§ 4.58 p.m.
§ The Minister of State, Department of Social Security (Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish)
My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now again resolve itself into Committee on this Bill.
Moved, That the House do now again resolve itself into Committee.—(Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish.)
§ On Question, Motion agreed to.
§ House in Committee accordingly.
§ [The DEPUTY CHAIRMAN OF COMMITTEES (Baroness Lockwood) in the Chair.]
§ Clause 12 [Inspectors appointed by authorities):
§ [Amendment No. 74 not moved.]
§ Baroness Turner of Camden moved Amendment No. 75:
§ Page 21, line 18, after second ("benefit") insert ("within the preceding 3 years").
§ The noble Baroness said: It is not my intention to speak on most of the amendments in my name. However, this is so simple and so straightforward an amendment that I thought I should take the opportunity to present it to the Committee.
§ The clause that it seeks to amend is the clause that provides for the inspection of private dwelling-houses by an inspector where he or she has cause to believe that trade or businesses are being carried out. It goes on in subsection (6) to define:
§ "For the purposes of this section—
- (a) a benefit claimant is a person who has claimed housing benefit or council tax benefit; and
- (b) a benefit recipient is a person to whom housing benefit or council tax benefit has been paid".
§ It does not define how long one has been a claimant. It is possible, I suppose, to have been a claimant some years ago and still qualify for inspection under the terms of this clause. The intention of Amendments Nos. 75 and 76 is to provide that:
- "(a) a benefit claimant is a person who has claimed housing benefit or council tax benefit within the preceding 3 years: and
- (b) a benefit recipient is a person to whom housing benefit or council tax benefit has been paid within the preceding 3 years".
§ It seems to us necessary to define precisely the length of period required to qualify as a benefit claimant under this clause of the Bill. Is the position "once a claimant, always a claimant", as was put to me by one of the organisations that wrote to me about the clause? It seems to me that we must have some sort of qualification, otherwise there is a lack of clarity about what a benefit claimant is and whether that person continues indefinitely to be subject to the inspections provided for in this clause. I beg to move.
§ Earl Russell
Without more ado, I support this amendment. The Minister may not wish to accept it at this stage of proceedings, but would he consider incorporating the point in guidance?
§ Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish
I shall certainly bear in mind the point that the noble Earl has made, but I hope that, once I have explained Clause 12 and put on record how we see it operating, both the noble Baroness and the noble Earl will feel that that will be sufficient.
Clause 12 provides for an authority administering housing benefit or council tax benefit to appoint inspectors who may enter business premises to make inquiries about any person believed to be a benefit claimant or recipient. This measure is needed because at present local authority investigators have no more power to make investigations than any ordinary citizen. Investigations can be halted by the refusal of a landlord or an employer to co-operate in providing details of their tenants or employees. This clause will provide those appointed as inspectors with the powers that they need to investigate fraud thoroughly.
The powers are broadly comparable with those already available to Department of Social Security staff. Local authority inspectors will have the right to enter a place of business, inspect records, copy records and interview anyone found there. The clause will allow an inspector to seek information or documents from or about anyone who has claimed or received housing benefit or council tax benefit.
The effect of the noble Baroness's amendments would be to limit this provision by allowing details to be sought in relation only to persons who had claimed or received those benefits within the previous three years. It may be argued—and indeed that is what the noble Baroness has done—that there should be a time limit beyond which someone suspected of fraud should be safe from investigation. I believe that that ignores the different types of benefit fraud with which investigators may need to deal. For example, in the case of an individual who years ago obtained small sums by fraud—perhaps by failing to report an increase in wages—it is extremely unlikely that authorities would go back several years with their inquiries.
But what about the large scale fraudster operating on an extensive scale, the crooked landlord whose frauds extend over a large number of properties and who has been operating for years? It may be that suspicion relating to a particular claim only surfaces some considerable time after the event. Possibly in the course 1094 of investigating one fraud, evidence may come to light of other frauds, maybe of a whole series of frauds, which occurred more than three years previously. There is nothing in law to prevent authorities taking such cases to court. I do not think that we would want to restrict the freedom of local authorities and inspectors to investigate such serious cases and allow those involved to escape the consequences of their actions solely because of an arbitrary time limit restricting the ability to gather the necessary evidence.
