§ Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Stockport, North)
I am pleased, even at this hour, to have the opportunity to raise the issue of who really were the guilty people in Operation Major at Oxford on 2 September last year. Does the Minister accept that the book "Poor Law—the mass arrest of homeless claimants in Oxford" by Ros Franey, an account of Operation Major published recently by CHAR, the Campaign for Single Homeless People, the Child Poverty Action Group, the Claimants' Defence Committee, the National Association of Probation Officers and the National Council for Civil Liberties, is basically a fair account of what happened? I hope that the Minister will make it clear that he excepts most of the account.
It is clear to me that those who were convicted by the courts in Oxford were very small villains, if villains at all, compared with the real criminals who so far have got away with their crimes. Who are those guilty people? At this stage, one can only speculate. Are they really Ministers of the Crown, supplementary benefit and fraud officers or controllers in the Department of Health and Social Security, the police, the magistrates clerks, the magistrates themselves, or some Oxford landlord? The only way to find out the truth and to try to clear the good name of most people involved is for the Minister to institute a full public inquiry.
Let me try to follow the train of events as they have been told to me and as I go along pose some questions to the Minister. When did the Department of Health and Social Security first believe that there might be a problem of illegal payments in Oxford to people with no fixed home? Was it as early as February 1982? How soon did it involve the police? Was that April 1982? Who gave the authority to go on making possibly illegal payments from February or April until September 1982? Were Ministers informed? If not, were they asked for authority at that early stage to make those payments? Why would such authority be necessary? As the House knows, benefit is paid out weekly, based on a weekly claim. When the claim is made, particularly for people in this type of accommodation, it is made on a regular basis, The benefit officer must be satisfied that it is a genuine claim. If he is not so satisfied, he can ask for extra evidence and can check up on the claimant. He can even refuse benefit and force the claimant to appeal. Certainly from my experience, and I am sure that of other hon. Members, the benefit officers regularly make checks and insist on extra information.
Often, when people use bed and breakfast accommodation, benefit is paid out in vouchers, not cash, to try to avoid any possibility of fraud and to ensure that the claims are genuine. It is interesting to note that in the incident in Oxford, the very day after the mass arrests, a new system was introduced there to eliminate the possibility of the fraud system or anything like it being used again.
Once one raises the question of possible fraud, no benefit officer could be certain about the claims that he was paying out unless he visited the addresses and made other checks on the individual claimants. Had he done so, Operation Major could not have gone ahead. I know that the Oxford offices were short of staff, but how can a benefit officer go on knowingly paying out a few 799 fraudulent claims for over six months without someone authorising it? Who authorised it? Was it the Minister? Was the Minister told at this stage? Why were benefit officers authorised to go on paying out what they thought might be fraudulent claims for up to six months without making the normal checks and carrying out the normal safeguards, which, of course, would have made Operation Major impossible?
If the problem was fraudulent claims, they could have been stopped in February or, at the latest, in April by the police or by the DHSS fraud squad visiting the lodging houses. Over three or four weeks, all the possible fraud could have been stopped. Oxford could have gone over to paying out the money in vouchers instead of in cash. Oxford could have introduced in February the scheme that they introduced in early September and which appears to have stopped the frauds.
Someone must have decided not to act. Why? The only possible explanation is that the authorities believed that other criminals were involved—not claimants; possibly the landlords. Perhaps the police believed that someone in the DHSS benefit offices was acting illegally. If that was the explanation why on earth did the Department go on paying out benefit for six months?
There is another possible explanation. Perhaps a publicity-seeking official in the DHSS—a regional controller for supplementary benefit or a regional fraud officer—decided to obtain publicity. There are other possible explanations. Did the DHSS and the police allow illegal payments to be made for six months on the Minister's instructions? Was it officials or the Minister who wanted a big fraud success?
