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Social Security (Claims and Payments) Amendment (No. 2) Regulations 2010

Volume 719: debated on Monday 21 June 2010

Motion of Regret

Moved By

To move to resolve that this House regrets that the Social Security (Claims and Payments) Amendment (No. 2) Regulations 2010 (SI 2010/870) have been based on an inadequate design which will be unable to produce reliable evidence.

Relevant documents: 17th Report, Session 2009–10, from the Merits Committee.

My Lords, I start by thanking my noble friend Lord Freud for turning up to respond to this Motion. The instrument that I am praying against is not of his genesis and if I get hot under the collar I hope he will accept that I am not aiming at him in any way.

The instrument first appeared before your Lordships’ Merits of Statutory Instruments Committee with a very inadequate Explanatory Memorandum. When the committee challenged them we were given more data that not only amplified what had been there before but indeed said different things. The first thing I want to say is that I very much hope that my noble friend will see the importance of making sure that Explanatory Memoranda accurately and fully reflect the intentions and details of the instruments concerned.

Secondly, although this is not in my Motion, I wanted to take the opportunity to question my noble friend on whether he really thinks that the proposals in this instrument are an appropriate use of the department’s time. It seems odd to be conducting research into what is effectively how to shift money from one government pocket into another. Here we are concerned with people on benefits. Even with the generosity of the past 13 years, benefits are still pretty marginal. If we consider the list of deductions that are generally allowed, such as mortgage payments, rent arrears, fuel and water charges, child support arrears, and so on, they are pretty important and essential to life. Yes, we allow fines to be deducted too, but that is when a court pronounces that there is a serious punishment involved. I do not think that debts to the Inland Revenue rank alongside that. Given that social security payments are basically set so that a person can meet life’s essentials, how is someone supposed to find 15 per cent of their income spare to repay the Inland Revenue? They can end up only in a worse position by having to rely on the state to a greater extent. Hence my feeling that this is just shifting money from one pocket to another.

There are other problems with this. We are not looking at large debts, but what will be the cost of recovery of these debts? Are we not looking at a system that actually costs more in its administrative functions than the money that it will recover? Is that an appropriate use of time when it comes to poor people? What is a tax debt anyway? If one is moving in and out of employment, a tax debt varies with the month. You can start off appearing to owe the Inland Revenue a good deal of money because you have not paid. You are then unemployed for six months and your allowances accumulate and you end the tax year with the Inland Revenue owing you money. It is not at all clear whether we are talking about debts that are in some way established or whether they just appear to be debts at a particular moment but may well not be debts six months later. It is an odd thing to be spending time on. This is persecuting poor people when the department ought to be trying to extract money in ways that are more efficient and have less of an impact on the very poorest.

My reason for bringing forward this Motion is the statistical inadequacy of what is proposed even with the additional explanation that I have been provided with. I know, or at least I believe I know, that the Department for Work and Pensions has a number of good statisticians—I am assured by no less than Andrew Dilnot that this is the case—but they do not appear to have been involved in the design of this research. The first thing we get is that about 5,000 tax credit customers and 5,000 self-assessment customers will be approached to volunteer to take part in the trial. Those 10,000 will then be divided into those who agree and those who do not agree. Those two groups are fundamentally different. The group which agrees will have one set of motivations and the group which does not agree will have another set. You immediately get into deep statistical water in trying to draw any conclusions when comparing two groups with different motivations. There is an attempt in the design of this experiment to compensate for that by having a third group—a control group. Presumably one could try to work out the behaviour of the first group—those who volunteer for the trial—by subtracting the behaviour of the second group from the control group and supposedly having a control for the first group.

