Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page


Lord Monkswell: Surely, the Government can accept that this Government have rather a reputation in that

13 Mar 1997 : Column 451

regard. I seem to remember an advertisement in the national press for someone to run British Rail which said that no previous experience in running a railway was required.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: Or was desirable.

Baroness Turner of Camden: I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Carter moved Amendment No. 48:


Page 10, line 31, leave out from ("administration") to ("their") in line 33 and insert ("of social security benefits and, in particular,").

The noble Lord said: In moving Amendment No. 48 I shall also speak to Amendments Nos. 50 and 60. Amendment No. 48 is intended to ensure that the fraud inspectorate will be able to cover all social security benefits administration. The amendment would allow the formation of an independent fraud inspectorate with a remit to investigate efficiency in the administration of all benefits, not just housing benefit and council tax benefit, but DSS-administered benefits too. There appears to be no justification for confining the power to appoint persons to report on administration to those benefits administered by local authorities only. The implication seems to be that local authorities need to be coerced into fighting fraud but that the record of the DSS, the Benefits Agency and other government departments is above reproach. I apologise to the Minister; this briefing is rather pointed.

In fact, central government's record is far from perfect. For example, the Commons Social Security Select Committee severely criticised the lack of control exercised over the national insurance number system as a major contributor to benefit fraud. Local authorities also have practical experience of cases where they detect housing benefit fraud and the recipient is also implicated in fraudulently obtaining DSS benefits. However, in some cases, when they inform the DSS, the department has been extremely slow to act on the information and stop the fraudulent claim. Perhaps the officers concerned did not have the relevant experience.

Amendment No. 50 requires the fraud inspectorate to publish an annual report. What the report is intended to contain appears in the amendment. The fraud inspectorate would be required to publish reports on at least an annual basis. They would have to contain details of the costs of the inspectorate, of the individual studies carried out, of reports produced, of recommendations made and of the action taken in response to those recommendations. In particular, the amendment would give the inspectorate powers to make general recommendations, including recommendations to the Secretary of State, about how benefits administration could be improved.

As drafted, the Bill requires the fraud inspectorate to report to the Secretary of State on individual local authorities, but there is no requirement for a more general report on its work or for more general recommendations on the administration of benefits. The amendment would give the fraud inspectorate the

13 Mar 1997 : Column 452

opportunity to give details of its work and to make recommendations on best practice which might be of value to all agencies administering benefits. Crucially, it would also give the inspectorate the opportunity to make recommendations about central government's benefits policy if changes were required to improve efficiency and prevent fraud.

On a number of Bills relating to social security and indeed other fields, such as health and agriculture, over the years, I have proposed amendments asking for reports either on a regular or an annual basis. We always receive the same answer. It would be interesting this time if the Minister were to be able to give some new arguments when he rejects the amendment, if he does reject it.

Amendment No. 60 is to give the Audit Commission powers to conduct studies into the administration of all social security benefits. The amendment would ensure that the powers being given to the Audit Commission to conduct studies cover all social security benefits, not just council tax and housing benefit. It does not seem unreasonable that there should be some independent scrutiny of the DSS administration of the benefits for which it is responsible. We are not entirely clear whether it should be the Audit Commission or the National Audit Office. It will be interesting to hear the Minister's response. The argument is about independent scrutiny. That is the important point.

The amendment also provides an opportunity to ask the Minister to explain why the powers contained in Clause 6 are necessary. What does this clause add to the Audit Commission's existing powers to conduct studies into local government economy, efficiency and effectiveness? Why are specific new powers to look at council tax benefit and housing benefit deemed to be necessary? I beg to move.

Lord Monkswell: I support my noble friend on this amendment. A phrase we hear quite regularly is that one is trying to achieve level playing fields. That is something very pertinent to our culture. Generally speaking, we believe in fairness: it is something very deep in the British psyche.

The amendment tries to ensure that in terms of social security administration and the prevention of fraud we are looking towards a level playing field. We do not want a situation where central government can use, as a stick to beat local government, certain facts and figures. There has been continual criticism of the high levels of voids--unlet domestic property--in council housing stock. However, when one looks at the figures and the information one finds the level of voids in central government housing stock to be far higher than that in the local authority stock.

We should recognise that there will be differences and variations. We should be prepared to learn from the good examples of administration of social security matters under local authority control. That experience, one hopes, can be fed back not only to other local authorities but also to the national scene. The

13 Mar 1997 : Column 453

amendment of my noble friend not only accords with the British psyche; it will provide long-term benefits for public administration at national and local level.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: I think I have explained to the noble Lord, Lord Monkswell, that the concept of a level playing field is entirely theoretical. If level playing fields existed, teams would not have to change ends at half time.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: Has the noble Lord not heard of the sun?

