Ministers accused of overreaction on benefit bailiffs

Welfare fraud: Tories defend debt collection
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Westminster Correspondent

Government ministers were accused yesterday of over- reacting by planning to hire bailiffs to recover money owing to the Benefits Agency.

Details of the plan, revealed in documents leaked to the Independent, left Opposition politicians and civil liberties campaigners recoiling in horror.

Government sources were standing by their decision to bring in private debt enforcers. They emphasise that they will be used only to pursue claimants who have given inaccurate information to the Benefits Agency, or who had claimed under false pretences.

That could mean where someone had lied from the outset or, when their finances had improved, they failed to inform the DSS and have their benefits reduced.

Earl Russell, the Liberal Democrat social security spokesman in the Lords, wrote to Lord Mackay, the social security minister, warning it was "only a matter of time before the Daily Mirror would print a photograph of a baby howling while the bailiffs carry off the fridge with its bottle inside it ... you would not wish such a photograph to appear in the middle of an election campaign".

The National Children's Home report in 1992, wrote Earl Russell, had revealed that many people on benefit owe money to lenders. While they may have received payments from the Benefits Agency to which they were not entitled, that did not mean they were in a position to pay the cash back.

The Government, said Earl Russell, had constantly refused to study the level of debts of people on benefit, which he felt made it difficult for ministers to accurately assess how much money they stood to recover.

The Government was asked to consider the behaviour of private debt collectors in pursuing non-payment of council tax bills before asking them to chase benefits claimants.

Debates on the Council Tax Bill had focused on their conduct and the way in which bailiffs seize objects they know can be sold quickly and will cover both the debt and their own fees.

In the Commons, the Liberal Democrat MP, Simon Hughes, demanded the National Audit Office, the public finance watchdog, should look into the issue of hiring commercial debt recover agents to tackle benefits overpayments.

Chris Smith, Labour's social security spokesman, stepped up the attack, claiming there were "two serious dangers" in the plan. First the debt collectors "may go to unacceptable lengths to recover benefits". Secondly, there was a danger that confidential financial information about families "may get into the wrong hands".

Liberty, the civil liberties pressure group, echoed his concerns. "We are worried about accountability - who will oversee what the bailiffs are doing," a spokeswoman said.