HC Deb 20 May 1986 vol 98 cc239-49
Mr. Robert Kilroy-Silk (Knowsley, North)

I beg to move amendment No. 198, in page 55, line 8, leave out from 'that' to end of line 11 and insert 'any person has failed to use due care and diligence throughout to avoid overpayment of benefit and in consequence of such failure to use due care and diligence'.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this it will be convenient to take the following amendments: No. 199, in page 55, line 19, leave out 'the misrepresentation or failure to disclose' and insert 'the failure to use due care and diligence'. No. 200, in page 55, line 22, leave out 'who misrepresented the fact or failed to disclose it' and insert 'who failed to use due care and diligence.'. No. 202, in clause 52, page 57, line 30, at end insert 'dishonestly'.

No. 203, in page 57, line 33, leave out paragraph (b).

No. 204, in page 57, line 39, leave out paragraph (d).

Mr. Kilroy-Silk

The first three of these six amendments deal with the criteria that have to be established in the test for recovery of overpayments, and the final three deal with the criteria that have to be proved so that a prosecution for social security fraud can succeed. They are the first of several amendments suggested by the working party on the endorsement of social security offences which was recently established by the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders, under the chairmanship of Sir Norman Price who, until recently, was chairman of the Board of the Inland Revenue. The amendments are concerned both with prosecution for social security fraud and with recovering overpayments made to claimants.

At this stage, I should make it clear that the amendments are tabled as probing amendments, designed to elicit the Government's response to the suggestions that they contain, which are also contained in the working party report. They have the support in principle of the parliamentary all-party penal affairs group, of which I have the honour to be chairman. We hope that the Minister will, even in a preliminary way, be able to make a positive and constructive response as a prelude to their being dealt with more effectively and permanently in another place, when they will be tabled by members of the parliamentary group there.

The first three amendments, Nos. 198, 199 and 200, provide that the test for the recovery of overpayments from claimants should be whether the claimant exercised "due care and diligence" in making the claim. Legislation currently applies several different tests for the recovery of overpayments. First, there is the Social Security Act 1975, which provides that where contributory benefits have been paid under a decision that is rescinded on review, or in later proceedings, repayment must be required unless the claimant can show that he or she acted with due care and diligence to avoid incorrect payment.

That is no more than the concept that I am trying to apply across the board in this legislation. That criterion imposes a duty to be careful, not just honest. The same rules apply to the recovery of child benefit and mobility allowance. Not only is that one of the many different tests that are applied for the recovery of state benefit, but it is considered acceptable and reasonable in the circumstances that I have described. It might help my argument on why it should be applied in the Bill.

The second test for recovery of state benefit is that applied to supplementary benefit under section 20 of the Supplementary Benefits Act 1976. It provides for the recovery of any expenditure from a person who fraudulently or otherwise —I emphasise the words "or otherwise"— misrepresents, or fails to disclose, any material fact". The claimant who exercises due care and diligence in that case is not exempted. The cost of recovery can be recovered, in addition to the overpaid benefit.

The third test for the recovery of benefits, which is even stricter in this case, applies to family income supplement. Overpayments may be recovered if it can be established that the payments were not the claimant's fault and if it can be established that the claimant has not disclosed all the material facts. As the House realises, that is a far stricter provision than the previous two, as the burden of disclosure is placed clearly and firmly on the shoulders of the claimant.

A fourth test applies in respect of housing benefit. Any overpayment is recoverable, even if it is caused by official error, except in the case of certificated benefit paid, for example, to recipients of supplementary benefit.

There would appear to be a need, at least prima facie, for standardisation in respect of the four test which can be applied in different categories of social security payments or state benefits. Clause 50 tackles that by applying the currrent test for recovery of supplementary benefit, where, fraudulently or otherwise, a person has misrepresented, or failed to disclose, any material facts under the Social Security Act 1975.