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: I am not entirely sure what the sun has to do with it unless it is the newspaper. As the sun seldom shines--

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: The Minister will surely accept that tennis courts are level but nonetheless people change ends because otherwise one player is playing into the sun?

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: I think that illustrates my point that there is no such thing as a level playing field because players have to change ends. I am not entirely sure why I am being pulled up on my reprimand about the level playing field concept. Everything I say appears to be controversial today.

This group of amendments seeks to broaden the scope of matters which the Benefit Fraud Inspectorate and the Audit Commission would consider, in carrying out their functions under the provisions of this Bill, and to place a requirement upon the inspectorate to report on work undertaken and its effectiveness.

Amendment No. 48 would give the Secretary of State power to authorise persons to consider and report to him on the prevention and detection of fraud in all social security benefits. While I understand the intention behind the amendment, it is absolutely unnecessary because the Secretary of State does not require any additional powers to authorise investigations of social security benefits in general. He already has these powers. Indeed, we have fraud teams that work inside the Benefits Agency. The administration of housing benefit and council tax benefits raises different issues because local authorities are independent of the Secretary of State and have individual approaches to carrying out their obligations to administer benefits. That is why we need the new powers in this clause. That said, generally it will not be sensible to examine the administration of housing benefit in isolation and the inspector's remit will therefore include the interconnection between local authorities and the Benefits Agency. Where any such considerations identify a problem or a solution that has implications throughout the system the Committee may be assured that the appropriate action will be taken.

Amendment No. 60 is similar to the amendment we are discussing in that it would allow the Secretary of State to request the Audit Commission to undertake studies into the administration of all social security benefits, not just housing benefit and council tax benefit.

13 Mar 1997 : Column 454

This amendment is both inappropriate in principle and unnecessary in practice as it would give the Audit Commission a role in examining the administration of centrally administered benefits which fall outside its remit. The broader constitutional position is that the Comptroller and Auditor General, together with his staff in the National Audit Office, is responsible for external audit in central government. The Audit Commission and its cousin or brother, the Accounts Commission for Scotland, are responsible for external audit in local government and individual health bodies. Amendment No. 60 would cut across these long-established principles.

As I have already explained, the Secretary of State does not require any new powers to authorise investigations of the administration of social security benefits in general. He is able to invite external auditors to examine any part of departmental benefit procedure under current provisions.

Amendment No. 50 would place a statutory duty on persons authorised to carry out inspections under Clause 5 to prepare reports at least once a year on the inspections carried out, the costs involved, the recommendations made and the steps taken in response to those recommendations. The Benefit Fraud Inspectorate will form part of the department and will be accountable to the Secretary of State. It will be a separate unit operating independently from the agencies within the department which have responsibility for administering benefits.

The head of the inspectorate will produce annual accountability reports for the Secretary of State explaining the work the inspectorate has carried out and the running costs, staffing and resources involved. Reports will also contain information of a more technical nature commenting on overall achievements and on points of general interest arising from that year's inspection programme. We do not, however, consider that it would be appropriate for the inspectorate's annual accountability report to contain all the detailed recommendations which have been made in each of the individual inspection reports compiled during the year. There are two main reasons for this. First, the reports are relevant to the individual authority at the time of the inspection. Secondly, authorities will be under no statutory obligation to adopt the detailed recommendations contained in inspection reports.

While it is intended that the head of the Benefit Fraud Inspectorate will make annual reports to the Secretary of State and that generally these will be published, it would be inappropriate for those reports to cover all the subjects suggested in the amendment. It is also worth noting--although I do not think this was the intention--that it appears that the reporting requirement would fall on each individual who was authorised to report. That would be impractical and unwieldy. However, I know that was not the intention of the amendment. I hope that with those explanations of how we believe the system will work and of the quite different role of the Audit Commission and of the National Audit Office, the noble Lord, Lord Carter, will see that the provisions and the powers that the Secretary of State requires are already to hand.

13 Mar 1997 : Column 455

5.15 p.m.

Lord Carter: I am extremely grateful to the Minister for that reply. I think I said that we were not quite sure whether it was a case of the Audit Commission or the National Audit Office. Is it correct that the appropriate parts of the annual accountability report will be published and will be in the public domain but it will be the responsibility of the Secretary of State to decide what is or is not published? That is how I expected the position to be. I shall read with care what the Minister has said but I think he has satisfied our concerns. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.


Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page