Given the wide diversity of circumstances, we are looking at a sample that to my mind is far too small to allow that kind of second-hand approach to generating reliable results. It is a daft way of going about it when we have a perfectly good and statistically valid way of doing it, which is to double the number who agree to take part in the trial and then put only a randomised half of them through it. You would then have a matched group which will give some pretty statistically valid results. Even then the experimental design will tell you how well it works only for those who are motivated to take part in the trial. It tells you nothing about the behaviour and circumstances of those who are not motivated to take part in the trial. We are not dealing with mere mechanics; we are dealing with the effects of different methods of reclaiming money on people’s behaviour, the trouble they get into, compliance, and so forth. We are dealing with human characteristics and you cannot read those across from one group to another when you have already separated them on the basis of a fundamental characteristic such as motivation. If you wanted to find out something about the second group—those who refuse, who I suspect will be the large majority—you have to conduct a pilot that is not sample-based but area-based. The previous Government did that on several occasions. I can remember the pilots coming through the Merits Committee. A particular office would switch to a new system and would compare its results with a neighbouring, similarly placed office’s results. If you have enough other data on your claimants, you can make that reasonably statistically reliable. You could even run a randomised control through an office. But what is proposed here would not yield any useful information on the behaviour of the second group—those who refused to take part in the trial—were they to be moved to be compelled to under the new proposed system.

There is no defence in the documents that I have seen of sample size, no discussion of anticipated errors, no discussion of what are the real targets, what is expected to be achieved and what are the expected problems. There is no demonstration of the validity of the methods being set out. We have here a simple case of garbage in, garbage out. A trial on those lines will not yield any useful results. If we proceed on the basis of the results that it yields, we will have no clue whether the full, scaled-up system will work. I am comforted that the Social Security Advisory Committee, at paragraph 4.16 of its report, shares my view.

I welcome trials—they are an excellent way to make progress in the area of benefits and social security, to find out what works before one commits oneself to a whole system—but I ask the Minister to ensure that the people who really understand what are the same sort of statistical operation as drug trials have control over what goes on, make sure that what is designed is fit for purpose and ensure that the data that the trials produce can be relied on for policy formation. I beg to move.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, very much for the comprehensive way in which he introduced his Motion and welcome him to this most exclusive of gatherings in London; the tiny number of us in this House who speak on DWP orders and the even tinier number who table regret Motions to them.

Before going any further, we have discovered from the response given by my right honourable friend Steve Webb to a letter from the chairman of the Merits Committee last Session that the new Government may decide not to go ahead with this pilot, but I suppose that we must carry on as though they will go ahead at this stage, unless the Minister wants to interrupt at this point to say that they will not. There is no interruption, so I shall carry on.

First, I am glad that the Government have listened to the Social Security Advisory Committee's recommendation, which urged them to bring the list of benefits from which HMRC debt recovery repayments can be made into line with the current list of benefits from which priority debts can be deducted. In other words, any deductions would be from means-tested and not contribution-based benefits. I take the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, about that being money from the poorest people in the country, whichever benefit it is from.

I am also glad that the SSAC highlighted the vital point that claimants understand the voluntary nature of the trial and the impact on their income of signing up for the trial. A lot of people will not know what “voluntary” means—although they may pretend that they do. The Government have responded positively to that point, saying that they will share copies of the letters sent to claimants with the committee, and that they will ensure that the letters, and contact centre staff, will direct the claimant, or customer, to the availability of independent advice.

The SSAC understandably believes that there is scope for confusion among claimants who receive letters from HMRC. Just seeing that letterhead is likely to lead to many claimants into thinking they are being hounded for recovery of their tax credit overpayments, whatever the letter actually states. If claimants then telephone HMRC, is the Minister satisfied that they will be told in every case that they do not have to repay their debts by having them deducted from their benefits? Will they be told in all cases that they might want to take independent advice, which might lead to some of their debt being overturned or even written off?

Before leaving the subject of letters from HMRC, perhaps the Minister can tell us why it does not provide an explanation of a tax credit overpayment to claimants in all cases; that seems not to be provided as a matter of routine. I cannot think why not. I know that the Minister does not speak for HMRC, but as this SI is a joint project between the two departments, I make no apology for asking him that on this occasion.

We must remember that the Government did not agree with the SSAC that repayment should be at a lower level than they are proposing in this trial, which is three times the normal amount per week. As the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, pointed out, benefits are not generous, and there are rumours that they will not be uprated as usual—we shall hear more in tomorrow's Budget. If claimants in debt have no other source of income except their weekly benefits, many of them will suffer severe hardship if they are being encouraged to repay their tax credit overpayment from those pretty meagre benefits. I may have got the wrong end of the stick here, but I find it horrifying that the SSAC understands that HMRC staff may suggest that debtors apply for a commercial loan to pay off debts—presumably they would never suggest a commercial loan to pay off a tax credit overpayment.

