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3 Feb 2009 : Column 214WH—continued

Albert Owen: On a personal note, I had to learn Welsh. My mother came from the capital of north Wales—Liverpool—and the language spoken at home was English. I missed out somewhat, but my mother contributed a great deal to Welsh society. She could not speak Welsh fluently but could write it and Latin and a
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number of other languages, and used to help to translate letters from Welsh into English. Non-Welsh-speaking people can contribute to Welsh society in many ways, but the Welsh language is part of the sense of belonging and identity so it is important that we develop and use it in practical ways.

I urge the Minister, as part of her consultation, to talk to such august bodies as the Welsh Language Board, which was established under the 1967 Act. The board has had many people as its chair who have all taken it forward. I also urge the Minister to talk to local authorities as they often produce literature and cards in both Welsh and English. Reference has been made to the DVLA, which has overcome various problems to include data on driving licences.

Yesterday was an historic day for the Welsh language, with the publication of the legislative competence order which will further enhance the Welsh language. It will be debated in this House and we hope it will give Welsh and English equal status. The term “equal status” expresses the hope that Welsh and non-Welsh speakers will be on an equal footing in a confident, bilingual Wales.

Like Jim Griffiths and Cledwyn Hughes and my hon. Friend the Member for Llanelli, I am proud to be both Welsh and British. The United Kingdom is a diverse country and reflects its nations and the regions. I think it appropriate openly to express our identity, and one way of doing so would be to have the Welsh text on any identity card. My friend and near neighbour, the great linguist Professor David Crystal, never tires of saying that Welsh is one of the only minority languages to have grown over the past 50 years; many have declined. He talks about that at great length. That growth has been allowed to happen because of measures passed at Westminster, such as the 1967 Act and the Welsh Language Act 1993. The LCO will be an important addition to them.

The people of Wales understand that there are practical difficulties, but I think that including the Welsh text is a reasonable request. Some problems have been identified—for example, the limited space available on the data cards, the collation of information, and the costs involved—but they can be overcome, as has happened with various other Welsh cards. Databases and software can be made to cope, as we have seen with other EU languages.

There has been a leap forward in that Welsh has been used at EU level. I think that the inclusion of the Welsh text on the ID cards will marry well with that development and the fact that the LCO will promote equal status. I say again that I think inclusion of the Welsh text is a reasonable request and I believe the Minister to be a reasonable person. I also believe that people at the Home Office are reasonable and will have understood that the people of Wales want to express their Welsh identity in their unique way. Including Welsh on the ID card will be a great advantage in promoting the diversity of the United Kingdom, allowing Welshness to be expressed in that way. Who knows? I may even grow to like ID cards.

Mr. Mike Hancock (in the Chair): With that amount of flattery, Mr. Owen, you cannot but win.

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1.20 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Meg Hillier): It is a pleasure, as ever, to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Hancock.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith) for securing this debate on the important issue of the inclusion of Welsh text on UK identity cards. It is fitting that we are having the debate today after what was a historic day yesterday in the history of the Welsh language, with the introduction of the Welsh language LCO by the Welsh Assembly. As hon. Members have eloquently described it, we are on a mission and a journey for the Welsh language, whether or not we are Welsh ourselves. As a UK Minister, I regard it as being very much part of my responsibilities to represent the whole of the UK and to be sensitive to the issues that matter in different nations and regions of the UK.

It is important that identity cards are introduced in a way that ensures that they are as convenient to use as possible for members of the public across the United Kingdom and that the individual’s identity is reflected as well as it can be. The Government recognise that, in Wales, the Welsh language is an important part of the identity of people who live in that nation, particularly those who have a Welsh linguistic and cultural heritage.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) has suggested, I have had conversations with a number of colleagues in Parliament about the issue, particularly with my hon. Friend himself and my hon. Friends the Members for Llanelli and for Conwy (Mrs. Williams), who have been very vocal on the issue. What has been interesting is that a lot of English-speaking Welsh MPs who represent English-speaking parts of Wales have also come up to me and made a point of stressing their support for that measure. I am always keen to talk to all hon. Members who represent Welsh constituencies about their concerns and about other issues relating to that subject.

I am very supportive in principle, as my hon. Friends are aware, of doing what we can to provide an option of having Welsh language on identity cards. We still have to determine exactly how that can be done—it is not as straightforward as it may seem, as I will go on to explain—but I can give a commitment that we will make a final decision well in advance of the high-volume roll-out of identity cards that will start in Wales, as in the rest of the United Kingdom, in 2011 or 2012.

I will go into that timetable a little more later. However, I just want to explain the timetable that has applied so far. As my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn has said, ID cards are here. The Act creating them was passed in 2005, it became law in 2006 and at the end of last year we began introducing cards for foreign nationals; 25 November 2008 was when the scheme went live. From the end of this year, airport workers in Manchester and London City airports will receive the first identity cards for British citizens, along with a few volunteers who are keen to take up the cards early. From next year, young people in certain parts of the country will be issued with cards. I will go into that in a little more detail shortly, for the benefit of the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mark Williams), to explain how that will work and why young people in Wales are probably
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unlikely to be affected at that point. From then on, everyone will have the opportunity to get either a passport, an identity card, or both.