In the case of big-time fraudsters—possibly landlords, managing agents, collusive employers or even individual claimants who are organised or professional criminals—local authorities may well need to go back as far as is necessary to collect sufficient evidence to ensure that the large-scale cheats do not escape the consequences of their crimes.
I hope that, in the light of that explanation of how we believe the clause will operate when looking back a long time and of why I believe it is needed for the serious cases I referred to—which I know all Members of the Committee treat very seriously indeed—the noble Baroness will be able to withdraw her amendments.
§ Baroness Turner of Camden
I thank the Minister very much for that explanation. It is quite true that we on this side of the Chamber—and indeed everybody in the Chamber—are very much against protection for crooked landlords. We have done our best during discussion of this Bill to ensure that provisions in relation to that sort of fraud are strengthened rather than weakened and we would not want to do anything that protected such people.
I am also glad of the Minister's assurance, given earlier in his statement, in regard to what one might call the poorer claimant who may have made a mistake many years ago. The Minister does not think that local authorities would go back that far in order to check on that kind of suspected fraud. It is that kind of individual that we most wanted to protect. In the light of what the Minister has said, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ [Amendments Nos. 76 and 77 not moved.]
§ Clause 12 agreed to.
§ [Amendment No. 78 not moved.]
§ Earl Russell had given notice of his intention to move Amendment No. 79:
§ Before Clause 13, insert the following new clause—
§ OVERPAYMENTS NOT DUE TO FRAUD
§ "(1A) In a case where the misrepresentation or failure in question referred to in subsection (1) above was not fraudulent, this section shall entitle the Secretary of State to recover only the amount which is referable to the 12 months immediately preceding the determination.".").
§ Earl Russell
I had given the Minister notice that I intended to withdraw all my amendments from the Marshalled List. Through an administrative oversight, 1095 for which I take sole responsibility, that has not been done. With the leave of the Committee, if no Member objects, and if it is in order, I should like not to move my amendments en bloc.
The Deputy Chairman
Does the noble Earl assure the Committee that he will not wish to move any of his amendments?
§ [Amendment No. 79 not moved.]
§ Clause 13 [Offence of dishonest representation for obtaining benefit]:
§ [Amendments Nos. 80 and 81 not moved.]
§ Clause 13 agreed to.
§ Clause 14 agreed to.
§ Clause 15 [Penalty as alternative to prosecution]:
§ [Amendments Nos. 82 to 89 not moved.]
§ Clause 15 agreed to.
§ Clause 16 [Recovery of overpaid housing benefit]:
§ [Amendments Nos. 90 to 94 not moved.]
§ Clause 16 agreed to.
§ Clause 17 [Reviews initiated by Secretary of State]:
Baroness Gould of Potternewton moved Amendment No. 95
Page 25, line 5, at beginning insert ("Where there is evidence to raise a question with a view to a review of entitlement under subsections (2) and (5) above.").
The noble Baroness said: I beg leave to move Amendment No. 95 and to speak to Amendments Nos. 96 and 97. The purpose of these amendments is to ensure that reviews can only be initiated where the Secretary of State has adequate reasons to question the validity of continuing claims for attendance allowance, disability living allowance and disability working allowance.
At the present time, there are two ways in which a review can be initiated: either by the claimant on the decision of the adjudication officer or by the adjudication officer where there has been ignorance of a material fact, a mistake or a change of circumstance.
There is, however, some confusion—and it is partly because I seek clarification that I move this amendment—on how broadly a Secretary of State, through the adjudication officer, can go in initiating a review. This clause clarifies that position, but the opportunity also seems to have been taken to give the Secretary of State substantial new powers to obtain information prior to instigating review.
