MPs 'misled' over benefit hotline

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The Independent Online
Peter Lilley, the Secretary of State for Social Security, and the head of the Government's Benefits Agency yesterday faced a call for their resignation as they were accused of misleading Parliament over a decision to close down the benefit system's emergency hotline.

The out-of-hours service, which provides emergency cash for claimants hit by disaster at weekends and nights, was described as "the last crucial brick in the wall of the welfare state" by Simon Hughes, the Liberal Democrat MP, who said it had helped 50,000 people in "dire financial circumstances" last year.

According to Mr Hughes, a letter on 14 March to staff from Peter Mathison, the Benefits Agency's chief executive, shows that a decision to close the service had been agreed on 12 March by the Benefits Agency's management team.

The letter, leaked to the Bermondsey MP in whose constituency the service's headquarters is based, states that "the following items of work must not be carried out after the date specified and are therefore not funded ... provision of out-of-hours service (including that provided by the London Emergency Office) - 1 October 1996."

But in Parliamentary written answers given weeks later, dated 25 April and 22 May, Mr Mathison told MPs that the future of the service "is currently being examined" and a decision was expected "later this year".

That, Mr Hughes said, appeared to be a "lie" and Parliament had twice been misled - a sin which MPs regard as unforgivable, as it breaches the trust between members of Parliament, ministers and civil servants.

Mr Mathison's answers were given after the original questions about the service had been redirected to him by Mr Lilley. The letters were published as a formal reply by Roger Evans, the junior social security minister. Unless someone proved otherwise, Mr Hughes said, "on the face of it a lie has been told, and either Mr Mathison, or a minister, or the Secretary of State must carry the can.

"There can't be any confusion. Mr Mathison has misled Parliament and either he goes, and is sacked by the Secretary of State, or the Secretary of State or his minister goes, because they have to take responsibility."

The issue could not be allowed to slip away with the agency saying it was a matter for ministers, and ministers saying it was for the agency, Mr Hughes said. The issue, along with the conflict between the Home Secretary, Michael Howard, and the Prisons Agency over last week's decision to release prisoners, illustrated the "marked difficulties over accountability" which civil service agencies have created.

Despite the 14 March letter and Mr Hughes's attack, both the Benefits Agency and the Department of Social Security insisted yesterday that "no final decision" has been taken on whether to close the out-of-hours service from October. The agency said the service was under review and "a decision is expected within the next month". Mr Mathison would not be resigning, a spokesman added.