I must stress why the national identity card scheme is important. It is important that we have strong safeguards to protect our identity and to protect us from those who would hurt us, our families and our communities. The identity card scheme is one way that we can help to do that across the piece.

The cards that are being issued to foreign nationals may go to some people who currently live in Wales. However, as those cards are only issued to foreign nationals and must meet a common standard throughout the United Kingdom, they do not include the Welsh language. We are bound, quite rightly, by certain European rules on how we can frame the card. In order for the cards to be useful, it is important that they are recognisable across the whole of Europe.

As I have said, the first British citizens to receive identity cards will be those who are working in airports. The first airports that we are working with are Manchester and London City, and we do not have any immediate plans to issue identity cards to airside workers at airports in Wales. However, if any hon. Member wishes to raise with me the issue of an airport in Wales engaging in that part of the scheme, we would be very keen to talk to them. It may be a little late, at this point, for Welsh airports to participate in that first wave, but we are incrementally rolling out identity cards and we expect that they will go to Wales in due course.

At that point, we will also issue the first identity cards for British citizens to a limited number of volunteers who will have pre-registered their interest, which will happen in certain areas of the country. The precise locations of those people and of the young people who will get the cards from next year have yet to be identified. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary was in Manchester last week, and local authorities and other key partners there have expressed some interest in it becoming one of the first areas of the country to have the cards for young people, but no final decisions have been made. The discussions on cities and regions to start issuing identity cards to young people have focused so far on cities and regions in England and not yet Wales. However, as I said, I am keen to talk to hon. Members. If they would like to promote this interest in an area of that nation, we would be keen to discuss that with them.

I have always maintained that it makes sense to implement identity cards incrementally, not in a one big bang approach. However, from 2012, the cards will be issued on a voluntary basis—it is not a compulsory scheme—to British citizens in all parts of the United Kingdom. That will be alongside the issue of 5 million to 6 million British passports every year.

We currently have Welsh language on passports, but it is worth stressing the difference between a passport and an identity card. If hon. Members look at their passports, what is on the page with their photograph is broadly what will be on an identity card, but it is twice the size of an identity card. On that part of the passport, no Welsh language appears; the Welsh language on passports appears in the explanatory notes. Under EU rules, we have to have two full European languages on them. Welsh is now considered a minority European language. It is not one that would qualify to appear in
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place of the French that we choose to put on the British passport and the language that we will put on identity cards.

Another challenge is the length of words in the Welsh language. We would have difficulty in fitting the same words on to a very small identity card. However, I can reassure my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn and other hon. Members that we are sensitive to these issues. The Identity and Passport Service is in regular contact with the Welsh Language Board and the Welsh Assembly Government. We are considering how best to meet the expectations of people in Wales. I welcome the suggestion of liaison with local authorities. Across the UK as a whole, I and the Home Office generally will be doing more of that to discuss the roll-out of identity cards.

However, we are not able to introduce Welsh on the initial identity cards, as I have explained. We are considering options for doing so when we move to the introduction of the second generation card in line with the upgraded passports. We have to tackle the issue sensibly and I appreciate the suggestions that we do that practically. We are looking to issue cards in a process that is along the lines of the current process for driving licences, whereby anyone with a Welsh postcode is issued with a card with headings in Welsh as well as English. As I have highlighted, there are technical and space issues that we need to resolve, but where there is a will, there is a way, and we need to find a viable option.

Albert Owen: I appreciate the Minister’s saying that she is willing to consult local authorities and examine what they are doing. Will she agree to meet me and colleagues from Wales and the Welsh Language Board to see how those early cards for driving licences were introduced?

Meg Hillier: I am certainly happy to do that if we can get it in fairly quickly, but I know that officials are already having discussions. In fact, the issue was first raised with me when I was at a roadshow in Cardiff about what identity cards would mean. People there were very concerned, and since then hon. Members have raised the subject with me persistently. We need to ensure that we do not underestimate the practical difficulties but, as I said, where there is a will, there is a way, and we need to find that. However, we do need to meet the International Civil Aviation Organisation standards and the EU standards. The cards need to be useful. It is no good having Welsh on them if that makes them less functional, so we have to get that balance right, but I do not think that means that we will not have Welsh; it just means that we have to answer those questions.

To avoid confusion, I should stress that when we talk about headings, we are talking about name, date of birth and so on. If someone has a Welsh name, that will obviously be on the card.

I look forward to contributions from hon. Members to the consultation that is under way and that ends at the end of next week on secondary legislation for identity cards. I urge them not only to contribute themselves, but to urge organisations in their constituencies to do so. I am happy to provide information outside this debate.

I hope that today I have reassured hon. Members—on the record, not just in conversations with colleagues separately—that we take this matter very seriously. We
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are considering how best to meet the expectations of people in Wales and to ensure that their identity is properly reflected on a UK identity card when the cards are introduced in high volumes, including to people living in Wales, from 2012.

