, particularly elderly people, will lose out.
Mr. Evans: I was here when the statement on post offices was made. It was emphasised that they were losing £4 million a week. My great fear is that there will be a hit list of the most loss-making post offices, which may well be in rural areas, and that they will be for the chop; otherwise, the Post Office will not be able to save the money. It is hardly likely to prune the network by closing post offices that are not losing money.
Paddy Tipping: I am glad the hon. Gentleman has reminded me that the Post Office is losing £4 million a week. There are 4 million fewer customers a week than there were this time last year. The hon. Gentleman is right to point out that there will be post offices that do very little business. I believe that the 100 least used post offices have fewer than 30 customers a weekfour or five a day at best. That is the scale of the problem.
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