Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Higgins: My Lords, I am grateful for that illuminating reply. I do not propose to go into the business of managing local authorities' housing benefit--I suspect I am not well qualified to do that.

Nonetheless, it is important that we go as far as possible towards standardisation. As the noble Baroness said, it may be that a specific local authority wants to acquire other information and retain a degree of flexibility. I felt that that could have been met by having a standardised first part of the form and a less standardised part for a degree of flexibility. At any rate, the fact that a model form is being produced is a step forward. I find it extraordinary that the situation was allowed to develop in the first place.

Computerisation raises some issues with regard to the extent to which it will be possible to cross-reference to detect whether some of the other data we have been discussing on the earlier clauses can be checked against the local authority organisation if, as I understand the Minister correctly, there are a vast variety of different computer systems. However, I understand the Minister's reply reflects a realistic appraisal of the problems involved in this area and I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

6.45 p.m.

Clause 6 [Loss of benefit for commission of benefit offences]:

Earl Russell moved Amendment No. 29:

The noble Earl said: My Lords, I hope the Minister will confirm that I have today, on the whole, tried to be helpful where I can. One cannot do it everywhere. Unfortunately what is for us the major issue of the Bill has arisen rather too late in the day to be given the treatment to which at other times it might have been appropriate. That is the question of Clause 6 and the benefit sanctions.

It is clear to everybody, no matter from which point of view they approach the issue, that where there is a prohibition there must be a penalty; where there must be a penalty, that penalty must be made as effective as can appropriately be possible. But the word "appropriately" cannot altogether be left out. One wants the penalty to be sufficient to deter. But there are penalties--one reads of such things in other places--which are not merely of a level to deter, but of a far greater level.

It is an assumption that legislators tend to make rather too easily that there is a level of penalty which is sufficient to deter which nevertheless stops short of real savagery. It is not in all cases axiomatic that that is necessarily so. One tries to make it the case where possible. But one should not take it for granted, a priori, that it will be.

The level of sanctions here, we are told, is not to be above 40 per cent and is to exclude housing benefit. But careful questioning by the Delegated Powers and Deregulation Committee brought out that in a limited

27 Feb 2001 : Column 1185

number of cases, where there are overlapping sanctions, the level of sanction could reach as high as 80 per cent. That is a quite draconian level of significance.

The noble Lord, Lord Grabiner, commented on this matter in his report and in Committee--I have read everything that was said there; I apologise for being unable to be present. I found I was answered fairly thoroughly long before I was able to make an appearance and was therefore able to do a degree of preparation I might not otherwise have been able to do. The noble Lord, Lord Grabiner, said that these sanctions are well established in social security law. As I remember, he quoted the Jobseekers Act. He is correct. He may not know that all those he mentioned I opposed when they were introduced, and most of them the Minister equally opposed when they were introduced. The Minister remembers the Jobseekers Act well enough.

The fact that it has been done before, does not mean in my case at least that there is any continuing consent; in fact there is a continuing dissent. A large number of issues are involved which have never been argued out; have never been resolved; and no evidence has been brought to bear on them. The Minister, speaking in Committee, clearly found my view of the effect of sanctions altogether incredible. Indeed, to borrow her phrase, she said that, on the effect of sanctions on those who suffer them, we are living in different worlds.

The virtue I will claim here is that I am prepared to have a commission to research and ascertain which of us is living in the real world; or indeed if neither of us is--which is always a possibility--and in what proportions our worlds are mixed when we come to reality. That seems to me to be a perfectly proper academic curiosity. I have not yet seen in anything done, either by this Government or the last, an equal curiosity to arrive at the truth.

The Minister's difficulty here--indeed, the difficulty of the whole of the Department of Social Security--is that when we consider the existing levels of benefit, particularly of income support, they are suffering from delusions of adequacy. I have already quoted the assumption of most public bodies that any public money voted for a specific purpose is tautologically adequate to the purpose for which it is voted. That is not necessarily so. The levels of social security benefit were calculated by Beveridge in 1948 off research dating from pre-war sources. The chance that that level, uprated automatically in line with inflation between now and 1948, will meet what it genuinely costs to subsist in safe poverty is astronomically small. Prices go up but they do not go up in a uniform scale, so the effect on different points in the social security scale can be very different.