Amendment No. 95 would ensure that such investigations are only carried out where there is some evidence which puts the claimant's entitlement in doubt, such as change of circumstance or other reason for review already stated in subsections (2) and (5). It would prevent the Benefits Agency from carrying out random fraud visits to vulnerable people without good reason.
Amendment No. 96 makes it explicit that there would have to be initial information available which throws doubt on the continued validity of the claim. Subsection
1096 (2) is deleted as the Benefits Agency already has the power to review a life award of DLA and AA, either because the person requests it or because the adjudication officer has information that the entitlement should not continue. Perhaps the Minister can indicate why that needs to be changed and what information he believes would be necessary to prompt a review.
I am grateful to both the RNIB and the Disability Alliance for providing me with evidence in support of the amendments. For instance, the RNIB evidence draws on work undertaken for its report, Seeing it our way, carried out to assess the attitudes of fully sighted people on visual impairment. The report reveals that there is substantial public ignorance about visual impairment and the need for aids such as a dog or a white stick. One must not assume that a lack of a visual sign of blindness means that blind and partially sighted people do not need assistance. Given that ignorance, it is possible for someone to ring the fraud hotline and initiate a review because they falsely believe that a visually impaired person is a bogus claimer because he does not have a guide dog.
As we have constantly said, there must be initiatives to tackle fraud, but we must be concerned that spurious allegations do not lead to unwarranted information-gathering exercises, causing considerable worry and distress to claimants whose claims are completely legitimate. These amendments would at least secure that the Secretary of State would have reasonable grounds to doubt the continued validity of the claims before seeking additional information.
In the Committee stage in the other place the Minister stated that disability is not a fraud issue; rather that this Bill is a convenient vehicle to clarify existing legislation. If that is the case one must ask why a Bill aimed at tackling fraud includes two clauses on disability benefits.
It can only relate to a reply given on 12th February to a parliamentary Answer which seems to suggest that, following a review into DLA, the Government perceive a link between claims for DLA and fraud based on an assumed overspend of around £250 million annually. Can the Minister say how he relates that to the Benefits Agency having met its 1995–96 accuracy targets of 96 per cent. for DLA?
I should like an assurance from the Minister that the whole text of the report on DLA and incorrectness is made available and that no decisions are taken on tackling that assumed incorrectness without full consultation with disability organisations. If the review focused on the lower and higher rate mobility components of DLA and the DLA and the "ability to walk", as we understand was the case, can the Minister deny the rumours about changes in interpreting "ability to walk" and give an assurance that no changes are planned which may diminish the right of blind and partially-sighted people to get the lower rate mobility component of DLA.
In conclusion, the Bill as it stands gives wide power to the Secretary of State to gather information which may be maliciously or spuriously activated and result in intrusive and unnecessary information gathering. These 1097 amendments would strike a balance between proper fraud investigation and the harassment of innocent individuals. I beg to move.
§ 5.15 p.m.
§ Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish
Perhaps I may respond to the noble Baroness and explain why this clause is included in the Bill and the reasons behind it. That may perhaps allay her worries.
Clause 17 is concerned with the Secretary of State's ability to investigate the correctness of existing awards of attendance allowance and disability living allowance and, if appropriate, to refer cases to an adjudication officer for review. The investigation concerns simply the power to obtain evidence. It carries no other implications. Clause 17 is not intended to confer a new power but to clarify an existing one.
It is right and proper that, in order to safeguard the public purse, the Secretary of State may take action to satisfy himself that benefit is being paid to an individual correctly. In DLA and AA, as in most others benefits, decisions and reviews of decisions are made by adjudication officers. Uniquely in the DLA and AA, the adjudication officer cannot initiate a review of the decision off his own bat but must rely on an application for a review being put to him. That position came about as a result of introducing a specific provision allowing the claimant to apply for review. That was intended to be helpful to the claimant, and indeed it is. However, it has had the unforeseen side effect of opening to question the Secretary of State's ability to apply for a review because it is not so specified.
