§ Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy)
On a point of order, Madam Speaker, of which I have given prior notice to you and to the Under-Secretary of State for Social Security, the hon. Member for Southampton, _lichen (Mr. Denham). I make this point of order to you, Madam Speaker, as the defender of Back-Bench Members' rights and privileges.
On Monday, I drew the first question in Social Security questions. I asked the Minister—I paraphrase the exchange—whether all the decisions under the benefits integrity project relating to the withdrawal or lowering of benefits before 9 February of this year would be reviewed. The response was a single word: "Yes."
Yesterday, I received a letter, dated Monday, from the same Minister—I might add that, before he made that reply, he was whispered to by his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Security. It reads:
Following today's Social Security questions, when you raised the issue of reviewing decisions made under the Benefits Integrity Project, I thought you may find it helpful if I set out how we intend to take this matter forward.We are concerned about cases where a decision was taken without the benefit of the new procedure introduced on 9 February and on which the claimant has not already sought a review of the decision. As you are aware, this new procedure will ensure that no decision to reduce benefit would be taken without seeking additional evidence. We are considering options for reviewing these cases, but there are some legal and operational issues which we need to resolve over the next few weeks".He added that he would write again to advise on progress. What he said in the letter was, of course, directly different from his answer in the Chamber on the same day.
It seems that there are three possible options: first, that there was a deliberate effort to mislead Parliament; secondly, that there is a cavalier attitude to the truth; and, 340 thirdly, that the Minister was trying to be slick and clever by using a single-word answer. In my respectful submission, Madam Speaker, all three would constitute a contempt of Parliament, and I seek your guidance accordingly.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security (Mr. John Denham)
Further to that point of order, Madam Speaker. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) for the notice he gave, and I am pleased to have this opportunity to set the record straight.
I regret to say that I misunderstood the full implications of the hon. Gentleman's question on Monday afternoon, and that, in my desire to provide a positive answer to his important question, I gave a less than full reply; but I assure you, Madam Speaker, that there was no intention to mislead the House. I wrote to the hon. Gentleman on 27 April—the same day as my answer to his question in the House—to clarify my intentions.
On 9 February, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Security introduced changes to the benefits integrity project to ensure that no decision to reduce benefit would be taken without seeking additional evidence. We are concerned, as is the hon. Gentleman, about those cases where a decision was taken without the benefit of the new procedure that was introduced on 9 February, and on which the claimant has not already sought a review of the decision.
We are considering options for reviewing those cases, but there are some legal and operational issues that we need to resolve as speedily as possible before deciding exactly how to proceed. I will, of course, ensure that the House is properly and fully informed of progress made.