In my view and that of the NACRO working party, it would be preferable to apply to all benefits the test of due care and diligence, which previously applied to Social Security Act benefits. The three amendments are specifically designed to do that. Clearly, we would be less likely to penalise careful claimants who are overpaid through no fault of their own but through administrative error or confusion. It is important for the Bill to take care over that specific point because, as my right hon. and hon. Friends have made clear in previous debates, both this evening and yesterday, hardship can be imposed by a decision to recover overpayment from a claimant, who is usually one of the most highly disadvantaged and poorest members of our community, especially if the overpayment was not the claimant's fault and the money has been spent. Those people are living at a meagre poverty level and such an event could have a devastating and catastrophic effect on them, their families and their finances. For that reason alone, it would be sensible to make the test for recovery of overpayments that which relies upon the claimant having at least maintained due care and diligence in making his claim.

I turn to amendments Nos. 202, 203, and 204 which deal with the test that has to be established for a prosecution for social security fraud to succeed. Amendment No. 202 would require a dishonest intent to be proved on the part of a claimant in a prosecution for social security fraud. Amendments Nos. 203 and 204—I stress that they are alternatives—provide, instead, that recklessly making a false statement should not in itself be sufficient to constitute social security fraud.

Under the present law, a person who, for the purposes of obtaining benefit, makes a statement which he knows to be false or produces a document which he knows to be false is guilty of an offence. A maximum penalty of three months' imprisonment applies. Provisions to that effect are contained in legislation relating to supplementary benefit, family income supplement, child benefit and benefits under the Social Security Act 1975.

The false statement that a claimant makes may be either a positive statement or an omission—for example, a failure to list all his resources, which does not necessarily show that the claimant has received benefit as a result of that false statement. Case law in 1981 — I refer to the case of Clear v. Smith and that of Barras v. Reeve—has shown that, to secure conviction in such circumstances, it is not necessary to show that the false statement was made with the intention of obtaining benefit or that there was any intention to defraud. The only mental element, as it were, that is required is knowledge on behalf of the claimant that the statement he made. or the statement he omitted to make, amounted to false information. It is unsatisfactory to mount a case, prosecute, and prove a case simply on the basis that someone did not disclose information, or did disclose information, without receiving any benefit as a result, or even having the intention fraudulently to receive benefit.

7.15 pm

As the Minister appreciates, most proceedings for social security fraud are brought under such provisions. In serious cases, proceedings can and are brought under section 15 of the Theft Act 1968. Section 15 provides: A person who by any deception dishonestly obtains property belonging to another, with the intention of permanently depriving the other of it, shall on conviction on indictment be liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding ten years. In prosecutions under that provision, it must be shown that there was an intention on the part of a claimant to obtain property as a result of deception and that the deception resulted in obtaining property. The NACRO working party on the enforcement of social security offences expressed great concern about the weakness of the mental element required at present for a conviction for social security fraud, which is much weaker than that which is necessary to obtain a conviction under the Theft Act.

Clause 52 would make matters worse rather than better, and more confused rather than clearer. The clause provides that someone who recklessly produces or furnishes … any document or information which he knows to be false in a material particular … shall be guilty of an offence. The notion of recklessness is worrying. It is one of the most confusing concepts in the criminal law. In essence, it can be summarised as not intending to make a false statement but taking an unjustifiable risk that the statement might be false where the claimant either knew of the risk or had not considered whether there was such a risk, but would have realised, if he had stopped to think about it, that such a risk existed.

The change will cause a great deal of confusion in the courts for magistrates and judges who may have to determine what recklessness constitutes in practice. Clearly, it would pose great difficulty for claimants who are not used to dealing with the more arcane aspects of the law, and definitions would be required in that instance. As far as I am aware, the proposed change was not discussed in either the Green Paper or the White Paper which preceded the Bill. I stand to be corrected on that if I am wrong. It may be intended to bring the social security fraud offence into line with the Theft Act offence under which a reckless deception will suffice for a conviction, but only if there is also a requirement of dishonesty, which is not the case in respect of a social security fraud offence We seem to be getting the worst of all possible worlds. We are introducing a new concept, which has been taken from the Theft Act, but we do not have the restraining qualifications that the Theft Act imposes and by which it requires the courts to abide.

