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Baroness Turner of Camden moved Amendment No. 47:


Page 10, line 30, at end insert ("with relevant experience").

The noble Baroness said: This is a very important amendment. Its intention is to ensure that anyone appointed to report on the administration of housing and council tax benefits has relevant experience in the administration of those benefits.

It is a probing amendment but I hope that it will provide an opportunity to debate the issue of the importance of relevant experience for members of the fraud inspectorate. I am informed that local authority fraud investigators have had difficulties in the past

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because DSS officials with no specific experience of housing and council tax administration have sometimes sought to impose inappropriate policies on them.

I am told that the best example of that is the failure by DSS officials to recognise the importance of organised landlord fraud because they do not have to deal with landlords as their experience is confined to DSS benefits. Any person appointed to examine the administration of housing and council tax benefit must have a background in the administration of those benefits to ensure that their advice is based on a realistic understanding of the issues and the practical difficulties involved.

I gather that this amendment, or something similar to it, was debated in Committee in another place. At that time the reaction of the Minister was that people with local authority experience would be recruited. But I am told that the local government associations and the Association of Metropolitan Authorities still remain of the view that members of the fraud inspectorate should have experience in the administration of the benefits which they are investigating--that is, housing and council tax benefit. They believe that that requirement should be written onto the face of the Bill.

I emphasise, as we have repeatedly done on this side of the Committee, that everything possible must be done to minimise fraud but the benefit system is intended to provide a safety net for the poor, the disadvantaged and the vulnerable. Therefore, it is very important that we achieve the right balance; and, in particular, it is important that we have in place a system, and people experienced in the administration of the system, to detect and deal with possible landlord fraud. One of the problems which I face in looking at this legislation, while I oppose fraud from wherever it comes and whoever is responsible for it, is that we may well identify people who have inadvertently become involved in what could look like fraud but people who have a much greater stake in organised fraud are able to get away with it much more easily. That is much more likely to be the case unless the people involved with the administration and the inspectorate have experience of the housing benefit and council tax system to which this amendment relates.

I hope that since the matter was debated in the other place, the Government have had an opportunity to reconsider what was suggested in the other place because this seems to me to be a useful amendment. If accepted, it will send out the right signals that we want people who are experienced in these particular benefits. I beg to move.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: I do not think that there should be any doubt about the Government's commitment in the fight against fraud. I am sure that Members of the Committee noticed that my right honourable friend Peter Lilley, yesterday morning, held a press conference and unveiled a poster on the occasion of the milestone being passed in the various area benefit spotlights of more than £100 million of benefit money being saved by those area spotlights.

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Our commitment is there to be seen. Nobody should doubt that we shall be appointing people who possess relevant experience and qualifications in order to carry out the inspections of local authority benefit administration and anti-fraud performance because we wish to enhance that anti-fraud performance. It would not be in the Secretary of State's interest to do otherwise. I echo the reassurances given by my honourable friend Mr. Alistair Burt in another place.

It is intended that the persons authorised under this clause will be the staff of the new Benefit Fraud Inspectorate. The head of that inspectorate is currently in the process of recruiting staff, and advertisements for two of the senior management posts have appeared already in the national press. In addition, those posts have been advertised both in local government publications and throughout the Civil Service. The intention is to attract public and private sector staff but particularly to target audiences who are likely to have the most appropriate skills and experience for those vital roles.

We can all agree--and I am sure that we do--that the recruitment of high calibre staff is an integral part of ensuring that the inspectorate is effective. That the head of the inspectorate is seeking to recruit such staff is demonstrated clearly in the essential skills and qualities set out in the advertisement. Perhaps it may be useful if I outline briefly the skills and experience considered essential for the inspectorate's staff team. Of course, one person will not necessarily have all the skills but the team collectively will have them all. They are: a knowledge of financial systems; a knowledge of local government administration; a knowledge of the benefits payment system; a knowledge of benefit fraud investigation; a knowledge of audit and management systems; and a knowledge of information technology. That is what we shall be looking for in the staff appointed to the inspectorate.

Therefore, I do not believe that it is necessary to place a statutory obligation on the Secretary of State to ensure that staff recruited to the inspectorate have the appropriate skills and experience. The noble Baroness referred in particular to landlord fraud. We accept that there is landlord fraud as well as all the other kinds of fraud. That will be part and parcel of the skill and experience which we shall be looking for, perhaps under the heading of "benefit fraud investigation". But it is also related to the system of payment of benefit because one way in which the fraud takes place is by the misuse or abuse of the benefits payment system by which we pay out housing benefit.

I hope that I have reassured the noble Baroness, Lady Turner of Camden, that her amendment is unnecessary. I ask her to withdraw the amendment with my assurance in relation to the skills which we believe will have to be present in the whole team when we have completed the appointments.

Lord Monkswell: It strikes me that in the list of qualifying experience to be part of the team, the Minister has not mentioned one area of experience and

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expertise--that is, experience of being a residential landlord. I should have thought that that would bring an expertise to the team in terms of what might be described as poacher turned gamekeeper. That might be quite useful to the team in carrying out its functions in relation to rooting out landlord fraud.

5 p.m.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrechnish: If I had suggested that we recruit a landlord to this, Members of the Committee opposite would have thought that I was being less than serious about the pursuit of landlord fraud.

Baroness Turner of Camden: I thank the Minister for his explanation. Certainly, he has given extensive assurances as to the kind of experience people would be expected to have before they could even be considered for this kind of post. It is very reassuring.

I still fail to see why there is any objection to including this in the Bill and in primary legislation because, if we did so include it, it would send out a very clear signal that we were going to insist upon people having a standard of skill in particular areas of operation that are regarded as important within the context of the Bill. However, I do not intend to press the amendment today. I shall look carefully tomorrow in Hansard at what the Minister has said, but he has given quite extensive assurances and we are very grateful for them.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: Before my noble friend sits down, I wonder if she is aware that such phrases would actually be extremely valuable. Recently I was shown a report by one of the newly appointed school inspectors under the Government's initiative containing 13 mistakes of spelling, syntax, grammar and comprehension which the head of the English department had corrected before sending it back. This was a school inspector of standard English. I saw the report myself--the comments and corrections. They were entirely correct and valid. It suggests that sometimes people are being appointed by the Government who do not appear to possess the most obvious qualifications required for the exercise of their duties. I wonder if my noble friend agrees.

Baroness Turner of Camden: I wonder whether the Minister would like to respond to that. We are in Committee.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: We have strayed considerably from the initial point, and I know nothing of the case in point. It sometimes seems that in relation to appointments to this House there does not appear to be the relevant experience in being able to understand my arguments, but perhaps that is a biased position. It would be unusual if the Secretary of State appointed people who did not have some relevant experience for the job they were doing. He would be exposing himself to a fair amount of ridicule and he would be exposing his policy to the risk of failure.


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