The right hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Prentice), when he was Minister, as well as the present Minister, have made some wild claims about the level of fraud in supplementary benefit payments. Did Ministers issue an instruction to the supplementary benefit officials or the fraud squad to look out for a big operation? Did the Minister believe that Operation Major was the big one? Was he planning a series of operations? If so, why were the others not carried out? Was there not sufficient evidence? Was Operation Major at Oxford allowed to go on because it was the first and the only one that might, with luck, have met the Minister's original plan and instructions? Were the others stopped because Operation Major turned into a fiasco?
Was Operation Major at Oxford authorised by the Minister, or was it part of some nationwide scheme authorised by the Minister of which Operation Major was the only part to be publicised?
I hope that the Minister will make a much clearer statement to the House than he made in his prevaricating letter to The Guardian last Friday about ministerial involvement.
There are three possible explanations of what Ministers knew and authorised. The Minister ought to tell the House exactly what happened and clear up possible misunderstandings.
Was it a Thomas à Becket situation? Did the Minister make it clear that he wanted dramatic fraud action so some officials set up Operation Major acting on a general ministerial instruction but never discussed the details with him? More than £20,000 was paid out to hire the school. Innocent people were held and denied their legal rights. Were Ministers told only on the day itself, either the morning or the afternoon after the event?
800 The Minister ought to make it clear to the House today how much the Secretary of State was told, when he was told, how much the Minister himself knew about it and how much the Under-Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Braintree (Mr. Newton), was actually told? Was it true that he found out only when he was asked to comment by the Press some time in the afternoon? Is it true that the senior permanent officials in the Department first heard about it from the media after it had taken place? That is one possible account—over-zealous officials acing off their own bat without the Minister knowing anything about it, beyond a general instruction to try to obtain plenty of publicity about certain allegations of fraud.
Another possible explanation is that the regional directors planned the whole scheme with the police and did not tell the Minister the details until it was all over, so that they were not really acting on any instruction from the Minister.
The third possibility is that Ministers knew all about the operation, were fully consulted from the planning stage onwards, and gave their full consent.
The Minister owes it to the House and to the country to state exactly what his involvement was. He may reply to some of my questions by saying that he cannot answer for the police or the magistrates, but he should certainly be able to give far clearer answers about his own responsibility and knowledge than he gave in his letter to The Guardian on Friday.
I return to the real question. Only the possibility that landlords or supplementary benefit officials might be involved in crime could have justified the failure to take action in February or April to stop the fraud.
If the motive was publicity, can the Minister really justify aiding and abetting fraud for six months merely to obtain publicity? If it took officials as long as that to act because they were holding off to obtain publicity or if the Minister instructed them to do that, it is a disgrace, the officials should be sacked and the Minister should resign. No one can justify encouraging fraud for that length of time merely to obtain publicity.
Only the belief that the police and the Department were on to something big could have justified the silencing of the Oxford Mail, if indeed that can be justified at all. The Oxford Mail stumbled on the story in July. The police said that they were after the landlords. Was that true? The Minister should at least be able to answer that. If it was not true and the police wished only to catch claimants who could have been stopped in February or at the latest in April, how could they possibly justify lying to the Oxford Mail?
If the police and DHSS fraud officials went along with the inquiry and found that no Mr. Big existed or if they accidentally tipped them off, why did they not call the whole thing off? Did the operation go ahead as a cover-up to justify the police and the DHSS fraud officials spending so long on it, or was it only at the last minute that some police officer or DHSS fraud official deliberately or accidentally tipped off the real criminals? Did the real criminals actually get away with it?
The police and the DHSS officials clearly acted illegally in selecting claimants to go to a specially opened benefit office to collect benefit on 26 April. Those benefits could have been paid out legally only if the officer paying them out believed the claimants to be genuinely entitled to them. It was clear, however, that in selecting some claimants to go to the new office the DHSS did not believe 801 that they were all genuine. DHSS officials must have suspected that some of those people were not genuine. Therefore, as part of their duty when they parted with the money, they should have checked those claimants.