As we have been given an opportunity to have a slightly longer debate on these amendments than was foreshadowed even a couple of hours ago, it seems eminently sensible to eliminate the confusion and clarify the mental element that is required for social security fraud by requiring that a false statement should be made dishonestly, as the first amendment provides. It is wrong that social security recipients, who are otherwise decent, law—abiding citizens, should be exposed to the stigma of a criminal allegation, of being hauled before the courts, cross-examined and vilified, and perhaps convicted of a criminal offence, and of having that stand against their record unless dishonesty can be proved. We are not concerned with getting money back from people and are certainly not concerned with hauling people before the courts and turning them into criminals simply because they are incompetent, confused, stupid or badly advised. Clearly, we want to bring people before the courts when they have committed a fraud against the social security system. I have no time for those who engage in fraud to bring the system into disrepute to the detriment of serious and needy claimants. But we do not want to convict and criminalise people unless they clearly have an intent to defraud and to get something to which they are not entitled.

Therefore, and especially because we have provisions to recover moneys overpaid from future benefit claimants without the need to have recourse to criminal prosecution, it is incumbent on us to take the opportunity to put this right in the Bill. If we do not make the change now, at least the situation should not be worsened by extending the definition of the offence to include "recklessness".

I have been open and honest with the Under-Secretary of State in saying that I do not propose to push any of the amendments to a Division. 'They are new elements to the Bill and we are seeking a sympathetic and positive response from the Minister. I hope that he can accept at least amendment No. 202, hut, if that is not possible—I understand why it may not be—there is no real reason why we cannot at least deal with the concept of recklessness.

Mr. Andrew Bowden (Brighton, Kemptown)

My point concerns official errors. I am sure that, over the years, all hon. Members have faced a number of distressing cases in which official error has occurred and the individual has been told that he has to repay the sum —admittedly, sometimes over a long period—causing genuine financial difficulties, but the error has in no way been the recipient's responsibility or fault. This causes distress particularly to the elderly.

Retired people hate having any form of debt hanging over their heads. When they have been overpaid because of an error, they regard that as a debt. I hope that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State will consider that point carefully. There is a strong case for saying that, if the overpayment has been the fault of officials and there has been a breakdown in the system, no further claim should be made on the recipient.

Mr. Favell

I shall take up the second point made by the hon. Member for Knowsley, North (Mr. Kilroy-Silk). As a lawyer, I am unhappy with the word "recklessly" in clause 52. If a person is to be stigmatised as a criminal, it is important that dishonest intent is proved. I do not think that "recklessly" is sufficient to justify bringing a conviction.

I do not agree with the hon. Member for Knowsley, North on amendment No. 198. I should like to ask my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State what happens when a computer goes bonkers. One hears of computers putting a couple of extra noughts on the cheque. What happens then?

Mr. Michael Stern (Bristol, North-West)

I join the hon. Member for Knowsley, North (Mr. Kilroy-Silk) in welcoming the work done by Sir Norman Price and NACRO. The association's report has proved of great value. Until this debate took place, one might have said that it was of value in clarifying the issues, although I suspect that a person reading a debate dealing with the gradations of what might or might not be fraud might think that the issue had been muddied rather than clarified.

I disagree with my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Mr. Favell) and the hon. Member for Knowsley, North on one point. Although I accept that the use of the word "recklessly" is somewhat reckless, I hope that part of the concept behind the word is retained in the legislation if only because it is not necessarily wrong for a considerable duty of care to be laid on a claimant in terms of statements made in making the claim. Although, like my hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Knowsley, North, I feel that because of its legal connotations the word "recklessly" may be unsuitable, I join all hon. Members who have spoken in hoping that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State will reconsider clauses 50 and 52 with a view to introducing amendments in the other place.

I apologise for again using Inland Revenue practice as a comparison. However, there is a schedule of amounts below which the Inland Revenue accepts some responsibility for an overpayment by official error and it writes off at least part of the overpayment. I hope that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State will consider that point.

Mr. Kennedy

I support the spirit of the amendment moved by the hon. Member for Knowsley, North (Mr. Kilroy-Silk). I do not want to go into legalistic technicalities on the most preferable form of wording. The hon. Gentleman's arguments on the use of the expression "due care and diligence" were persuasive.

I should like to raise a point more in line with that highlighted by the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Mr. Bowden). Since the last election, hon. Members have spent several late nights in the Chamber approving various changes to the housing benefits system. I do not know whether it is computer madness or computer meltdown, but Ministers—I think particularly of the time when we had a succession of late night debates on housing benefit and of the then Minister, the hon. Member for Brent, North (Dr. Boyson), who has now moved to the Northern Ireland Office—had no clearer impression than many of the claimants who visit Members' surgeries at the weekend of the complexity of the piecemeal alterations and changes to housing benefit.

