HC Deb 14 April 1999 vol 329 cc333-45

Queen's recommendation having been signified

Motion made, and Question proposed,

That, for the purposes of any Act resulting from the Welfare Reform and Pensions Bill, it is expedient to authorise the remission of amounts recoverable under or by virtue of Part III of the Social Security Administration Act 1992.—[Mr. Hill.]

10.27 pm
Mr. Quentin Davies (Grantham and Stamford)

The money resolution covers a matter which at first sight seems quite unexceptionable. In fact, it looks as though the Government have done something quite sensible and humane, but, after two years, we know the Government pretty well. We know that we have to get past the cosmetics and cut through the expensive public relations facade to get to what is really in their mind. Therefore, it is important that the House should look carefully at the proposal to see what it really means.

One striking feature of the money resolution is that it refers to a new clause in the Welfare Reform and Pensions Bill that applies only to decisions made before 1 June this year—some three months away. If the regime set out in the new clause is to apply indefinitely, why was the provision not drafted in such a way as to make it clear that it would be part of a permanent regime? If it is to be replaced by another regime, perhaps introduced in regulations—as the Government hope to give themselves extensive regulation-making powers and to ensure that regulations are introduced under the negative resolution procedure rather than the affirmative resolution procedure so that it will be more difficult for Parliament to give them scrutiny—we must be particularly wary about what is in their mind.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. Is he telling the House that we are being asked to approve a money resolution before we know what form the Bill to which it refers will take? Is that what my hon. Friend is saying?

Mr. Davies

My right hon. Friend is absolutely correct. However, I hope that the House will not give the Government the Bill. It contains some extremely pernicious measures to means-test some fundamental contributory benefits. Those measures will be considered in Committee and I trust that with the benefit of the eloquence of myself and my hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles), we shall succeed in persuading the Committee to throw out the clauses. I hope that, if we do not succeed in doing that, the House will turn down the Bill on Third Reading; and that, if it is not turned down then, it will be turned down in another place. I have no doubt that the Bill is far from a fait accompli.

To the extent, however, that there exists a theoretical possibility that the Bill might be passed, it is very important for us to be absolutely clear about its purport; and, within that, about the potential effect of new clause 12, why the time period covered by the clause is so narrow, and the difference between the regime proposed for that particular period and the longer-term regime proposed by the Bill. [Interruption.]

I said that, at first sight, the measure seems to be sensible because the Government's intention seems to be to cease claiming back from recipients of disability-linked benefits—such as disability living allowance—[Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Lord)

Order. There is far too much general conversation in the House. We are debating a serious matter, and the hon. Gentleman should be listened to carefully.

Mr. Davies

I am afraid to say, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that Labour Members are so intoxicated by their enormous majority and confident that they can get any rubbish through the House with absolutely no difficulty that Labour Members who do bother to turn up to debates in this place do not feel that it is necessary to take notice of the substance of the legislation being passed by the House. That is the very depressing current state of affairs in our country, although I trust that it will not last more than a year or two longer.

I was explaining that the Government's intention, so far as one can glean it from their motion, is to cease trying to collect from recipients of disability-related benefits—such as DLA or the income replacement benefits—benefit that has been paid in respect of a period after which a recipient's condition improved to an extent that would have made him or her ineligible for that benefit or ineligible for that benefit at the rate at which he or she had been receiving it.

Such action seems intrinsically to be sensible. It is extremely problematic to try to claw back from people, particularly disabled people, money that they had been receiving in good faith, on the grounds that, at a certain point, some event occurred or their condition improved so that they were no longer entitled to that benefit. It is even more problematic, if their condition seemed to improve between one review and another—which may be five years apart—to try to fix on an arbitrary date between those dates at which the improvement is supposed to have occurred and the benefit was no longer payable.

My first question to the Government—I think that it is the first question that one should ask in a debate on a money resolution—is, "What are the financial consequences of the proposal?" What is the total amount of benefit that is now clawed back from beneficiaries for periods before a review at which a change in their condition was identified or registered? What is the amount that the Government will be sacrificing over the period for which new clause 12 will have effect?

Secondly, of the benefit that is now being claimed back from such beneficiaries, how much has been received? Perhaps the Minister would like to tell the House how much—on an annual basis, in the past 12 months or previous 12-month period for which figures are available—was claimed in that way from beneficiaries in the category that 1 have defined, and how much was paid. Presumably, the gap has been or is being written off; we should know also that figure.