Turning to the design of the pilot, and first, to the aim of the pilot, this appears to be twofold: to find out if there is a demand from claimants for this method of repayment—that sounds almost like an oxymoron—and to see if the scheme is cost-effective. There is more information in the answers to questions from the ever-vigilant Merits Committee about how the scheme will operate. As the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, said, there are to be three groups for evaluation purposes. The first group will be those who volunteer to take part in the trial. The explanation goes:

“The evaluation will look at how much was recovered, the spread of weekly deduction rates, how long a person is in receipt of a relevant benefit and what could have been recovered had they been taking part in the trial for the whole two years taking account of expected levels of movement on and off benefit”.

That sounds fiendishly complicated with so many permutations that you wonder whether any comparisons will really make sense. The next two groups are about those who declined to take part in the trial who will form the control group. First, they have to agree to respond to a letter asking them to take part. I wonder how many will be keen to do that. Not very many, I imagine. Therefore, a key question is: how small does the sample size have to be to produce robust data? I note that the Government say:

“We accept that the smaller the sample, the less able we will be to draw definitive conclusions."

I also note what the Government say about those who go off benefit during the pilot period; namely, that there is no minimum number of weeks for which deductions have to be made in order to regard the participant and repayments made as significant for evaluation purposes. I would have thought that was a rather significant fact.

Perhaps the most encouraging sentence in the whole explanation is:

“In addition the performance of new joined up operational processes between HMRC and DWP will be assessed”.

Is the Minister really confident that this trial will produce a reliable result, in view of all the problems that the SSAC and others have pointed out?

My Lords, I have very little to add to what has been said by my noble friend Lord Lucas. The Merits Committee reported to the House on this matter in April and again following a meeting last week. He has deployed all the considerations that we had in mind with his usual thoroughness. The noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, added to that. We will hear what the noble Lord on the Opposition Front Bench has to say. Whether to proceed with the trial is clearly a matter that will have to be considered in the light of, among other things, what is said tonight. A very large number of people, including the poorest people in our society, are involved in all this, and we look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say, but it is an extremely important matter.

My Lords, I am pleased to be able to follow colleagues in this technical but important debate. I start by congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, on joining the Motion-to-regret club. The bad news for him is that the chairman is my noble friend Lady Thomas, I am the secretary, and he will now have to be the treasurer because there are only three of us who have been through this process. He is a very welcome addition to the clan. It is a very distinguished group, as my noble friend said.

I will take a slightly wider look at the background to the order. I am very worried that it will become a default option for Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs, which would be a very bad thing. The first thing that we should bear in mind is that we are talking about recovering overpayments that have been made by the Treasury. A number of questions flow from that if it is true, which I believe it is. Why on earth is the department rolling out pilots of this kind at a time of real stress and difficulty, with administrative cuts and all sorts of pressure on DWP staff? I make no complaint about that because I think we are all prepared for it, but these are some of the most difficult financial circumstances that low-income households have ever faced. This is a once-in-100-years event—I have certainly seen nothing like it in the 30 years that I have been in public life—and we should not start spraying letters around to people who are in debt only to the extent that the Treasury has miscalculated the amount of tax credits that they are due. We have to bear in mind the fact that this is not just debt but an overpayment; it is a function of error at the hands of Treasury officials. We have to be very careful about the context in which we are sending these letters and raising these proposals, even though this is supposed to be a voluntary scheme.

Incidentally, I do not expect the department to have these figures available in the Minister’s brief this evening, but I would be very interested to know how many customers on benefit are affected by self-assessment error. There cannot be a big number of them across the country. Self-assessment is used mainly by people who are outside PAYE and who are self-employed and the like, so the question of self-assessment by people on benefit puzzles me, given the constrained nature of the benefits to which this order applies. How many people across the country in the system are in that position?

I know that the noble Lord, Lord Freud, cares about this and is enthusiastic about reform. The complexity of the system is part of the reason why these overpayments are made in the first place, and rolling out pilots to mitigate the damage that is done by complexity and error is the wrong way around. We should concentrate, and I believe that he will concentrate, on getting the system right first time and on not creating the overpayments in the tax credit system that create these debts. We need a root and branch review, and I hope that he will not lose his enthusiasm for that. Knowing him, I think that that is unlikely. I would strengthen his hand to get this done. It will not happen quickly, but I hope that he will use his undoubted expertise in financial systems to help to bring that about.