The first question for a public inquiry is therefore this. When did the DHSS and the police first suspect fraud and why did they not stop it there and then? Did they believe that there were other criminals—landlords or DHSS officials—and, if so, when did they find out that no one else was involved? Did the real criminals that the operation was designed to catch manage to escape? Was the prosecution of those who appeared in court designed to cover up the abject failure of the operation to achieve its real aim? How did Ministers know about it? If they were not told, why were they not told? Who authorised the paying out of some benefits for six months when the claims were believed to be fraudulent?
At this stage, the question is whether the police were misled by the DHSS. Did officials at the Department mislead the police? Did they give the impression to police officers that £1.5 million was involved? Were the police shocked and ashamed when they realised just how little was at stake? The DHSS does not seem to have explained to the police that a person is entitled to claim at the lodgings rate even if he does not stay in those lodgings for one night a week.
On that basis, the police advised people not in the lodgings on the night of the 1st to plead guilty because they were missing from those lodgings for one night. However, when the regulations were explained, it was clear that those people were not guilty. If the DHSS failed to inform or misled the police about that element in the regulations, how much did the DHSS really tell the police?
Did the senior police officials decide that £1.5 million was involved, in which case why did the DHSS not make it clear that such a sum was not involved? Was Detective Superintendent George Hedges misled by the DHSS, or did he work out the figure himself?
One of the lodging houses in Oxford run by Jeremiah Cronin was raided some time between 6 and 7 o'clock in the morning. What was on the search warrant? It is a small point, but it would help us understand what this was really all about. Why a search at all? If the landlord was supposed to be helping the police, as it now appears from all the statements produced, there could have been much simpler ways of acting. The police could have obtained the co-operation of the landlord to keep a check on those who went in on the night of the 1st and those who left on the morning of the 2nd. Those records could have been kept for three mornings as clear evidence that people were not entitled to the benefit they claimed.
If the landlord was not helping the police, did the raid tip him off and ensure that he or someone working in his lodging house were able to escape possible prosecution?
The Minister must say more about what happened at the special DHSS office, the setting up of which cost a lot of money. Why were innocent people detained? Why were they not allowed to make phone calls? Was it just an accident that no one thought about the rights of individuals to make phone calls? Was it impossible to install at short notice sufficient telephones, or was it a deliberate attempt to make sure that people could not communicate with others outside? Why were people treated in that way? If it was to prevent them from communicating with people 802 outside, it is just about possible to justify that up to 12 o'clock in the morning, yet people were denied that opportunity for another six or seven hours.
Some time around 12 o'clock, the Oxford Mail started printing. It contained pretty full coverage, and there was coverage in most of the media from that point on. In fact, the police seemed keen to ensure that their version received good publicity.
The limited account of police arrests given in "Poor Law" must make the vast majority of the police force ashamed of the Thames Valley senior police officers, who deliberately set up an operation knowing that they would force many of their junior officers to break so many rules.
Whom did the police intend to catch on 2 September? Why did the police not allow phone calls after 1 o'clock? Why did they not allow claimants access to solicitors or probation officers to discuss the preparation of a defence which many of them had?
The House will have seen the bleatings in the press from the Thames valley assistant chief constable, Mr. Wyn Jones, complaining that The Guardian and the publication "Poor Law" infringed the sub judice rules. As we are allowed to debate the matter in the House, there can be no question of those rules being infringed. It is a pretty weak argument to put forward. He asked for the whole matter to be delayed and suggested that questions should not be asked. That is an odd interpretation. After all, it was the police who called the press conference. They wanted to draw attention to the event.
What was the point of the press conference and the thrust of the stories that followed it? One assumes that the police press officer did not make a complete mess of the matter and did not give wholly the wrong story. The police wanted to magnify and exaggerate the extent of the possible fraud. The press conference produced a figure of £1.5 million at stake—not the £60,000 which is all that even the Minister could suggest was at stake. The press conference was designed to win headlines and to influence the magistrates and convince them to act hastily and to refuse bail because big crime was involved.