I hope that the Minister has come to the House armed with the figures, as it would be very wrong to try to ask the House to pass a money resolution without telling hon. Members the money consequences of the measure proposed— [Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I have already said to the House that far too many private conversations are taking place. The House now ought to listen to the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Davies

Where amounts are claimed back from beneficiaries in the categories that I have described, are not paid and are written off, how are those write-offs accounted for? Are they accounted for as fraud? It occurred to me that one possible motive for this measure might be that the Government—who have abandoned Conservative policies that were designed to reduce fraud in the benefits system and have seriously cut back the effort started by the last Conservative Administration to pursue fraud—may think that there is an easy way of cooking the books.

The Government might simply say that if they decide, under the money resolution, that the amounts that they are claiming back from people are no longer due from them because, retrospectively, the Government will leave the money legally in their hands—which is the effect of the new clause and the attached money resolution—that will mean that they can reduce by precisely that amount the outstanding estimated amount of fraud losses in the benefits system. That would have the entirely cosmetic and bogus effect of reducing current fraud losses to the Exchequer. We want to be certain before we consider passing the resolution that there is no threat of that.

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough)

My hon. Friend and I are members of the Committee looking into the Bill. We have spent several weeks considering the Bill, and we have only one week to go. Would not it have been easier either to consider the matter before the Committee, or to wait another 10 days until we finished considering the Bill?

Mr. Davies

My hon. Friend is right. The amendment was proposed six weeks after the Committee stage began, and an explanation of that is called for. Equally, the money resolution was sprung on the House after Easter. Once again, it looks as though there has been an element of disorganisation and indecision in the way in which the Labour Administration have handled the Bill.

If the rules of relevance were not particularly strict on money resolutions, I would have liked to enlarge on the Bill, which is particularly pernicious. It is frightening to think that measures of such enormous importance to vulnerable people—extracting some £800 million in a full year from the disabled, for example, against their present entitlement—could be—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman is now starting to do what he said he was not going to do. I would he most grateful if he would stick to his original intention.

Mr. Davies

I was going to link my remarks to the intervention from my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) by saying that it is frightening that such a measure could be proposed by a Government who are capable of such an administrative shambles, as they evidently are.

We must also consider the reviews that are referred to in the new clause, on the outcome of which the financial consequences of the clause will depend.

Mr. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield)

My hon. Friend will be aware that the Rowntree Foundation produced a report on the amount of money that was not being claimed because people were unaware of the benefits to which they were entitled. Does my hon. Friend believe, as I do, that the new clause will confuse that issue, rather than clarify it, as far as those people are concerned?

Mr. Davies

One of the aspects of the Labour party's rhetoric in opposition during the last Parliament was that it was going to make sure that there was a better take-up of benefits by those who were entitled to them. Labour also had the temerity—I say "temerity" in the light of the fact that the Labour party has done nothing about it since coming to power—to say that it would be stricter on fraud. It is clear that Labour has run down the anti-fraud effort since it came to power. Nothing at all has been done to fulfil the legitimate expectations felt by so many people that there would be more effective targeting of benefits to those who are entitled to them.

The whole of the provision is premised on the reviews. The Secretary of State said: The review process will involve gathering information by postal inquiry and home visits".—[Official Report, 28 January 1999; Vol. 324, c. 321.] I would be grateful if the Minister could confirm that the reviews referred to in new clause 12 are of that kind.

Those reviews sound exactly like the reviews in the benefit integrity project, which the Government have denounced as unsuccessful. Indeed, the Social Security Committee also criticised them severely. We do not know whether the failure of the benefit integrity project resulted from its being misconceived by the previous Conservative Administration or from its being misapplied by the new Labour Administration, or whether it was sensible for that Administration to launch it if they had such serious doubts about it.

I do not suppose that I can pursue those interesting questions now, but I hope that we can pursue them on another occasion. On the Government's own testimony, such reviews have not worked.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The money resolution is very tightly drawn and I would be grateful if the hon. Gentleman would stick to it fairly strictly.

Mr. Davies

Indeed, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but we need to know precisely what the financial consequences of new clause 12 are anticipated to be, and that will depend entirely on the outcome of the reviews, so we must be sure about the integrity and effectiveness of the review process. The reviews that the Government have in mind are exactly the kind of reviews carried out at home by administrative personnel from the Benefits Agency, or by postal inquiry, that Ministers have denounced as utterly ineffective in the benefit integrity project.