Secondly, third-party deductions are a very important part of the social security benefit system. They were contrived in 1988 and were an anti-poverty measure to protect levels of benefits. The Social Security Advisory Committee’s report on this shows—at paragraph 4.4, table 1—that mortgage payments, rent arrears and fuel charges were the essential things for which deductions could be made. People needed a deduction for housing or they were evicted, and they needed a deduction for fuel charges or they became hypothermic. That was why the third-party deduction system was put into place. It has been extended as the SSAC memorandum suggests, most recently for child maintenance purposes in 2006. However, we must be very careful about why and when we use third-party deductions or we get into management objectives and not anti-poverty ones. Third-party deductions should be used absolutely only in circumstances in which they cannot be avoided. Benefit levels are already at poverty levels. Measured against average median household incomes, poverty levels are built into some of the levels of benefit that we have at the moment. We should interfere with third-party deductions only with great care. The SSAC memorandum says—an occasional paper was done on this in 2008—that we should look at all these things and indicates the part that the social fund should play in dealing with anti-poverty.

My noble friend mentioned the hardship rules, which are important. There are some circumstances, which I came across myself not that long ago, where write-offs would have been properly argued and could have been suggested in ways that would help the households. But they are able to be determined only by people who know what they are doing. Citizens Advice and independent financial advisers who specialise in this kind of work and who know what they are doing can make recommendations which otherwise would be left unknown to the households that these things affect.

Thirdly, this cannot be done without safe, independent financial advice. I know that the FSA has tried to roll out a financial capability scheme—it may have been caught by purdah during the general election campaign—but we can be sure that these debts are being recovered safely, even in a so-called voluntary capacity, only if there is independent advice to which people can be referred so that they know that what they are doing is sensible in the totality of their debts.

The excellent recent publication, State of the Nation Report: Poverty, Worklessness and Welfare Dependency in the UK, produced by the Secretary of State, states that 79 million people in the United Kingdom are in serious debt. An independent advisory service would serve not only the purposes of these regulations but would have a wider purpose as well. One could argue that some FSA rules about treating customers fairly would require people repaying debts to HMRC to be given a statement of what their repayments are doing in terms of extinguishing the debt over a period of weeks or months, but I hope not years. There are no statements. In my experience, a lot of people have no idea of how their benefit payments are made up or of what payments are being made to other parts of the system which may also have third party deductions on their benefits.

The treating customers fairly rules of the FSA should be applied if this pilot ever is rolled out across the country because £9.75—the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, effectively made this point—to a household operating on a weekly cash basis, as a lot of benefit families and households are, is a huge amount of money. Many of these households have to work on a cash basis from week to week, robbing Peter to pay Paul and trying to stay out of default. It is a very difficult balancing act for them to manage.

As regards the timing of this, the earlier memorandum and other papers suggested that a roll-out would almost be upon us even now. The response from Steve Webb to the committee at a later stage made it clear that there was some reconsideration of whether the thing would even start. This is an important moment to stop and think about whether the pilot is necessary and, even if it were was successful, whether we are creating a default option which just makes it easier for the Treasury and HMRC to correct errors that they should not have made in the first place.

Finally, the SSAC recommendations, taken together with the timing and the context into which these pilots are being introduced, are inimical to the interests of benefit households in the way that they are currently cast. I for one would recommend to the Minister that he suggests that this pilot is cancelled.

My Lords, I start by thanking the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, for the opportunity to discuss these regulations. As other speakers have said, he has joined the exclusive band of those involved in Motions of Regret, one that I myself have joined, although I have been on the receiving end of several. I should say that I find myself in the rather unusual position of dealing with regulations that were promulgated under the previous Government and for which I would have had some responsibility in terms of explaining and defending, but a responsibility from which I am now free.