The question concerning the Secretary of State's power to apply for a review has been posed by Mr. Mark Rowland, now Commissioner Rowland, in his book Medical and Disability Appeal Tribunals: the Legislation. It was always intended that the Secretary of State would apply for a review, and the Government have no doubt that the Secretary of State does have those powers. That necessarily includes the ability to investigate cases in order to establish whether a review is necessary, and, if so, why.
Where a question arises about a specific case, whether as a result of information received from a claimant or from a third party, obviously the Secretary of State will want to investigate. That is right and proper. Where a question arises in relation to a specific type of case—for example, as a result of management checks on individual cases or a survey such as the recently published benefit review of DLA—the Secretary of State needs to investigate. To do that he also needs to establish whether the benefit as a whole is being administered properly and, indeed, to identify those areas in which it is weak. That is a normal activity in benefit administration. It is necessary and right and within the Secretary of State's power.
The Secretary of State has a duty to taxpayers and to claimants to ensure that the benefit, which is worth £6.25 billion this year, is going to those who are entitled to it. The benefit review I mentioned, which has been published, identified 27 per cent. of current awards as 1098 being incorrect. The noble Baroness rightly points out that that is considerably above the target that we like to aim for in the Benefits Agency. Obviously, therefore, we are concerned about that situation.
The 27 per cent. of current awards which are incorrect includes some 10 per cent. of claimants who are being underpaid. That seems to arise largely as a result of unreported change. The incorrectness therefore is not just through bad calculations on the part of the Benefits Agency; it is also through unreported change of one kind or another. The important point is that, largely due to unreported change, something like 10 per cent. of claimants were being underpaid.
Amendment No. 95 would restrict the Secretary of State's ability to carry out investigations that would provide him with information about the correct level of benefit. As I outlined, it is unacceptable for that reason. There has been speculation that the department proposes wholesale investigations throughout the entire DLA caseload. The noble Baroness or those advising her seemed to fear that. I can assure her that that is not the intention. Our interest is in ensuring that the awards in payment are correct, which includes increasing them where appropriate, as well as reducing them.
Amendment No. 97 would remove Clause 17(2), which makes it explicit that the Secretary of State's power to investigate and apply for review includes cases where AA or DLA have not been awarded for a fixed period. Let me first make plain what the term "life award" refers to. It relates to awards in which it is expected that the person's condition will remain with him and will not improve throughout the remainder of his life, so removing the need for unnecessary periodic review. It was never intended to mean that such awards were immune from review. Indeed, review is provided for in legislation. For the care component of DLA, Section 72 of the Social Security Contributions and Benefits Act 1992 provides that:a person shall be entitled to the care component of a disability living allowance for any period throughout which he is so severely disabled physically or mentally that",and so forth. The legislation then lists the care needs which would entitle him to each of the three rates of the care component. Similarly, in Section 73, the legislation again provides that a person shall be entitled to the mobility component for any period throughout which he meets one of the list of qualifying conditions. The intention is plain. Regardless of the length of the initial award, entitlement exists only as long as the qualifying conditions relating to specified care and mobility needs are met.
The provisions in Section 32(4) of the Social Security Administration Act which relate to the circumstances in which a component awarded for life may be reviewed were designed to remove the need for a review when both components had been awarded but only one was a life award, the other being for a fixed period. That protection for the component awarded for life is unaffected by the amendment, which is itself aimed only at putting the Secretary of State's existing power to apply for review beyond doubt in this particular circumstance as in others.
1099 The amendment before us would prevent the Secretary of State from investigating these awards when it was appropriate to do so, but it would also prevent clarification of the law so far as those awards are concerned. As I think I indicated, we have no intention of going on some wholesale review of DLA. We had always believed, until Commissioner Rowland's book appeared, that the Secretary of State had the power to initiate a review and that it was not just a claimant who had the power to initiate a review.
I appreciate that these allowances go to people who are very often severely disabled and very much in need of help. I very much appreciate that a clause like this at least demands some explanation. I hope I have explained what we are doing. I hope the noble Baroness accepts that what we are doing is entirely above board and does not in any way represent an attack on DLA or the people who receive it.