That is not encouraging, but if the reviews are to be of a different kind, we had better know what the Government have in mind. Do they perhaps have in mind a very different kind of review as described in the Bill: the personal capability assessment in clause 50? Under clause 50(6), as I recall, the assessments can be repeated as often as the Secretary of State requires.

The assessments have been sold by the Government as something akin to the all work test carried out by medical personnel: an entirely different approach to review. Which kind of review is foreseen in the new clause: the existing benefit integrity project review carried out by administrative personnel; the personal capability assessment carried out by medical personnel; or a third kind of review?

Is there a danger that disabled people will be subject to several different types of review under the different systems, or will certain people on certain benefits be subject to one type of review and others to another? That should not be the case, because new clause 12 makes it clear that all disability beneficiaries will be subject to review, so we had better know what the meaning of review is in that context. But how does that relate to personal capability assessments?

New clause 12, to which the money resolution relates, refers specifically to disability living allowance, incapacity benefit and severe disablement allowance, but what about disability working allowance, industrial injuries disability benefit or the disability premiums in income support? What happens if someone still owes money from a previous review? Will there be an attempt to reclaim money or will people be told that, with effect from February of this year, they do not have to repay any money? Will DLA claims be dealt with on the same terms and subject to the same regime as beneficiaries of incapacity benefit or severe disablement allowance? Those questions must be answered.

We need to know what the financial effects are. We do not merely want the final figure; it is important to know how it is made up. What are the total claims outstanding? How many of those have already been met by people paying in money that is due? How much is left and what is the difference? What amount would have to be written off if it were not for the provision that tells people that, retrospectively, they no longer have that liability? To what extent will the regime be continued after 1 June—the relevant date? What regime is foreseen after that date? What is the nature of the reviews that are referred to? How robust will they be? On the Government's own testimony, if they are of the benefit integrity project type, they will presumably not be very effective. If it is some other type of review, how will it differ from those reviews? What is the danger of the duplication of reviews, given that, at the same time, the Government are making provisions in the Bill for the personal capability assessment?

I have repeated those questions deliberately, because we know that the Government like to avoid questions. They avoid the detail and think that they can get away with leaving the House with a glossy public relations story. They will not be able to get away with that—not tonight or on any other occasion, if we have anything to do with it.

10.47 pm
Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

I am not a member of the Standing Committee that is considering the Bill; nor am I a member of the Select Committee on Social Security. I am merely an average Back Bencher, who takes a bit of an interest in money resolutions. This money resolution takes the biscuit for a number of reasons. I shall follow the excellent questioning of the Government by my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) with one or two modest questions.

Why did the Minister not seek to catch your eye at the beginning of the debate, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to explain why we are debating a money resolution while the Bill is in Committee? Normally, money resolutions come to the House when a Bill has completed at least a significant part of its progress, so that the Government can tell the House what is in the resolution—how much money they are asking for, their estimate of the financial impact, and so on. That is the point of the exercise: the Government ask the House to authorise the money effects of a Bill.

However, my lay reading of the process suggests that apparently this major Bill is in Standing Committee, still undergoing changes as it goes along. We have become used to the Labour Government amending their legislation on the trot, in an ill-considered way, and another example of that is now before us. The Government not only have the gall to bring a money resolution to the House during that process, but insult those of us who are in the Chamber and interested in the money resolution by failing to explain what it is about. I can only assume that they thought, in their usual arrogant way, that the House would nod through this money resolution without showing much interest in it. It will take us a while, but eventually we shall get through to the Government the fact that the House has a considerable interest in money resolutions, and that a number of Members want some answers before we will agree to the money resolution. Whether I divide the House on the resolution will depend on the quality and detail of the answers that we receive from the Minister, although I am beginning to wonder whether he does not merely complacently assume that we shall nod the resolution through without his explaining what it is about. That is the background to the process in which we are involved.

We have had no indication of why the money resolution is before us. My hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford, knowledgeable as ever, seemed to assume that he knew that it was about some new clause 12. I do not see how he draws that conclusion. I am sorry to disagree with my hon. Friend, and I rarely do. However, I read the resolution literally, and it contains the words: for the purposes of any Act resulting from the Welfare Reform and Pensions Bill". The resolution is an open-ended, non-specific commitment which would give carte blanche to expenditure resulting from any changes to a Bill that is still in Standing Committee.

My hon. Friend may think that the resolution is about some new clause 12. I do not see how that can be so. My reading is that the resolution is entirely non-specific. If the House were to pass it—and the more I hear myself speak, the more I believe that we would be rash to do so—we would have a completely open-ended commitment. My logic leads me to conclude that it might be unreasonable to expect the Minister to give us the figures asked for by my hon. Friend because the commitment is so open ended.