It is odd that the police set out to pervert the course of justice with a press conference. They encouraged and pressurised magistrates to take a harsh line and to impose harsh sentences because it was a big event. Yet they now object to the publication "Poor Law", the asking of questions and the demanding of answers.
The senior chief officers in the Thames valley have much to conceal—either the real criminals got away or the police acted like bullies and thugs, using ridiculous measures to stop small crimes that could have been stopped six months earlier with normal DHSS procedures. We understand that the police carefully made a video of their proceedings while they held people in the bogus DHSS office. Did the Minister ask to see that video? I understand that the public cannot see it for various reasons. The Minister should at least have ensured that he saw it. There should be some arrangement for Members of Parliament to see it. If there is a public inquiry into the matter, the video should be shown then.
There are major questions to be asked about the use of video in such circumstances. The Home Secretary issued clear guidelines to police forces. The use of video on this occasion does not appear to come within them. The other suspicion is that the Thames valley police wanted to use 803 it as a training film, but that would be an illegal use of it as I understand the rules. Certainly Members of Parliament and others cannot see it.
If the police broke many rules, so too did the magistrates. I understand that the Oxford bench is, in normal circumstances, a conscientious bench. Why did it not ensure that all defendants had an opportunity to discuss their problems with a solicitor? Why did it not allow bail while the bail hostels or the lodging houses accepted for bail purposes had vacancies? What evidence did it demand from the police in each case against the presumption of the Bail Act 1976 that everyone is entitled to bail unless evidence shows why it cannot be allowed?
As I understand it, the police did not put up evidence in each case. What will the Government do about producing free pardons for those people who were pressurised into pleading guilty because of their ignorance? Even worse, the police were ignorant. We now understand that the police advised anyone who was not at the address that they claimed to be living at for one night that they had broken the law, yet we knew from later cases when people pleaded not guilty that if they were missing from that address on only one night they had not committed an offence.
Why were the magistrates' clerks involved in such breaches of the rights of the accused? Why have the JPs who sat in the courts not been asked to resign or offered to resign? It is a fundamental part of our system of justice that someone who is accused should have the right to consult a solicitor to prepare a defence. It is the duty of the magistrates and their clerks to ensure that that happens. According to the book "Poor Law", attempts by the accused to consult solicitors were repeatedly frustrated by the officials of the court.
We must examine the balance sheet of the operation. We are now told that £180,546 was spent on trying to stop a fraud of about £60,000—if we are generous to the Government. That is about 4 per cent. of what the police and DHSS officials suggested was involved at the original press conference. Most of that money could have been saved six months earlier through normal DHSS procedures. Why was that amount of money spent? What was the justification for it? The Minister ought to tell the House.
I know that the Minister will not accept responsibility for the media, but he must tell the House how all of the media arrived at the claim that a £1.5 million fraud was at stake. Everyone now realises that that could not possibly be argued. A claimant would have to claim for three or four years to get anything like that sum. The media themselves must ask what justification there was for the Oxford Mail going along with the cover-up. Was it conned? Did the police lie to it?
The media must also question themselves about the headlines that they published. What were they based on? Did they check the story? Why did they produce the information that was given at the press conference? Is there just a possibility, as sometimes happens when journalists attend a press conference, that they all stood around afterwards, discussed the story and came to a consensus? The headlines in the papers the next morning were extremely similar. They said such things as "£1.5 million fiddle smashed" and "286 held in dole fiddle". They were utterly wrong, as few people involved were unemployment benefit claimants. Why did the media not get the real headlines such as, "Real criminals escape: 804 massive DHSS and police raid goes wrong" and 'Minister never told about Operation Major" or "Chief constable justifies ill-treatment of epileptics and mentally handicapped: JPs and magistrates' clerks ought to be in the dock"?