Many people in rural England now spend 10 per cent of their benefit simply travelling to the necessary place to collect it. That is largely a result of bus deregulation. That is only one example; I do not believe that it is unique. As a matter of urgency we need to arrive at a new picture of how much benefit is

27 Feb 2001 : Column 1186

necessary to support good health. The view of the Acheson report that the level of income support is too low to be compatible with good health is not by itself conclusive but I believe that it is one to which we should pay a good deal of attention. We should put some effort into finding how true that is. If the whole level is insufficient to maintain good health and we start shaving off parts from something which already risks being below a minimum, we may create considerable difficulties.

That is my basic reasoning for thinking that the effects of benefit disentitlement on the scale we are considering here are likely to be a good deal more severe than the Minister thinks. The Minister shakes her head; I am sure I shall hear why. I shall listen with a great deal of interest. We need to take seriously the arguments for finding a level of minimum income. My party policy, on which we shall go into the next election, is that we believe we should commission research to find out what is now a minimum income necessary to maintain good health.

I recall when that proposition was put in an amendment to the Welfare Reform and Pensions Bill by the noble Lord, Lord Morris of Manchester. He made an extremely powerful and persuasive case. It ruffled a good many administrative feathers in government circles. To me, that suggests the word "bull's-eye". I think that the noble Lord was right, and the irritation he caused was evidence of his rightness.

When we have a benefit level which is clearly sufficient to maintain good health, we would be in a position to have sanctions which take it down to the level that will maintain good health and no lower. It is when we start to take benefits below that level that we get into trouble. That would either provoke ill health, which is not conducive to returning to work, or would create a temptation to illegal action, which may be serious.

Part of my complaint about the whole regime of benefit sanctions is that we have absolutely no idea on what scale either of those processes operates, if, indeed, at all. If the problem is as trivial as the Minister believes, the research would surely show that I am wrong. I am prepared to take that risk. Is the Minister prepared to take it equally?

The Minister argues that the sample arrived at under the Bill would be too small for serious research. That is a point which can be taken perfectly seriously. On the other hand, I am sure that she does not think I would object if she were to enlarge the research sample to take in people deprived of benefit under other benefit sanctions. At present I do not see any prima facie reason for supposing that benefit sanctions for one reason are likely to create more hardship than equally severe benefit sanctions for another reason.

If I were to see any reason to suspect that, I would be perfectly ready to investigate it. If a larger sample were to show one sanction causing more hardship than another, I would be prepared to look at it further, as I am sure the department would also. But enlarging the sample--I have not demanded that in Amendment

27 Feb 2001 : Column 1187

No. 39, to which I think we might with convenience speak in this group--would not create severe problems. If that is the Minister's problem, I do not see why she should not do it.

If we are to have a sanctions regime--there has to be some way of punishing people on benefit and we have not yet found a satisfactory one--minimum income entitlement would necessarily be part and parcel of the same package. But if we do not have one, I do not see how we shall justify the other. I beg to move.

Lord Davies of Coity: My Lords, I have no difficulty in supporting about 90 per cent of the comments made by the noble Earl, Lord Russell. He has been addressing the question of the level of social security benefits and a minimum income level, which I could probably argue about a great deal. However, the Bill is about social security fraud. Whatever level the social security benefits are at, fraud would still be a problem which we would have to tackle.

It seems to me that we are all opposed to social security fraud and each and every one of us would want to see it reduced, if not totally eliminated. Perhaps the best way to do that is to prevent fraud taking place, but we know that that is not possible; nothing whatever is perfect. What happens here is that anyone who deliberately commits a social security fraud will be subjected to sanction. However, the Government recognise that there are vulnerable people in that respect. Therefore, measures are being taken. There is an opportunity to receive reduced benefit in such circumstances. The sanction will last for only 13 weeks.

This attack is on the people who commit the abuse deliberately. Although we might talk of measures being draconian, the people who commit the abuse and bring about fraud need sanctions which they have to observe. They must be ones which they can feel; ones which will be a deterrent and may prevent them from attempting the fraud in the first place. It does not seem to me that the amendments do anything like that. I think that the Government have it just about right, if we are to punish people who commit fraud deliberately. We know that fraud involving billions of pounds takes place every year.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page