I endorse the statement of the hon. Member for Kemptown that it is particularly harsh on pensioners when an overpayment has been made and the local authority seeks recovery of the money. It is particularly harsh because, without doubt, pensioners who have never been in debt in their lives would be morally appalled at discovering that, through no fault of their own, they were in debt and, in many cases, suffering additional agony because proceedings might be instituted against them by the local authorities. The amendments will go some way towards dealing with that intolerable situation and will be welcome. I hope that in another place they will get a fair wind and be given a favourable reception.

Mrs. Beckett

I applaud my hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, North (Mr. Kilroy-Silk) both for raising the issue and for the manner in which he did so. His points were extremely interesting and well put. We support all the amendments he has tabled, but I believe that his case against the use of the word "recklessly" was overwhelming. I hope that the Under-Secretary of State will take it on board.

7.30 pm
Mr. Major

Sometimes one of the unexpected delights at Report stage is that debates one might have expected to be brief occasionally take off and prove to be of greater interest than one might have imagined. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Knowsley, North (Mr. Kilroy-Silk), first, for his assurance that these are probing amendments, secondly, for the manner in which he moved them, and, thirdly, for the important issues he raised in doing so. As he rightly said, in this group of amendments there are two quite separate but related matters. First, he seeks to rescue the due care and diligence test when considering the recovery of overpayments rather than moving to the misrepresentation or failure to disclose test which is our present intention. Secondly, he turns to the concept of reckless behaviour and I shall respond to him on that point in my speech.

I should like to reassure my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Mr. Bowden) about overpayments. Social security overpayments caused by official error are not recovered. That is our policy and will continue to be our policy. I can offer a qualified assurance to my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Mr. Favell) who spoke, in a vivid phrase, about a computer going bonkers. It is certainly a concept that all of us understand and the general proposition there is that recovery would be sought for a computer error, provided that computer error was likely to have been obvious to the claimant. If it was not likely to have been obvious to the claimant, we would probably regard it as an official error and would not seek to reclaim the overpayment.

Mr. Andrew Bowden

I am delighted to hear what my hon. Friend has said. However, I have a number of cases on my files covering the last 16 years in which people who were subjected to official errors had a difficult task because some repayment of overpayment was enforced. If I bring those cases to my hon. Friend, will he have the money refunded?

Mr. Major

If my hon. Friend brings those cases to me, I will certainly have a look at them. I can give no assurance whatever without having the details of each case and I suspect that my hon. Friend would be rather surprised if I were to do so. I reiterate the general position that I set out a few moments ago.

I now turn to amendments Nos. 198, 199 and 200. Some time ago we looked at the prospect of a common recovery test. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Knowsley, North for confirming that there is a logic about having a single test. When we looked at a common recovery test, we considered the option of adopting the due care and diligence test. We explored that at some length.

As the hon. Gentleman accurately said, the main difference between the two tests is that where beneficiaries fail to provide correct details of their circumstances under the Social Security or Child Benefit Acts they may not be liable to repay overpayments if they can show that they used due care and diligence. The adjudicating authorities can then take mitigating circumstances into account when reaching their decision. The effect of the due care and diligence test is that the person who failed to provide full facts may be permitted to retain benefit to which he is not entitled and which, had he disclosed those facts, he would not have received. By comparison, the misrepresentation or failure to disclose test provides that overpayments due to a person's failure to provide full facts relevant to his claim are recoverable. However, the Secretary of State has the discretion to take into account mitigating circumstances in deciding whether to seek repayment of overpayments which he is statutorily entitled to recover.

The Secretary of State has a duty to protect public funds and it has been considered by successive Governments that any discretion in whether repayment should be sought should more properly rest with him than with the adjudicating authorities. It must be remembered that the benefit in question will have been overpaid through no fault of the Department. Even then there are safeguards for the individual. If the person from whom the overpayment is recoverable does not agree that he has been overpaid, does not agree the amount overpaid or, in particular, does not agree that he misrepresented or failed to disclose the relevant facts, he may exercise his right of appeal.