The Government will be in something of a bind because of the wording of their resolution, which goes on, insolently, to say: it is expedient to authorise". I bet it is. Of course it is expedient to authorise expenditure if one is dealing with something of which one knows no details at all. The resolution is pretty impertinent stuff and we must know much more about it before we will be convinced.

Mr. Fabricant

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Bill is a consequential one? Edmund Burke talked about the consequences of one Bill following from another. The point is? that the consequences of the resolution fall on a Bill that is still in Committee. Is it not almost unconstitutional, as Edmund Burke might have said, to discuss such a resolution tonight?

Mr. Forth

My hon. Friend tempts me, as ever, but I have learned during my few years in the House to study the facial expression of the person occupying the Chair. Although your expression, Mr. Deputy Speaker, is close to inscrutability, I detect that if I were to engage in a dialogue with my hon. Friend about the views of Edmund Burke on the process in which we are engaged, you might take a dim view. Perhaps on another occasion my hon. Friend and I may discuss Burke. It might be a suitable subject for an Adjournment debate should my hon. Friend be able to win one.

There is a serious point to discuss.

Mr. Fabricant

Mine was a serious point.

Mr. Forth

I know that it was, but I shall make a different serious point which I hope will pass the scrutiny of the Chair.

How can we debate a money resolution while the Committee stage of a Bill continues? We do not know what the final form of the Bill will be. If, as my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford said, the Government have already tabled amendments to their own Bill, it is in the process of being altered as we speak. A money resolution is before us that relates to a Bill not yet in its final form. We cannot know what commitment we are being asked to underwrite.

I do not know how the Minister will get out of that bind, and I shall sit down to let my hon. Friends speak and to allow the Minister time to explain, if he possibly can, what the resolution means and what money commitment the Government are asking for. If he can answer my and my hon. Friends' pertinent questions, we may be persuaded, but I have my doubts.

10.54 pm
The Minister of State, Department of Social Security (Mr. Stephen Timms)

This is a straightforward matter that puts right a serious flaw in the legislation that we inherited from the previous Government. As the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) said, the money resolution relates to a proposed new clause in the Welfare Reform and Pensions Bill. It provides that overpayments of benefit will not be recoverable from certain claimants where otherwise they would be.

The Under-Secretary of State for Social Security, my hon. Friend the Member for City of York (Mr. Bayley), announced in response to a parliamentary question on 26 February that the Government would introduce that new clause. The reason was that monitoring by the chief adjudication officer of reviews of entitlement to disability living allowance under the benefit integrity project, so disastrously designed by the previous Government, brought to our attention the fact that the rules on the recoverability of overpayments worked unfairly.

The effect of the present law is that once it has been established that somebody is no longer entitled to the rate of benefit in payment, the Benefits Agency must also establish the date on which that change took effect. An overpayment has thus occurred, which may be recoverable. As a result, cases have been identified in which, although the current award of benefit is no longer correct and overpayments averaging £5,000 per person have occurred, it is not reasonable to expect that the claimant should have known that he or she should have reported something to the Benefits Agency.

For example, let us take the case of Angela. She has been a wheelchair user since being injured in a road accident in 1993. She has adapted well to her condition, and her care needs have significantly reduced—partly because of rehabilitation and partly because of a series of adaptations to her home carried out over time, such as the widening of doors and the addition of ramps, a stair lift and a fully redesigned bathroom. Some of those were funded by her disability living allowance.

Angela did not report any change in the level of help that she needed with personal care, and a recoverable overpayment arose as a result. Her current level of needs came to light during benefit integrity inquiries, but it was difficult to determine exactly when the change in her entitlement took place. It probably happened gradually.

Neither Angela nor her family and friends can understand the basis of the overpayment decision, as she is still severely disabled. A reduction in her benefit is bad enough, but to present her with a bill for £5,000 or more for overpaid benefit in the past, when it is not reasonable to expect her to know that she should have notified the Benefits Agency, is simply not fair.

Another case is that of Brian, who in 1992 was awarded DLA at the highest level for life because of a serious heart condition. In 1997, he underwent a successful heart transplant operation. He is required to adhere to a strict drug regime and his condition is closely monitored, but he has been able to manage his own needs, which are considerably reduced, since early 1998. His DLA entitlement is significantly reduced as a result.

