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House of Lords

Tuesday, 8th December 1998.

The House met at half-past two of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers--Read by the Lord Bishop of Birmingham.

Lord Crawshaw--Sat first in Parliament after the death of his brother.

Benefits Integrity Project

Lord Ashley of Stoke asked Her Majesty's Government:

    When they intend to abolish the benefits integrity project and what are their plans for a replacement.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Social Security (Baroness Hollis of Heigham): My Lords, the benefits integrity project (BIP) will be replaced by a new even-handed system of review, sensitive to people's circumstances and fair because it will provide for awards to be increased as well as decreased in line with entitlement. We are keen to introduce the new process as soon as possible but it is most important that we get it right. We are discussing the way forward with the Disability Benefits Forum.

Lord Ashley of Stoke: My Lords, I am grateful for that reply. Does my noble friend recall that when the Secretary of State made his announcement back in October that the benefits integrity project would be cancelled, it was very warmly received because of the distress and injustice that the project was causing? Many disabled people assumed that the cancellation would be immediate, but here we are in December and the project is still continuing and, with it, the distress and the injustice. Can my noble friend give the House a date on which it will be cancelled and an assurance that whatever replaces BIP will not become known as "BIP Mark II"?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, we inherited a system that was deeply flawed. It was based on incomplete evidence, so many of the decisions were wrong. Only the higher rates of awards were analysed, so people saw only cuts in their benefits. It was not based on consent. As my noble friend knows, we have been struggling with BIP for the past year. That is why we are determined that the system which replaces it will not make the same mistakes. That means that we shall be looking at under-claiming as well as over-claiming. It also means there will have to be full information, decent training of staff and revised literature. The system must be built on consent and consultation with the Disability Benefits Forum. That will take a few months. I am sure

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that my noble friend will want the new scheme to be appropriate, sensitive, even-handed and to command consent.

Lord Campbell of Croy: My Lords, do the Government accept that the primary function of any successor body should be, as before, to check the correctness of benefits being paid--whether too much or too little--as distinct from detecting deliberate fraud, which, of course, is another function? Will the new body, if there is one, also be able to investigate where claims are not being made for eligible people who need the benefits?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: Yes, my Lords. That is precisely one of the reasons why I suggested that the new review process will seek to identify the problems of under-claiming, including the problem of those who do not claim, as well as of over-claiming. The noble Lord is absolutely right. The review has not been fraud led. Of the 149,000 BIP reviews undertaken, there were only 79 irregularities--and not one individual has been referred for prosecution. I am, indeed, happy to confirm that the review was not fraud based. We need to ensure that we address the problems that BIP has so far failed to address.

Lord Addington: My Lords, taking into account what the Minister has just said, should we not cancel the whole scheme now for the simple reason that it has failed miserably and is clearly causing distress? Should we not call a halt and pull the plug on it?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, obviously Ministers and my honourable friends in another place have considered that. However, it must be remembered that we have a fiduciary duty to ensure that people receive the right level of benefit. Until BIP was introduced, the disability living allowance was the only benefit of which I was aware that did not have a review mechanism. We had a duty to review that. We shall replace it with a much more satisfactory system. It is not right for a benefit not to be reviewed. The system should reflect the fact that people may get better or worse and will need to have their benefit entitlement checked.

Lord Morris of Manchester: My Lords, is it not striking testimony to the integrity of disabled people that of some 150,000 cases investigated, as my noble friend said, not one has been referred for prosecution? What action is proposed to counter the cruel libel still put about by some in the media that fraud is rampant among disabled claimants? Since under-claiming of disability benefits now exceeds £6 billion a year, what further action is being taken to improve take-up by people who are not receiving the help to which they are entitled?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, I am happy to confirm my noble friend's statement about fraud. We know that the most common frauds in the social security system are where men claim unemployment benefit while doing work on the side; where women claim a

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single parent's allowance but are cohabiting; or where landlords manipulate the housing benefit system. Those are the main areas of social security fraud. Disability fraud is not a "person fraud". As we have found in BIP, any errors are systems errors. I am happy to confirm that.

Lord Higgins: My Lords, is the Minister aware that the views expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Ashley, are widely held outside the House? The Government seem to be perfectly happy to continue blaming the previous government for the existing situation, but have not done anything about it for a very long time. Indeed, why has it taken so long for any decision to be made? In response to the noble Lord, will the Minister give a clear date by which we are likely to have a definite decision?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, the Social Security Select Committee said last May that the DSS needs to be much more active in reviewing benefits once awarded. It was right. We inherited a deeply-flawed system. I was personally involved for nearly a year in trying to wrestle it back into shape and to turn a system which was about fraud and cutting benefit levels into something that was decent, humane and sensitive. However, the structure did not permit us to turn it around with consent. That is why my right honourable friend the Secretary of State said very clearly that we have to start afresh with a review system which is routine, unthreatening and built on consent but which will continue to check the entitlement to benefit of those under-claiming as well as those over-claiming. That is what we hope to do. But to do so we need to undertake the task sensitively and with the support of the DBF. However, we shall not be able to do it within a matter of days.

Lord Rix: My Lords, can the Minister assure the House that the special needs of people with a learning disability will be taken fully into account in any new review activity which takes place?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, I am delighted to be able to confirm that. The areas which obviously require very sensitive and skilled interviewing and training are those which encompass people with special needs or learning disabilities. There are also people with mental health problems or with fluctuating medical conditions. We have benefited from the training and experience of the Disablement Income Group. However, in the new process which will replace BIP, we will need to strengthen even more the training that our staff has so far enjoyed.

Lord Campbell of Alloway: My Lords, can the Minister say whether instructions have been given to draftsmen and whether a Bill is in the course of preparation in this respect?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, I should point out to the House that changing the review process does not require legislation. The welfare reform Bill,

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which your Lordships will no doubt be discussing in the spring, will refer to some of the gateways on to disability benefits more generally. However, this is not a matter for primary legislation; indeed, it does not need to be.

Quality of Life: Indicators

2.46 p.m.

Baroness Ludford asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Why their proposed "quality of life" barometer excludes indicators on crime and poverty.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Lord Whitty): My Lords, those indicators are intended to focus on the key elements of quality of life which are most relevant to achieving sustainable development; that is, maintaining economic growth, while achieving social justice and protecting the environment both now and for future generations. Choices had to be made in order to arrive at a limited number of indicators. No single indicator can capture poverty, but this and the underlying causes of crime linked to poverty and lack of opportunity are reflected through the indicators on education, employment, housing and health. However, as this is a consultation document, we will consider extending the scope of the indicators in the light of responses.

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