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Tax Credits

1.30 pm

Jo Swinson (East Dunbartonshire) (LD): I am pleased to have secured this debate, and I welcome the opportunity to put concerns to the Minister on behalf of my constituents. However, it is regrettable that so long after the identification of the problems with the tax credit system, mistakes are still occurring and even getting worse.

Difficulties with tax credits cause stress and heartache at the best of times, but in this time of economic hardship, sudden demands for repayment could be enough to push many families over the financial edge. It is therefore more important than ever that the Government act to reduce the misery caused to families across Britain by the maladministration of tax credits.

The fundamental problem with the administration of tax credits is that the system is too complicated. It is not only claimants who find it difficult to understand what their entitlements are; Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs officials have found the system so difficult to administer that an endless catalogue of mistakes has resulted in the loss of more than £14 billion of public money through overpayments, fraud and error since April 2003. If the system is not simplified, that figure will surely continue to rise. In this short debate, I will highlight three major problems with tax credits: overpayments, underpayments and the worrying non-claiming of tax credits by many who are eligible.

In 2006-07, one in five families claiming tax credits was overpaid, which means that some 1.2 million families were overpaid a total of £1.1 billion by HMRC. In the past four years, nearly 2 million families have been overpaid more than once, and some 60,000 have been overpaid three or more times. Although the Government have acknowledged that there is a problem, the figures indicate that it has not been addressed. On the contrary, it has got worse: 400,000 more families were overpaid last year than the year before. The parliamentary ombudsman has referred to the situation as systematic maladministration.

Let us be clear about the situation that people are in. After filling in all the forms and providing all the information requested, their lives are made a little easier by tax credit payments. Then one day, out of the blue, a letter drops through the door demanding the repayment of a large sum. Understandably, many families are shocked and anxious when they read such a letter.

The average overpayment in 2006-07 was £916, which is a considerable amount, especially when one considers that most claimants are families on low incomes. For many families, the overpayment is several thousand pounds, which is an unthinkable sum for a working family to have to find suddenly. Some of my constituents have been in that situation. One constituent wrote to me and said that they were “traumatised”. That is an intense word to use, but it describes what people feel when a financial bombshell is suddenly dropped on them. Dealing with the tax credit office can involve many phone calls and letters. A common feeling was summed up by one of my constituents who wrote:

Elizabeth O’Brien is a single mother in my constituency. When her son left school in 2005 and she continued to receive tax credits, she immediately contacted the tax
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credit office, both by phone and in writing, to check whether she was still eligible. Despite her efforts to keep the tax credit office informed of her situation, she was eventually overpaid £1,982.92.

Mrs. O’Brien was distressed when she came to my surgery and explained that she was having difficulty affording the repayments. She has even had to cancel her monthly £8 union subscription. It is somewhat ironic that the policies of a Labour Government are leaving people unable to afford their union dues. Although the tax credit office was responsible for Mrs. O’Brien’s overpayment, it refused to write it off so, at the rate of £25 a month, she will be paying for the tax credit office’s mistake until 2015. That is not an isolated case. The need for continual updates to claimants’ information has caused huge difficulties. Surely it would be simpler to have a system of payments fixed on a six-monthly basis to reduce the risk of miscalculation.

The system is so complex that even the tax credit office cannot seem to work out how much people are due. Another couple in my constituency, Mr. and Mrs. MacMillan, have received a number of contradictory letters. I have copies of two award notices—from 10 November 2006 and 6 December 2006—that list exactly the same income for the couple, but give different award amounts. On 10 November, the award was £3,026.06, but less than a month later, using exactly the same information, the award was calculated as more than £1,000 lower, at £1,897.66. If the tax credit office cannot decide how much people are due, how on earth can ordinary people be expected to work it out? That, however, is exactly what the Government ask people to do.

It is not uncommon for scanning or input errors at the tax credit office to result in overpayments. My constituent, Mrs. Gallacher, was overpaid almost £5,000 after the tax credit office incorrectly recorded her and her husband’s income as £340 rather than the correct amount of about £30,000. Although she had provided accurate information from the start, she did not spot the tax credit office’s mistake, and the overpayments continued for more than two years. Mrs. Gallacher is a carer and her husband is a teacher. They have had to remortgage their house and are struggling on their current income, so the repayments demanded by the tax credit office are making life even more difficult for them. Like many others, they are unable to sell their home because of the present market. I wrote to the tax credit office about their case in December, but have so far received no response, and the money continues to be recovered. That couple now face the possible repossession of their home as a result of those problems. I would be grateful if the Minister would agree to look into that particular case and get an answer for my constituents.

More generally, I ask the Minister to offer all claimants a statutory right of appeal against overpayments and to write off overpayments that result from official errors. If nothing else, that might be an incentive for the tax credit office to get things right. In cases in which the tax credit office, not the claimant, has made an error, surely the office should carry the burden of proof, instead of expecting claimants to identify its mistakes.

Another of my constituents, Claire Robertson, was able to resolve problems with an overpayment, but then found, when she went to the cash point one day, that
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£6,000 had been put into her account with no explanation or warning. Given her past experience, she was understandably suspicious. She said:

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