Brian still rightly regards himself as seriously disabled, and, again, it is difficult for him to recognise that he ought to have reported his improvement to the Benefits Agency. Not only would he have his benefit reduced or even removed, but the present law could require him to pay back all the benefit paid above the level of his new entitlement since the beginning of last year.

Mr. Quentin Davies

If the Minister is so proud of the measure that he wants to read out a prepared presentation on it, I am surprised that he did not attempt to catch your eye in the first place, Mr. Deputy Speaker. However, as he did not so, and he is now responding to a debate, would he be good enough to answer the precise questions that I asked him? All that he has done so far is to is to confirm to the House that my understanding of the purport of his money resolution and his new clause is correct.

Mr. Timms

What the House will want the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends to say is whether they wish to vote against the money resolution and continue to recover large sums from some of the most disadvantaged people in our society. People outside the House will watch with great interest how Opposition Members vote at the end of the debate.

Angela and Brian, and many more like them, will benefit greatly from the change. They will no longer face the large bills for overpayment of benefit that the application of the present law would require.

Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead)

If I read new clause 12 correctly, the people whose circumstances the Minister has described will not be affected, because the change relates only to decisions taken between 26 February and 1 June 1999. Will he address the precise point put to him by my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies)? He is setting out what many people would consider a reasonable proposal for a change, but it applies only to decisions made between 26 February and 1 June. What about decisions taken after 1 June?

Mr. Timms

If the hon. Lady will be patient, I shall come to those points.

As a result of the problems, on 25 February, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State issued an accounting officer direction to the chief executive of the Benefits Agency to ensure that no action to recover overpayments would be taken in cases involving a disability-related review of benefit entitlement. The new clause will mean that that direction is no longer required. The law will be brought into line with what most people think that it should be.

There is a retrospective element to this much needed change, which is why we need primary legislation in the new clause. From 1 June, it will be possible to resolve this through regulation. That is what we will do. The action involves writing off overpayments that claimants would in some cases have been required to repay and which could have totalled £15 million. It is right for Parliament to have the opportunity to debate this action and give it proper approval. I hope and anticipate that across the House, hon. Members will agree that this is the right thing to do.

I emphasise that the new inquiry arrangements replace the benefit integrity project which, with its disastrous design flaws, was introduced by the previous Government. We are scrapping that. The new arrangements will keep a close eye on changes in circumstances to spot unreported changes as soon as possible. The new clause does not affect recovery of overpayments in any case where a person has been convicted of a criminal offence or agreed to pay a penalty as an alternative to prosecution in connection with overpayment of benefit, or where deliberate fraud has been established.

The comments of the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford on fraud were utterly wrong. The previous Government's practice was to make heroic statements about fraud and do nothing. Fraud went through the roof under their stewardship. For the first time, we have a credible strategy for tackling it that we are putting into effect. Fraud will be reduced as a result.

Mr. Fabricant

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Timms


Mr. Quentin Davies


Mr. Timms

The House has a simple choice tonight. Does it wish to recover unfairly very large sums of money from some of the most disabled people in our society? The figure involved is £15 million. The choice is clear. I urge the House to support the money resolution.

11.2 pm

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough)

It is a great pity that the Minister chose not to make that speech at the beginning of the debate. He outlined the reasons why the Government think that new clause 12 is satisfactory. It may well be, but, if Parliament is to mean anything, it is incumbent on the Government to come here, explain matters, introduce a clause, allow the Opposition spokesman to question the Government and allow Back Benchers to take part in the debate, and on the Minister to reply to points raised by the Opposition spokesman.

My hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) asked a series of questions, including an interesting one about how much money will be saved by the measure. I suspect that the Minister gave no answer because I doubt whether the Benefits Agency has been pursuing people in the way that he described. It is probable that little money is being saved. If I am wrong, as I may well be because I am not in receipt of the briefing available to him, he can put me right, as he could have put my hon. Friend right.

This is clearly an important matter. We are dealing with people who are disadvantaged and disabled, yet the Government apparently hoped that the resolution would go through on the nod late at night, without debate. It was left to my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford to raise the matter on behalf of Parliament. Why are the Government introducing new clause 12 in this way in the middle of the Committee proceedings? If this is such an important issue, why were they not better in control of the administrative machine to ensure that the proposal was in the Bill presented to the Committee at the start of our proceedings?