In his introduction, the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, talked about how these regulations would persecute poor people. If that was what they were about, the Government of which I was a member would have had nothing to do with them, and I am sure that that runs for the Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Freud. The noble Lord also said that people can only end up in a worse position. Again, if that were the case it would not be something that I or the former Government would have wanted to have any truck with. This does not inevitably have to involve that position because it is a voluntary scheme with maximum amounts, and of course collecting debt in this way is cost-free to the individual, although there may well be administrative costs for HMRC and the DWP. One of the other ironies we are faced with is that my noble friend Lord Rosser, who joins me on the Front Bench, was previously chair of the Merits Committee. I think that he preceded the noble Lord, Lord Goodlad, and in his time has been responsible for various Exocets, of which this may have been one.

I cannot support the Motion tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, because I do not think that he has made his case, but I accept that the explanations given in the Explanatory Memorandum and initially to the Social Security Advisory Committee and the Merits Committee could have done more to set out the detail of the proposal, especially the methodology and the evaluation, but in our view the response of Steve Webb, Minister of State for Pensions—I still have to pinch myself when I say that—to the Merits Committee has, in our view, gone some way to rectify that.

However, we have a timely opportunity to reflect on these regulations and to take the coalition Government’s mind on them. As the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, and the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, both mentioned, Steve Webb’s response indicated the possibility that the Government may choose not to proceed with the pilot at this time. Can the Minister give us an update on this and indicate the factors that will be taken into account in making any decision to defer? The proposed trial is of course partly focused on the recovery of tax credit overpayments. I am bound to say that, as I understand it, they do not inevitably flow from official errors—they are not necessarily the only cause—but we will have to see the extent to which the proposals might be affected by the cuts in tax credits that the Government are poised to announce tomorrow. We have heard the coalition promise to reform the administration of tax credits so as to reduce fraud and overpayments, and again we will have to see what that means in practice. If it can be accomplished in a fair way and without impairing take-up, all well and good, but the emphasis should be on the “if”.

It is accepted that the transition from work to benefits is a difficult one and can pose problems with budgeting for the repayment of existing debt, so these proposals offer help to those who cannot afford to settle their debts in one go. They provide a nil cost method of payment and are in addition to the other methods of payment available. Given our debate this evening, can the Minister tell us more about these other methods and whether there are any proposals to extend or restrict them? The principle of an additional voluntary method for people to repay tax overpayments has been welcomed by the SSAC and the respondents to the consultation undertaken by the committee were positive about the proposals.

One of the concerns expressed by the SSAC was the proposed maximum level of deduction for tax credits—three times the 5 per cent of the single over-25 rate for income support. The committee pointed out that this was greater than the maximum individual deduction under the third party deduction scheme. Although other recommendations were accepted, this was one area where the previous Government were unable to accept the SSAC recommendation, which was to limit the maximum amount deducted to 5 per cent of the income support rate. Have the current Government a different view on this? We know from our debates on the Welfare Reform Bill that the Minister is exercised about the impact of cash deductions from benefit levels—this was in the then context of sanctions—and he hinted at the prospect of other types of sanctions, possibly vouchers. Has the thinking developed further? How would such a system sit alongside the TPD scheme and these proposals—or can we take it that vouchers have been ruled out?

In its report in February to the then Secretary of State, the SSAC reflected on the history of the TPD scheme—and we have heard it from the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, today—where the type of deductions allowed from benefits has grown over the years. The last DWP response to the request for a review of the scheme was rejected, with the assertion that it had a twofold purpose: to provide last-resort rescue where a claimant is struggling with arrears of essential household outgoings, and to impose compliance with social and monetary obligations. Is this still the position of the Government?

We would all agree, I hope, that it is important that the manner in which the trials are conducted makes it clear that it is voluntary and that participants can withdraw at any time. It is also vital, as was envisaged when the proposals were devised, that the repayment from benefits should not be seen as the easy or default option for dealing with HMRC debts. In particular, it should not displace the HMRC code of practice which provides for overpayments to be written off in cases of extreme hardship. Access to advice therefore remains paramount. If the proposed free national advice service is to go on the back burner, then continued funding for those agencies, national and local, which work tirelessly at the moment to fill that gap will be critical.

