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After Clause 19, insert the following new clause--


(" . In section 44(4) of the Contributions and Benefits Act, for "£66.75" there shall be substituted "£75".").

On Question, amendment negatived.

Earl Russell moved Amendment No. 4:

Before Clause 53, insert the following new clause--


(" . The Verification Project under section 19 of the Social Security Administration (Fraud) Act 1997 shall not be applied to the partners of asylum-seekers.").

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The noble Earl said: My Lords, I think I can undertake that this amendment will not detain the House quite as long as the last amendment. It is technical; at points it is extremely technical. But people's liberties and chances of livelihood in this field depend on technical points. I hope, therefore, that it will be worthy of some attention. I am grateful to the Minister for the attention she has given the point already.

I apologise for introducing this matter at this late stage but it is a story that is only just beginning to break. It goes back to the Social Security Administration (Fraud) Act 1997. Section 19 of that Act set up a project of verification that claimants are who they say they are. There are pilots in progress now. Reports from the pilots are beginning to come in. The key point of the Act was that it required the production of a national insurance number and evidence establishing that the national insurance number had in fact been allocated to that person.

There is nothing in that Act about the requirement to produce the national insurance number for the claimant's partner, but in fact partners as well as claimants are being required to produce national insurance numbers under those pilot projects. That raises the problem between individual claimants and individual responsibility as regards household benefit. In a number of situations the claimant's partner may not be in a position to produce a national insurance number while the claimant can do so. The situation is arising quite frequently in the London area with partners of asylum seekers, some of whom have been claiming asylum here, with their claim undetermined, for a considerable number of years. The record about which I heard was in the London borough of Westminster about three years ago. The claimant had been claiming for about 10 years. That gives plenty of time for people to marry.

National insurance numbers are not normally given to asylum seekers. The effect is that if a person happens to be married to an asylum seeker and makes a claim he produces his own national insurance number. He cannot produce the partner's number because she does not have one. The effect is that the partners of asylum seekers are being disentitled, in my view accidentally, to benefit.

I remember that when we debated the Bill the Minister and I were concerned about some of the possible effects of this clause. I do not think either of us ever envisaged that what I have described could be an effect. I am not certain whether the issue should be discussed on this Bill or on the Immigration and Asylum Bill. As the Minister knows, I have tabled the amendment on both Bills and await a lead from Government on which is the most appropriate Bill. Having received no such lead, I now take the

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opportunity to move it. I shall be interested to know what the Minister thinks about it and of other situations in which people may be disentitled to benefit accidentally because of the status of the partner.

It is a situation where problems are arising. I am grateful to the Minister for her interest. I look forward with considerable interest to her reply in due course.

6.15 p.m.

Lord Astor of Hever: My Lords, the House will be grateful to the noble Earl for raising this important point. Like the noble Earl, I, too, look forward to the Minister's response. Perhaps I may ask two questions. Do the Government feel that the amendment would involve significant cost implications either through an increase in fraudulent claims or administrative costs? And do the Government feel that the amendment could be beneficial to those local authorities which have to support the partners of asylum seekers who fail the evidence of identity test?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, I am grateful for the prior notice that the noble Earl gave. I have sought information which may take the House forward. I am intrigued that he has tabled the amendment on both Bills. Does the noble Earl think that he will receive the same answer from two different governments departments? I know that he would go for whichever answer was more favourable to his point.

The amendment seeks to exempt partners of asylum seekers from the requirement to provide sufficient information to allow their national insurance number to be traced or a number allocated to them. The requirement under Section 19 of the Social Security Administration (Fraud) Act 1997 was one of a number of measures introduced to reduce the opportunity for fraudulent claims for benefit. The aim of Section 19 was to verify the identify of benefit applicants and to ensure that benefit goes only to those entitled to benefit who can prove that they are the person they say they are.

In answer to the question of the noble Lord, Lord Astor, the reason we went that far was because we had some evidence--some, no doubt, anecdotal and not scientifically established, although to my knowledge there have been cases--of people fraudulently claiming benefit under false names to which they were not entitled, sometimes involving extended families, or whatever. This is one of the ways in which we have sought to ensure that the money goes to those who are rightly entitled to claim it.

The requirement also extends to the partners of claimants for any benefit where the claim is made on behalf of both people or where extra money is paid in respect of a partner. For example, in respect of benefit, if you have larger accommodation by virtue of there

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being two or more people it is important to guarantee the identify of that second person by which you qualify for the housing benefit.