The debate is necessary because on this issue the Government are in a shambles. The way in which they are conducting themselves tonight is an object lesson on how they live from day to day and from hand to mouth while important issues are rushed through the House. Thank God that we have a vigorous Opposition Front-Bench team who are prepared to put the Government on the spot.

11.5 pm

Mr. Eric Pickles (Brentwood and Ongar)

I shall make a brief intervention to give the Minister an opportunity to clarify the £15 million figure. Is it the amount that is outstanding, to be recovered or to be forgiven under the Government's proposals? Surely these are reasonable questions and surely it is reasonable for the Minister to provide clarification. If the Minister wants to ensure that he receives all-party support for the Government's proposals, he must persuade us that they are worthy of support. If he wishes to do so, I shall be happy to give way. It is obvious that he does not wish to answer my questions.

It seems that the £15 million is a red herring. We have a right to know what the Government propose. Is the sum of £15 million outstanding, to be recovered or to be written off? This is—[Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael J. Martin)

Order. I say to Members on the Opposition Front Bench that I must have good order. Only one Member can address the House at any one time.

Mr. Pickles

I do not understand why the Minister is refusing to answer simple questions. I shall be happy to give way to him.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Has the hon. Gentleman come to the end of his contribution? If he has, I call the hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May)

11.6 pm

Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead)

I suggest to my hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles) that the Minister is refusing to answer his pertinent questions because the Government do not know what the implications of new clause 12 will be. The new clause covers a period when some of the decisions to which it refers will have been taken under the benefit integrity project, while others will have been taken under the new review proposals that the Government have announced to replace the benefit integrity project, which came into effect on 1 April. Details of the proposals have not yet properly been revealed to the House.

The Minister has failed to answer the question put to him during the most recent Social Security Question Time about the number of reviews that are likely to take place under the new system. The letter that the Minister says that the Secretary of State sent to hon. Members suggests that there will be more reviews in future, which means that the money implications could be greater in future.

I pick the Minister up on his response, or lack of response, to my earlier intervention about the period to which new clause 12 pertains, which is the limited period between 26 February and 1 June. The Minister said that the only reason for the new clause was that the primary legislation related to retrospective legislation as opposed to future legislation. The Minister made a case for the Government's proposals to change the way in which the overpayment is calculated. If he believes that they set out the way in which disabled people's overpayments should be calculated in future—from the date of the review and not from the date when their conditions change—surely he should pledge to the House now that he will introduce such a measure post 1 June 1999, rather than a measure for a limited period.

The occupants of the Government Front Bench are nodding, but the Minister said that the Government's proposals would be introduced by regulation. What comfort can disabled people take from this Government, who operated the benefit integrity project for two years, when case after case was being brought to them by hon. Members on both sides of the House and from another place about the hardship that was being introduced to people's lives as a result of their operation of it? What comfort can disabled people take from a wave of the Minister's hand to the effect that he will introduce regulations? If he believes in what he has said tonight, he should be introducing the proposed changes under primary legislation and not leaving them to regulations down the line, which could very well vary from what he is proposing tonight.

11.10 pm
Mr. Timms

With the leave of the House, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I have listened to Opposition Members' cynical outrage. I have already provided the assurance that the hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) seeks. As I said, the regulations will be introduced to change the position from 1 June.

The £15 million is benefit that was paid to disabled people prior to their benefit integrity project reassessments and which, under existing law, should be recovered from them. The question is: does the House wish to go ahead and recover that £15 million? [Interruption.] I put it to the House that it would be unfair to disabled people and utterly wrong if Opposition Members were to insist on recovering £15 million from large numbers of disabled people who received that benefit—[Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I have said that only one contribution can be made at any given time.

Mr. Timms

Disabled people received that benefit in good faith and had no reason to believe that they should have reported to the Benefits Agency a change in their circumstances. Are Opposition Members insisting that the Benefits Agency should demand large sums of money—£5,000 per head on average and substantially more in several cases—from people who depend on benefit for their existence? We believe that that would be utterly unfair and wrong. We are introducing these measures and the new clause to change the position, and to make the law fair for disabled people. We are doing that across the system, and that is what we are doing with the new clause and the money resolution. We need a money resolution—

It being three quarters of an hour after the commencement of proceedings on the motion, MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER put the Question, pursuant to Standing Order No. 52(1)(b) (Money resolutions and Ways and Means resolutions in connection with Bills).

Question agreed to.


That, for the purposes of any Act resulting from the Welfare Reform and Pensions Bill, it is expedient to authorise the remission of amounts recoverable under or by virtue of Part III of the Social Security Administration Act 1992.