As we have heard, the Merits Committee under the incisive chairmanship of my noble friend Lord Rosser did not question the objective of the regulations and the proposed trials but was concerned whether the proposed methodology would deliver sufficiently meaningful data to support its extension. I think that is the thrust of the Motion of the noble Lord, Lord Lucas. Concerns were expressed around the control groups, the percentage take-up from those contacted, minimum levels and time spent on benefits. Like the SSAC, the Merits Committee was anxious to know what advice had been sought on the design of the pilots. Frankly, I think the reply from Steve Webb of 31 May covered these matters and should allay the fears of the Merits Committee, the SSAC and, indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Lucas.

The nature of the communication inviting individuals to participate in the trial is recognised as being critical to both emphasise the voluntary nature of the trial and to help individuals understand the impact on their income of signing up for trials. This was one of the SSAC recommendations which we accepted. We also agreed to share copies of proposed communications with the SSAC. I trust this agreement will endure with the new Government.

At the end of the day, whatever the methodology, what matters is implementation. Neither HMRC nor DWP lacks experience in implementing pilots, but these require resources and training. As the matters we are discussing by definition impact on the poorest and the most vulnerable—those which the coalition Government have pledged to protect—we seek reassurance that any pilot will be properly resourced.

Although we cannot support the noble Lord’s Motion, we agree on the importance of the department providing good information, generally in explanatory memoranda, and its engagement with SSAC and the Merits Committee—which might have obviated the necessity for our interesting discussion.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for tabling the Motion and for giving me the opportunity to explain how this voluntary debt recovery trial will be evaluated. I take the point about the numbers in the House for this debate—this is an exclusive group—but I can claim to be a member, albeit a new one, of the DWP regret club from earlier this year. I need, however, to apologise, albeit on behalf of the previous Administration, for the fact that the Merits Committee was not provided with sufficient information when the regulations came before it.

I should say by way of background that the amendment to the Social Security (Claims and Payments) Regulations 2010 will enable voluntary deductions to be taken from a person’s social security benefit to repay certain HMRC liabilities of under £1,000. The types of debt included are those arising from overpayments of tax credits and those arising from personal tax liability.

The transition from work to benefit can be difficult. Before the previous Government introduced tax credits, it was possible for overpayments of in-work benefit, then known as family credit, to be recovered from other social security benefits. Once tax credits were introduced, this option ceased, even though many customers found it an easy and convenient repayment method. The regulations reinstate this option for those who wish to use it. As well as providing a convenient method of repayment for individuals, this will help those unfortunate enough to have a debt with both the Department for Work and Pensions and the HMRC. Under current processes, both departments could seek repayment independently and both expect repayment. Under the trial process, the departments will work together and ensure that customers have only to repay one debt at a time.

Participation in the trial is purely voluntary. There is therefore no question of excessive compulsory deductions being taken from a customer’s benefit. The option to use this form of repayment and the rate at which any deduction is made will be agreed with the customer before any repayment commences.

This brings me on to the issues raised by the Merits Committee and by my noble friend in this Motion. It is suggested that the trial has been based on inadequate design which will be unable to produce reliable evidence for evaluation. The real issue is perhaps rather that the Explanatory Memorandum failed adequately to explain the design of the trial and specifically the evaluation protocols. This is regrettable and I fully accept that the Merits Committee should always be given sufficient information in order fully to assess the validity of regulations coming before it. In fact, even before this Motion was tabled, the department had written to the Merits Committee, giving a much fuller account of the proposed evaluation methodology than was provided originally.

It may be helpful at this point if I give some details of how DWP and HMRC will work together to run and evaluate the trial. We intend to approach tax credit customers and self-assessment customers who are in receipt of a relevant social security benefit and have new debts to HMRC. My noble friend criticised the structure of the trial as being a case of garbage in and garbage out. I think that the issue is that it is rather more narrowly focused than a wider trial might be.

The aim is to assess whether voluntary deduction of debts owed to HMRC from DWP benefits is attractive to debtors and a cost-effective means of recovery. Outcomes of the trial will be compared to outcomes achieved through existing HMRC debt recovery methods. The trial will provide evidence to inform any future decisions on use of deductions from benefits. If the trial evaluation shows that this is a cost-effective recovery method for government and that it is attractive to customers, it will be retained post trial. However, if that proves not to be the case or there proves to be no interest from customers, it will not be continued beyond the period of the trial.