§ Baroness Gould of Potternewton
I thank the Minister for his reply and for his explanation of the power of the Secretary of State and of the incorrectness of levels of benefit. I thank him for his assurance that there will not be a wholesale review of DLA. I am not saying that I am absolutely convinced about the motivation behind introducing the clause. I still believe that adjudication officers can instigate reviews in particular circumstances. Nor am I completely reassured that there are adequate safeguards against these vague powers being abused at a later stage. Unless there are assurances on the face of the Bill a future Secretary of State might interpret them very differently. However, I would sincerely hope not. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ [Amendments Nos. 96 and 97 not moved.]
§ Clause 17 agreed to.
§ Clause 18 [Medical examinations of persons awarded certain benefits]:
§ [Amendments Nos. 98 to 103 not moved.]
§ Clause 18 agreed to.
§ Clause 19 [Requirement to state national insurance number]:
§ [Amendments Nos. 104 to 110 not moved.]
§ Clause 19 agreed to.
§ [Amendment No. 110A not moved.]
§ Clause 20 [Return of social security post]: [Amendment No. 111 not moved.]
§ Clause 20 agreed to.
§ Clause 21 [Information about redirection of post]: [Amendments Nos. 112 to 116 not moved.]
§ Clause 21 agreed to.
§ Remaining clauses and schedules agreed to.
§ House resumed: Bill reported without amendment; Report received.1100
§ Then, Standing Order 44 having been suspended (pursuant to Resolution of 18th March), Bill read a third time.
§ Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish
My Lords, I beg to move that the Bill do now pass.
I just want to say one or two words, not about the Bill itself—I have discussed it in some detail and we have all gone through it—but to thank those who have participated in our debates. I thank the officials who have helped me with the Bill and who have worked so busily behind the scenes. I thank the noble Baronesses, Lady Gould of Potternewton and Lady Turner of Camden, and the noble Lords, Lord Carter and Lord Whitty, for their contributions to our debates. I thank my noble friends who have supported me in the Division Lobby when it has come to it.
I wish to look wider than the Bill to the two-and-a-half years when I have answered social security questions at this Dispatch Box. I thank my noble friend Lord Lucas for his excellent support as my Whip. There have been many occasions, as hour succeeded hour in debate, during which I am sure he must have realised that his official title of Lord in Waiting had more than one interpretation. Not only has he done a good job in looking after me, but I am sure he has impressed us all at the Dispatch Box in dealing with the very difficult issues which have fallen to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food in the past year or so.
The noble Earl, Lord Russell, has shown amazing stamina and knowledge and an inexhaustible supply of anecdotes and aphorisms.
§ Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish
My Lords, I am hoping that he may have finished. His story of the two men taking the barrel of beer to the races to sell it and drinking it themselves on the way, passing the same threepenny bit between them for payment, as an example of the internal market, will always be with me. In some ways he reminds me of the ancestor of my noble friend the Duke of Montrose, whose military campaigns—the noble Earl is perhaps more of an expert on this subject than I am, so I am being cautious—involved him taking his army on long, seemingly impossible marches, often deep into the night—that will not surprise your Lordships—back and forward across the mountains and glens of Scotland, catching the then Earl of Argyll, the ancestor of my noble friend the Duke of Argyll (Campbell of Argyll), unawares on a number of occasions. I believe that Mackay of Ardbrecknish, also of Argyll, has managed a bit better than the ancestor of my noble friend the Duke of Argyll in not being caught unawares quite so often. I shall perhaps admit at this stage that my patience has been tried just a little by the noble Earl; but more often than not I have enjoyed crossing verbal swords with him and I thank him for his unfailing courtesy and good humour.
One of my problems is that I have been able to use only my left hand in order to fend off the noble Earl, keeping my right hand to fend off the noble Baroness, 1101 Lady Hollis of Heigham. I am very sorry that she cannot be here today. I fully understand why she cannot be here and I know that she, too, regrets that. We have debated against each other on six social security Bills and on parts of two others; on many pieces of secondary legislation and on innumerable Questions.