It is also interesting that, when one or two people started asking questions, only a small proportion of the press decided that it was worth going back over the headlines and stories of 2 September, and considered that a different slant on the story was necessary.
I do not want to spend all my time going back over the incidents of Operation Major, because there are many lessons that must be learnt from it. Of course I want assurances from the Minister that it will never happen again, but all hon. Members share some responsibility. The present Government are responsible and previous Governments must take much of the blame.
Probably the real crime is that we still cannot provide decent accommodation for single homeless people either in Oxford or in most of the towns and cities in the country. In many ways the conditions of the single homeless have altered little since George Orwell described the spikes in "Down and Out in Paris and London" 50 years ago.
If there was decent accommodation at a reasonable price, most of the problems of the single homeless would not exist. Landlords could not exploit common lodging houses. We should give the same rights to the single homeless as for parents with children, for example the right to have local authority housing. My hon. Friend the Member for St. Pancras, North (Mr. Stallard) will introduce a private Member's Bill on behalf of CHAR. I hope that the Minister will see that it goes through and that we give the right to decent accommodation to the single homeless. Those people would then have accommodation, and there would be no difficulty in getting benefit. It should be a decent level of benefit, adequate to pay for the accommodation.
As long as we have such lodging houses in Oxford it is clear that the Department has a duty to see that they are regularly inspected and come up to minimum standards. The local authority should inspect them to see that they are meeting the standards required by the fire regulations and that they are the sort of places on which we should spend public money and where people should be allowed to stay.
There are many lessons for the police. They have to make sure that the law is administered fairly and that there is not one law for the well-off—those who can speak up for themselves—and another for the disadvantaged, the sick, the mentally handicapped, and the disabled. The police give people who are accused of offences their rights. There is access to the telephone, the solicitor and bail, unless there is clear evidence that the person will commit some other crime that will seriously endanger society.
At Oxford, Chief Constable Imbert said that he had many copies of people's rights printed on posters on the walls of the fake DHSS office. That shows the chief constable's attitude. One would have thought that he would have weighed up for a minute the fact that some of the people who were likely to be at the office probably could not read, or found reading difficult. They would find it difficult to understand such a poster. It is not an unreasonable assumption that in a group of homeless people, quite a few would be unable to read and would find it difficult to understand what the notices meant. I suggest that the chief constable should change many of his 805 attitudes the next time he is thinking of setting up a mass arrest and should make sure that people are told their rights.
The Oxford bench has to do some careful thinking. It is difficult for magistrates and magistrates' clerks not to be bamboozled or bemused by the police, particularly if they issue a statement at a press conference in which they suggest that many people have been breaking the law and that there is a need for mass court appearances. They must make sure that even in those circumstances people get a fair trial. The measure of justice is whether it is applied all the time, consistently, and not sometimes.
We must make sure that we change our attitudes. We should condemn everyone who cheats the state, whether through social security fraud, VAT fraud or income tax fraud. We must make it clear that the emphasis and expenditure of state resources should be on detecting the big frauds first—for example, tax frauds. In matters relating to the DHSS we should not, perhaps, go for the frauds but should design and run the system so that it cannot be defrauded. In Operation Major, why did not the Department emphasise the need to prevent fraud? Why did it not stop the fraud as soon as it had an inkling of it six months previously? The Department should have been preventing such frauds not seeking publicity.
I hope that the Minister will give the House a great deal of information. However, I believe that the only way that the air can be cleared and the bitter taste can be removed from the mouths of the people who read the book "Poor Law" or who have studied other accounts of what went on is to have a full public inquiry in which the Department, its officials and the police can state their case and from which we can see who were the guilty people.
§ 5 am
§ The Minister for Social Security (Mr. Hugh Rossi)
The hon. Member for Stockport, North (Mr. Bennett) has seen fit to launch an attack upon a police operation with which my Department co-operated and which was designed to stop a serious and rapidly growing fraud against the social security system in Oxford.