The other main consideration we had in mind in deciding to abolish the due care and diligence test was its complexity. It is a subjective test which is more difficult to administer and to understand for claimants and adjudicators and administrators in the Department of Health and Social Security. Its adoption would lead to an additional cost of over £4 million. That is clearly a relevant, though not the most relevant, fact. By contrast, the misrepresentation or failure to disclose test is easier to operate and to understand, partly because it is a factual rather than a subjective test. It is worth noting that there are eight times as many supplementary benefit overpayments in local offices as Social Security Act overpayments. The effect of that is that in terns of experience the misrepresentation or failure to disclose test is most commonly practised in the Department's local offices. Although the hon. Gentleman's persuasion was most eloquent, I fear that there is little I can offer him to suggest that we are likely to change the present policy.

Perhaps I could now turn to amendments Nos. 203 and 204 and to the specific provisions about recklessness. The hon. Gentleman attracted the support of the hon. Member for Derby, South (Mrs. Beckett) who spoke on precisely the same matter in Committee. He would have attracted the support also of the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Mr. Michie) because I recollect that he also raised this point in Committee. The hon. Gentleman also attracted support from the Government Benches in the form of my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport and my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, North-West (Mr. Stern) with reservations. He also attracted the support of the hon. Member for Ross, Cromarty and Skye (Mr. Kennedy).

The effect of amendments Nos. 203 and 204 would be to remove from the Bill all references to criminal recklessness in relation to the provision of false information by claimants and others. This clause is a common provison and the present recklessness offence in the Social Security and Housing Benefits Act 1982 would also be lost. When this was raised in Committee we discussed — and as I recall they were central to the discussion—reservations of the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders. Those reservations were reiterated in the debate by the hon. Gentleman and by Sir Norman Price. As we explained at that time, the concept of recklessness is not new, either to social security law or to the criminal law generally.

The Social Security and Housing Benefits Act 1982 makes it an offence for an employer recklessly to produce or furnish any documents or information which is false in any material particular. There are more recent precedents for recklessness in the Food and Environment Protection Act 1985. Nevertheless, I am sufficiently impressed both by the arguments advanced in this debate and in Committee upon which we have been reflecting and by NACRO to say, not that I can accept the hon. Gentleman's probing amendments, but that, in the light of what has been said, I am prepared to reflect again upon the concept of recklessness with the possibility of making an amendment in the other place if it seems to us that the arguments presented by the hon. Gentleman have the substance that at first sight they appear to have. I cannot give him a firm assurance upon that point, but I can give him the reassurance that I shall certainly reconsider the point. If upon reconsideration we find it compelling, we will contemplate, if it is appropriate, making a suitable amendment in another place.

Mr. Kilroy-Silk

I am grateful to the Minister for the sensitive and comprehensive way in which he has dealt with the series of amendments. I do not agree with him in his refusal to accept the suggestion of a common recovery test and to resist the idea that that should be the establishment of the notion of due care and diligence.

However, I am grateful for what the Minister said about the amendments and in dealing with the concept of recklessness in obtaining social security benefits. I am grateful for the support that has been put on record tonight, as it has been on other occasions, of my hon. Friend the Member for Derby, South (Mrs. Beckett) and of the hon. Members for Ross, Cromarty and Skye (Mr. Kennedy), for Stockport (Mr. Favell) and for Bristol, North-West (Mr. Stern) and I hope that that kind of support will be demonstrated in another place.

In the light of the Minister's comments that he will look at this and that there may be an amendment tabled in another place, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Kilroy-Silk

I beg to move amendment No. 201, in page 57, line 9, at end insert— '(e) housing benefit.'. Amendment No. 201 would apply the new standard criteria for recovering overpayment of benefits from claimants to housing benefit. As the Bill stands, it provides a standard test for recovering the overpayment of contributory benefits, supplementary benefits and family income supplement. However, it would not apply the same test to housing benefit where, as I have already said, except in the case of certificated benefit, any overpayment is recoverable, even if it has been caused by official error.

It is true that, in its guidance to local authorities, the DHSS has tried to discourage the recovery of overpayment of housing benefit where that is due to official error, and the Minister, in his remarks on the earlier series of amendments, reiterated that that was his view and was the guidance that was being issued. The code of guidance issued to local authorities states that, in deciding whether to recover an overpayment of housing benefit, the authority should have regard to why the overpayment occurred and that where there had been an official error the authority should consider whether the recipient could reasonably have been expected to know that he was receiving too much benefit and, if not, not to seek to recover the overpayment.

