HC Deb 09 May 1972 vol 836 cc1108-10
6. Mr. Clinton

Davis asked the Secretary of State for Social Services why it has been found necessary to increase substantially the number of special investigators employed by his Department since June, 1970.

Sir K. Joseph

They were appointed in order to enable more cases of suspected fraud, of the various types which can be practised in connection with supplementary benefit, to he investigated by officers specialising in this work.

Mr. Davis

Does the Secretary of State not agree that inquiries about cohabitation frequently go too far? Does he realise that inquiries are made of children, of neighbours and of employers all within the terms of the handbook? Is this justified and do the results justify it, and should not far more emphasis be put on the financial relationship between the man and the woman rather than on the alleged cohabitation?

Sir K. Joseph

The investigators are performing a necessary if distasteful duty in order to safeguard public funds from fraud. As for any allegations that children are questioned by the investigators, I should be most grateful if the hon. Member would send details to the Chairman of the Commission who—as I do—would take such cases very seriously indeed. My belief is that, subject to the occasional inevitable human error in a difficult job, they perform their duties in a decent, honourable and conscientious way. Only just over one-third of their time is spent investigating cohabitation, the vast bulk of it being devoted to detecting other forms of fraud such as fictitious desertion and undisclosed earnings.

Mr. Waddington

Does my right hon. Friend agree that nothing is more likely to infuriate the decent, hard-working citizen than the knowledge that some of his neighbours are battening on the State and drawing benefits, paid for out of his taxes, to which they are not entitled? Does not my right hon. Friend think it extraordinary that all too often hon. Members of the Opposition try to suggest that, for some reason which I do not understand, a man who is living with a woman and sharing her bed should not be responsible for keeping that woman but that the State should? Will he rest assured that we on this side of the House will welcome any steps to tighten up the present system and to stop abuses?

Sir K. Joseph

I agree with a great deal of what my hon. and learned Friend said but, to be fair to him, the hon. Member for Hackney, Central (Mr. Clinton Davis) did not, as I understand it, attack the whole cohabitation rule but the methods which he alleges are sometimes used in order to investigate alleged cases. That is a perfectly legitimate point to make to the Government. But I am sure that the rule, which is intended to ensure that the unmarried couple who live together as man and wife do not get more favourable treatment than the married couple is in accordance with public sentiment.

Mrs. Castle

The remarks by the hon. and learned Member for Nelson and Colne (Mr. Waddington) intensify the alarm that we have felt on this side of the House about the attitude to women involved in these cases. The Secretary of State's reply is not very reassuring either. Is the House not entitled to know what methods are used and what instructions are given to the investigators? Are we not indebted to the Daily Mail for having obtained a copy of these instructions and can we now have them officially? 'Will the Secretary of State please answer the question by my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, Central (Mr. Clinton Davis) whether the definition of cohabitation is one which distinguishes fairly and clearly between sleeping together and financial support? Can we therefore have the instructions and the definition published so that the House can express an opinion?

Sir K. Joseph

I must refer the right hon. Lady and the hon. Member for Hackney, Central to the very careful paper on cohabitation published last year by the Supplementary Benefits Commission which spells out in 11 pages the evidence for which they look in deciding where cohabitation exists. Their emphasis is the whole time upon the existence of a stable union. In a short answer I cannot give all the details set out in the paper. As for publishing the instructions to the investigators, there are a very small minority of people who are only too willing to embark upon frauds against the public and to publish the instructions would facilitate their lives.