Earl Russell: My Lords, I am most grateful to the Minister, but can she tell me where the vires are for the extension to partners? I cannot find the words in the Act.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, I shall have that checked. I do not have the Social Security Administration (Fraud) Act with me.

If you are to identify the accuracy of entitlement to benefit where the benefit is based on more than one person you have to check all elements. For example, if you are claiming for three children, it is reasonable to ensure that there are three children and not one. It seems straightforward. If someone is claiming benefit as a single person, only that single person needs to have his entitlement checked. If you are claiming for two, three, four or five people, you need to check that entitlement. It seems straightforward. Given that the benefit will be what I call a multi-person benefit, I am not sure whether the question of vires arises. I shall have that checked. It is done for both people because without that condition it would be difficult to prevent or detect cases of fraud where the partner is independently claiming benefit at the same time, or even where the partner or alleged children do not exist.

I believe that a particular case may have influenced the noble Earl. If that is so, and if he will provide me with further details, I shall be happy to take it further. If he feels that anything we have said needs to be further discussed with organisations such as the CAB, so that people may know how to gain access to benefits in that situation, we shall be very happy to hold such discussions.

I am told that the vires is in Regulation 10, which states:

    "In the Income Support (General) Regulations 1987(c) after regulation 2 there shall be inserted the following regulation

    'Section 1 ... shall not apply--

    (a) to a child or young person in respect of whom income support is claimed;

    (b) to a partner in respect of whom a claim for income support is made or treated as made before 5th October 1988'".

I thank the noble Earl for his copy of the statutory instrument. I believe that the copy he has provided answers, in Regulation 10, his own question.

I believe it may be useful to emphasise that the requirements of Section 19 should be neither onerous nor a barrier to genuine claimants.

It may be worth while outlining the processes by which national insurance numbers are issued. For most people who are born and brought up in this country in respect of whom parents have been receiving child benefit, the national insurance number is issued automatically at age 15. Their identity has been verified when their parents first claimed child benefit and by way of checks over the years.

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However, there are people who, for one reason or another, have not been allocated a national insurance number through the child benefit route, the vast majority of whom are from abroad. When such people need a national insurance number, they are interviewed in person and must complete an application form. This is likely to be either when they want to start work and start paying national insurance contributions, or when they or their partners claim a benefit.

The main aim of the face-to-face interview is to establish the identity of the person applying for a national insurance number by requiring them to produce a range of evidence sufficient to support their account of themselves. No one document is regarded as conclusive proof of identity. Only a range of evidence in support of a person's life history can provide the necessary assurance. In other words, this is essentially about the credibility of the account.

We accept, of course, that many asylum seekers will have difficulty in producing a range of documents in support of their identity. If they had had ease of access to the documents, they might not have needed to be asylum seekers in the first place. That is why we do not rely on any specific document. A story can be verified, however, even in the absence of any documents at all, by means of intelligent questioning and by building up a consistent picture of the person. Our staff are fully aware of the reasons why asylum seekers may have little or no documentation. However, by using a combination of sensitive questioning and such evidence as is available, we believe that they can verify a story to the extent to which it is safe to issue a national insurance number.

If the noble Earl has experience to the contrary, I should be very grateful to hear of it. If, for example, he feels that we need to give extra guidance to the obvious ports of call to which people might go, such as a citizens' advice bureau, on how they can best do it, we shall be very happy to look at that. We want to be helpful in this respect. If, by virtue of not getting a national insurance number, some people are failing to qualify themselves and their partners for various benefits to which they are entitled, that would obviously be a matter of concern. We want to overcome those bureaucratic obstacles, while at the same time ensuring against the possibility of fraud. If the noble Earl has any proposals to put to us, I shall be very willing to follow them up with, for example, the NACAB to establish whether it has had similar experiences and how we can address them.

Given that, we do not believe that this amendment is necessary. The aim of Section 19 is to verify persons' identities, not for bureaucratic neatness but in order to prevent fraud. Without Section 19, a loophole would be left in our procedures which would enable claims to be made for non-existent partners or multiple claims for the same person. We see no reason why an exception should be made for the partners of asylum seekers. Such a measure would simply lower the standards of evidence needed for them and would weaken the rationale behind Section 19. We believe that our procedures are flexible and sensitive enough

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to cope with these issues. However, if the noble Earl has any further concerns, we shall be very happy to follow them through.

I do not believe that hardship would be caused to asylum seekers without this amendment. I do not believe that their cause would be served by adopting it. Therefore, in the light of the explanation that I have given, I hope that the noble Earl, Lord Russell, will feel able to withdraw his amendment.

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