The noble Baroness has carried a formidable workload on the Front Bench opposite—perhaps the largest workload of anybody on that Front Bench. She has always been well briefed and well prepared. She has made good use of her distinctive debating style, her formidable intellect and her feminine charms to try to persuade your Lordships, especially those on the Cross-Benches and some of my noble friends, to unseat me. I believe that I can claim that we have been the lead players in some of the high drama debates of this Parliament. Indeed, on one or two of these occasions she has managed to weave her spell to such good effect that my noble friend the Captain of the Gentlemen of Arms has not carried the result of the Division to the Lord Chairman or to my noble and learned friend and fellow clansman, the Lord Chancellor. These battles and their results are now in the bound editions of Hansard. Your Lordships may be looking at the three of us and wondering, with Shakespeare and "Macbeth", when the three witches say,When shall we three meet againIn thunder, lightning, or in rain?".The answer is there as well—When the hurlyburly's done,When the battle's lost and won".That battle will be a matter for others to decide, but for this moment suffice it to say that I would not have missed our many trysts around the cauldron in this House for the world.
Moved, That the Bill do now pass.—(Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish.)
§ 5.30 p.m.
§ Baroness Gould of Potternewton
My Lords, in replying to the Minister's remarks, I must first express the regrets of my noble friends Lady Hollis of Heigham and Lord Carter, that they are unable to be present today. My noble friend Lady Hollis has asked me to apologise to the House and to the Minister for her absence. She has been unavoidably called away on a temporary family problem. Lady Hollis and Lord Carter were responsible for presenting to your Lordships' House many amendments to improve the Bill, including amendments to provide adequate safeguards for data protection and that highly sensitive personal information is controlled; to give greater powers to local authorities to tackle organised landlord fraud and for the Bill to be a vehicle for benefit entitlement and not just for the elimination of fraud.
I know that my noble friend Lady Hollis would also wish me to thank on her behalf her colleagues on the Labour Benches, my noble friends Lord Carter, Lady Turner of Camden and Lord Whitty, who made notable contributions to this Bill.
1102 We on this side of the House welcome the overall thrust of this Bill to reduce the level of benefit fraud. Perhaps I may paraphrase the words of my noble friend Lady Hollis of Heigham at Second Reading. She said that with this Bill the Government have finally accepted the argument that we have consistently put to them, that there is an unacceptably high level of error and fraud of benefit payments. As a consequence, in principle we welcome one of the main planks of the Bill in respect of data matching.
However, the Bill as it stands does not strike the necessary balance between the rights of the individual and the collection of information to check fraud. We were heartened, however, by the undertaking given by the Minister that the Department of Social Security will publish a code of practice on data matching and that data matching exercises under the new powers in the relevant clauses of the Bill will not be conducted until the code has been published. I am personally grateful to the Minister for his sympathetic response on the question of appointees and the procedure by which they are appointed.
We do appreciate the good humour, which we have heard again today, and the courtesy and honesty with which the Minister has responded to the many amendments. I know that my noble friend Lady Hollis of Heigham will appreciate very much his kind words when she reads them in Hansard tomorrow. I am sure that she will read them with great pleasure. We are grateful, too, for the work of the noble Lord, Lord Lucas. We are also grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Russell, for his erudite and, at times, extremely amusing contributions to the Bill.
We express our thanks to the team of advisers for their able assistance, which has been invaluable to us. In particular, we should like to thank representatives of the ALG, the ADC/AMA, the head of Lambeth's anti-fraud unit and the head of benefits at Westminster, including representatives of the offices of John Denham and Harry Cohen, Members in another place, for all their help with the amendments. We also thank the many organisations which have helped to provide briefings to us. That has been invaluable. Not least, we would like to thank our researcher, Robert McGeachy, who has always been there to give us support, both administratively and with background research and information.