That is all very well so far as it goes. The Minister, even in an aside, tended to create an impression that there was no problem in that area, the guidance has been issued, the view was reiterated by him tonight, and it is assumed that local authorities do not go looking for overpayments of housing benefit when it can clearly be demonstrated that overpayment was due to an error on their behalf.

However, I know from my experience in my constituency, and I have been told by the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders' working party on the enforcement of social security offences, that the practice in many areas is that the right of recovery appears to be exploited in full by most, if not all, local authorities. Indeed, the practice seems to be that if a local authority discovers that overpayment has been made, it issues a bill for the amount of that overpayment with no further investigation — that has certainly happened in my area—leaving all inquiries about that overpayment until the time, if it arises, when the claimant objects to the demand for the repayment of the benefit.

Given the well-documented inability of many local authorities to cope with the housing benefit system, it seems clearly unjust that some authorities should attempt to make the claimant pay for their shortcomings in this area. Indeed, as with other claims for the overpayment of benefit, when a claim is enforced, particularly if the benefit has been overpaid over a long period in small amounts, it is in total a large amount and that could have a devastating, catastrophic effect upon the individual and the family—an individual and a family, who, again it must be stressed, are already poverty-stricken.

Therefore, the same test for the recovery for overpayment should apply to housing benefit as to other benefits. In that spirit I hope that the Minister will feel able to accept the amendment.

7.45 pm
Mr. Newton

The hon. Member for Knowsley, North (Mr. Kilroy-Silk) will be aware that there was some discussion on this matter in Committee when I said that I had a good deal of sympathy with the view that we should be looking to extend commonality of provisions into the area on which he has touched. He will know—it was implicit in his speech—that there is separate provision in clause 29 to deal with the recovery of overpaid housing benefit. That provides for the arrangements to be set out in regulations which could include the circumstances in which an overpayment can be recovered.

As I said in Committee when we discussed clause 29, we have not yet defined the categories of overpayments which it will be possible to recover in the primary legislation, because that is something which we need to discuss with the local authorities. I agreed in principle that it was right for the main grounds for recovering overpaid housing benefit to be the same as those applying to other benefits, in the same way that I also acknowledge the arguments that were then put for aligning some other aspects of housing benefit with other social security benefits, including the application of the social security benefits adjudication procedure. In particular, I recognised the point that the hon. Gentleman has made the subject of the amendment, about recovery being possible only where the claimant has misrepresented or failed to disclose a material fact.

Both in respect of the common provision in respect of overpayments and the ideas that have been put forward for aligning the adjudication systems for housing benefit and other benefits, I hope that I made it as clear as I could that housing benefit is administered by the local authorities.

Therefore, we felt that it would be appropriate to discuss these matters with the local authorities because there are some difficult problems—more particularly in relation to adjudication than in respect of points made by the hon. Gentleman—before seeking to come to a firm conclusion about what we should do.

I should like to repeat tonight, although I am afraid that I cannot go any further, the undertaking that I gave in Committee to discuss this matter with local authority associations. In the time between the Committee and Report stages, I regret that it has not been possible for us to take forward all the discussions that we need to have with them on various aspects of the new scheme, including this one. It would clearly be wrong and against the spirit of consultation to enter into consultation if we had made up our minds and announced a decision beforehand.

The House will have the opportunity to debate the relevant regulations once the discussions have been completed. Having repeated the spirit in which we shall approach those discussions and my understanding of the reasons for the hon. Gentleman moving the amendment, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will agree to withdraw it.

Mr. Kilroy-Silk

It has been a long time since I faced the Minister across the Floor of the House, or indeed in Committee, but when I have done I have always found him to be eminently reasonable, sensible, sympathetic and helpful. Together, just before the election, we extensively re-wrote the law relating to child care, and he was then, as he has demonstrated again tonight, always prepared to listen to a case rather than to reiterate the brief that has been set out for him in that glossy red folder.

Clearly, it would be churlish of me to wish to press the amendment to a Division in the light of what the Minister has said. It is important that the consultations that are under way should proceed. Let us hope that they will come to the conclusion that is enshrined in the amendment. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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