The objectives of the trial are, first, to test proof of concept. By that, I mean to ensure that the deductions process is operationally effective, that customer information is safeguarded, that customer records are updated and that additional cash recoveries are accounted correctly. The second objective is to assess levels of customer take-up and the factors which motivate customers to participate in the trial or to pay directly to HMRC.  The third is to assess cost-effectiveness; that is, the additional recoveries achieved net of departments’ costs.

There will be three groups for evaluation purposes. The first group will consist of those customers who volunteer to take part in the trial. The evaluation will look at how much was recovered, the spread of weekly deduction rates and how long a person is in receipt of a relevant benefit from which deductions can be made. The DWP and HMRC will both analyse their costs in running the trial to permit an overall cost to Government to be calculated. In addition, the performance of new joined-up operational processes between HMRC and the DWP will be assessed. As part of the evaluation, HMRC will seek feedback from its customers on the effectiveness of the trial and their overall customer experience.

The second group is those customers who choose not to take part in the trial. The previous material may have suggested that this group formed a control group. Apologies for that confusion, as this is clearly not a control group but a non-random sample of people who have chosen not to take part in the trial. Their data have been contaminated for control purposes. However, there are still some useful data to be obtained from this group. HMRC will therefore note these cases and then deal with them under its current recovery processes, and track whether they subsequently repay their debt or overpayment by other means. For these cases, HMRC will also assess the likely recovery over the period of the trial had the customers taken part in it, and will collect data on why the customer chose not to take part.

Finally, there will be a true control group who will not be approached to volunteer for the trial. Instead, they will follow the current HMRC recovery process. The control group will consist of at least 500 tax credit overpayment customers and at least 500 self-assessment debtors. These cases will be selected using a stratified sampling method. This will be performed by arranging the cases into different debt bands from £200 to £1,000 and then randomly selecting 10 per cent of cases in each band. This will ensure that the distribution of the control group represents the overall distribution. Since the overall population of cases in scope in the first tranche is not very large and the take-up rate may be low, it is better to choose a minimum control group and leave the majority of cases to go through the trial. For further tranches where more cases are available, we can increase the control-group size to give a higher confidence level in the results. The trial design has been developed by HMRC statisticians, all of whom are graduate members of the Government Statistical Service.

By having three customer groups, HMRC will be able to compare the recovery rates, costs and customer experience across the different groups. It will be able to ascertain how successful the recovery of the debt or overpayment from benefit was compared with current methods. HMRC will be able to compare how much debt is collected via this trial compared with current recovery routes. It will also look at the customers who declined to take part in the trial and whether being contacted regarding this additional payment option prompts any of them to repay their debt or overpayment by an alternative route, or to contact HMRC to discuss other options. If customers taking part in the trial come off benefit, they will be removed from the trial with the necessary explanations being provided. They will not be reapproached if they return to benefit.

The business analytics team in HMRC’s Debt Management and Banking Directorate will select the control group for this trial and will analyse the data generated from it. The team is lead by a member of the Government Operational Research Service, and I am assured that the team has a good track record. A separate team in HMRC will provide quality assurance on the evaluation process to the joint DWP and HMRC project board. More generally, I stress my department’s commitment to assessing what is termed as a social return on investment. That means not just looking at costs, but understanding better what is most effective in improving outcomes that matter for people. Wherever possible and relevant, we will develop evaluation methodologies that measure the wider social costs and benefits of public spending.

The noble Lord, Lord Lucas, asked whether the provision would cost more than it brings in. In practice, it will cost very little. It is collecting a debt by deduction from benefit, which is effectively the most economical way in which to recover this money.

Another question raised by a number of noble Lords was on the pressure being put on the poorest in society to repay their debts. In reality, this trial does not change anything; the debt to HMRC would have had to be repaid anyway—or it would have been chased to be repaid. The regulations apply a maximum recovery rate, and the actual rate is agreed with the customer and can be reduced. On the substantive point, if we have a welfare system, it is important that it encourages responsibility among those people who receive benefits. If we do not we are in practice being unfair to those people who do not overclaim or build up debt and pay up for others’ expense.

My noble friend Lord Lucas asked what a tax debt was. The kind of debt that we are talking about here is established debt to the HMRC; it is not just an in-year liability that might fluctuate. He also questioned whether the sample was too small and whether it could be done on a geographic or area basis. In practice, matching the data between HMRC and the DWP cannot be done easily on a geographic basis.