In conclusion, there are a number of aspects of the Bill about which we still have reservations, but we believe that the assurances that we have received from the Minister will be honoured.
§ Earl Russell
My Lords, I thank the Minister most warmly for that most generous tribute. Whatever may happen in the next Parliament and whenever it may be that we three meet again, I will inevitably think of the Table over there as the cauldron. It is most appropriately provided with water for which I have been most grateful on many occasions. Both the Minister and I have very much enjoyed our numerous engagements. At times they have been inconclusive. I always think of speaking from this side of the House as being a little like bowling. I found the Minister's defence impregnable. 1103 Whatever I have come up with, the Minister's hat always seems to be there. Thinking of new ways of getting round it has been a wonderful challenge. But his defence! Well, I do not see how to get round it.
He knows the story of my dentist who used to bowl to his clansman, the Australian "Slasher" Mackay. He asked him whether there was any way of getting him out. He thought for a long time and replied, "Hand grenades". I do not propose to employ them on the Minister because I have found that not only have we developed that relationship of trust, which is essential for doing any business across the Chamber, but we have also come to look on each other with a good deal of warmth. I very much enjoyed our exchanges and our conversations inside the Chamber and out. He is a person with whom any day I am happy to do business.
I am also extremely sorry that the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis of Heigham, is unable to be here today. I offer my sympathy for the reasons why she is not able to be here. I very much enjoyed working side by side with her—speed at one end and spin at the other. It is an ideal bowling combination. I am sure that the two of us have been far more successful than either of us could ever have hoped to be alone. I believe that the contrast of styles has been a very great asset. I have very much enjoyed working not only with the fire and the force with which her arguments are put forward, but also with the weight of academic knowledge and intelligence which is behind them. I have been proud to work beside her.
I too should like to offer thanks to all those who have helped us with this work; to the team behind me in our Whips' Office who have been rushed off their feet with amendments many times; to organisations which have advised us and to all those in the Chamber on both sides of the House and in all quarters of the House, who have enlivened the debates in which we have taken part.
Now a brief word about this Bill: it is not the Crime (Sentences) Bill. This is a Bill which has general agreement as to its object. We all support what it is trying to do. We all believe that this Bill should become law. My concern about it has been with misdemeanours and not with felonies.
As I see it, this is a "tea-break Bill", rather like the old "tea-break car" which is what an unlucky purchaser occasionally acquired. The Bill has been prepared in considerable haste. In my view, it could have done with rather more scrutiny than it has yet received. We all understand about the pressure caused by the unexpectedly early prorogation. Inevitably, there are deals in such circumstances. It takes two to make a deal: there must be give and take. On this Bill, I believe that the Opposition have sold themselves a little cheap in the deal that they have made. The Bill is to become law, but it could have been amended with considerable benefit before becoming law.
The Minister knows that there is great doubt about whether the Bill is legal under the terms of the European Convention on Human Rights. He knows, I believe, we are told that an action will begin immediately the Bill becomes law. The noble Baroness, Lady Gould—in case it falls to her honourable friends 1104 to implement the Bill—is well aware that her party and mine have agreed that the European Convention should be incorporated in British law. I warmly welcome that declaration. So, the Opposition might be wise, if they are in charge of the Bill in future, to make it their fairly urgent business in the next Parliament while the major Bills are being prepared to tidy up this Bill to bring it into line with the European Convention and to ensure that it is legal. I am sorry that we have not done that—amendments to achieve it could have been offered.
The Bill may risk doing damage to people who have been guilty of innocent misrepresentation. I have not moved my amendment that Clause 14 should not stand part of the Bill, but that is a symbolic point about an issue which whoever is in charge of this matter in the next Parliament should think about again. If there is tidying up legislation, I hope that point will be addressed.
The need to pursue fraud is urgent. The need for fairness is also vital. I am not sure that this Bill always achieves that balance. The Bill means well and I welcome it for that reason, but there is still more work to do—and somebody will have to do it. I wish them well with it, whoever they may be.
§ On Question, Bill passed.