My noble friend Lady Thomas of Winchester asked whether customers would understand the voluntary nature of the trial. There was a stakeholders’ event last week where the proposed letters to customers were shared with Citizens Advice, the TaxPayers’ Alliance and others who were apparently pleased and said that they were “much better” than other HMRC letters. The trial staff will emphasise the voluntary nature of this. My noble friend also asked whether HMRC would advise taking out commercial loans. The answer is not in these cases.

My noble friend Lord Kirkwood asked about the number of people with self-assessment debts. I do not have the exact number with me, but it is around 4,000 people for the last tax year. We are talking about those who were in employment but are now unemployed. My noble friend talked about the problem being generated by the complexity of the benefit system, and I have to agree with that. I hope that we will be in a position to show the way ahead in a matter of weeks in tackling complexity, which has two effects. It disincentivises people from working and freezes people from doing anything, and they become very conservative, which is exactly what we do not want.

I will not rise to that.

My noble friend Lord Kirkwood asked when the trial was due to start. It will start next month, and the first letters will go out then. We do not intend to cancel this trial; we will go ahead with it, although we will extend it only if it is successful.

The noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, asked whether other methods of repayment would be available. Clearly, if the customer signs up for the trial, no other method will be used. If the customer does not sign up, the repayment methods could be lump sum or instalments by direct debit or standing order. He also asked whether the new Government stand by the decision to deduct at three times the 5 per cent rate. Yes, we stand by that, but it is the maximum rate and participants can choose a lower rate. Finally, he probed the question of other ways of applying sanctions. This is, of course, not a sanction—it is a repayment of a debt—although I can tell him that we are exploring non-financial sanctions.

I commend the principle of the trial as a convenient alternative repayment method for those who wish to use it and as an example of joint working. The design of the trial is adequate, but I accept the criticisms of the Merits Committee and of my noble friend Lord Lucas. We need to get this right in the future. We need to make sure that all our regulatory changes meet the standard expected by the Merits Committee and that we provide all the necessary supporting information in good time.

My Lords, I am extremely grateful to my noble friend for that comprehensive and helpful reply. I shall not trade blows with him on matters to do with welfare, as I am merely an extremely junior acolyte at his feet. This has been a fascinating debate for me and I shall feel tempted, now that we have a Minister in this House who is so much at the forefront of welfare reform, to sit on the Benches and, at least, to listen. However, I am quite happy to trade blows with his statisticians.

The Minister has made me understand one thing that I did not understand before. The trial is clearly voluntary, but is he saying that the rollout will also be voluntary, even if the trial is a success? That certainly would remove a lot of my worries. However, the effort being expended to create a control group and to look at what is happening in the second, probably larger group of those who will not take part in the trial rather suggests to me that there was an intention—noble Lords opposite may know whether this is the case—that this should be a compulsory way of reclaiming HMRC debts.

If you want to understand how to operate this effectively with people who volunteer, you do a randomised control trial just with those people. You go on until you have a couple of thousand volunteers and you assign them randomly—half you monitor under the current system and half you monitor under the new system. You then have a conventional and statistically robust way of comparing behaviour. It might be fun and informative, and it might have a peripheral virtue to try to understand why the people who have not volunteered have not done so and to try to find out how to encourage them to do so in future, but you certainly would not bother with this functionless control group that sits as an appendage at the bottom.

As I say, there is a simple and statistically robust way of dealing with this if the trial is for a voluntary system, which would not have all the characteristics of the trial that has been put in front of us. If the Minister is prepared to set up a meeting with his statisticians, I should enjoy it very much, because I do not think that they have come up to the mark on this occasion if, as I say, this is a trial for a voluntary system. If I am wrong and this was designed as a trial for a compulsory system, I come back to my old criticism that it does not function as that. You do not get enough information on the likely behaviour of the people who have declined to take part in the trial to be able to predict how they would react if they were compelled to take part.

However, I cannot be churlish when I have received such a good reply from my noble friend, particularly if he sets me up with a tea date with his statisticians—and how could any statistician refuse tea in the Lords? Whatever the circumstances, I happily beg leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion withdrawn.