The hon. Gentleman has based his attack upon the contents of a recent publication which the assistant chief constable of the Thames Valley police described in a letter to The Guardian on 4 February asinaccurate, biased and totally selective.The letter also said:The Thames Valley police have been constrained from public comment because of a desire not to prejudice the fair trial of those still to appear at court … Only when all prosecutions have been completed will the facts about Operation Major be available.I shall leave to the chief constable of the Thames Valley police the matters which are his responsibility and not that of any Minister whether within my own or any other Department—the police operation to secure the arrest and detention of those people involved. Nor can I answer for the magistrates in the exercise of their judicial discretion on bail or the custodial sentences which they saw fit to impose.
However, I answer for the DHSS and the part played by my officials in the matter. Before I enter into a discussion of the details of the case, I remind the hon. Gentleman, and those who have shown an interest in the matter outside the House, that my Department is 806 responsible for the payment of a sum in excess of £30 billion in cash benefits in a year. It makes literally millions of payments, some of them substantial, through local offices, across post office counters or by post. There are enormous opportunities for the money to go into the wrong hands. It is, therefore, essential that strict control is kept and every possible effort made to detect and prevent fraud and abuse. I make no apology for that. Indeed, I should regard it as the height of irresponsibility and a breach of duty to the taxpayer, and the entire working population which produces the money spent by my Department, if that were not the case.
In 1980–81, 121,695 cases of fraud were investigated. They led to 30,116 prosecutions. In 1981–82 there were 136,307 investigations into fraud, resulting in 25,654 prosecutions. Convictions were secured in about 97 per cent. of the cases prosecuted.
The hon. Gentleman will note that those figures show that the number of prosecutions in relation to the number of investigations has fallen from one in four to one in five during those two years. That is the result of deliberate policy on my part. I have taken the view that it is far more important and humane to check the abuse of the system when it is detected and to try to recover the money than to mount expensive prosecutions and to drag those individuals through the courts. The exceptions to that rule, where prosecutions should be pursued, are when substantial sums are involved, or the fraud perpetrated is essentially grave, or where a growing practice must be demonstrably brought to a halt.
I have been criticised severely for my policy, especially that of specialist claims control, by many of those whose voices have been raised against Operation Major. The argument against me is that it is wrong to deny people accused the opportunity to clear themselves before a court. My reply—that most people would prefer to be given the opportunity to restore the money rather than to face a public trial—has been brushed aside. Now those critics complain that arrests have been made and prosecutions mounted and that, so the argument goes, those poor unfortunate people should be left alone and that the costs of dealing with them outweigh the money wrongfully taken. Those critics cannot have it both ways. The House will forgive me if I say that there is a strong element of hypocrisy in the way that they seem to back contradictory arguments when it suits them. One must wonder about their real motives.
The specific circumstances of Operation Major are that, early in July 1982, the Oxford local office found that claims for benefit were being made by about 200 people on the basis that they were living at one of two Oxford addresses and paying charges of £42 a week for bed and breakfast. Those claims attracted supplementary benefit of £67.20 a week. The local office noted that there had been a dramatic build-up of those claims during May and June. They also involved—I mention this because the hon. Gentleman made the point—the abuse of board and lodging vouchers.
The officials at Oxford knew that the premises in question could house only about 90 people, so they alerted the regional fraud section. Schedules were set up immediately to keep a close check on the number of claims from those purporting to live at the two addresses. There was a high turnover among the claimants, and the landlords did not keep accurate records of their tenants. That made it very difficult to keep an accurate check of 807 the continued residence of claimants, but it soon became obvious that some positive action was necessary to counter fraud that had clearly grown to substantial proportions.
The build-up of claims was such that there was reason to believe that the supplementary benefit scheme was being manipulated in an organised way. By the time the operation was launched on 2 September, the numbers involved had grown to almost 300, but because of the itinerant nature of the individuals, and because officials were dealing with a shifting population, it was difficult to pin-point at any one time which of the 200 to 300 people claiming to live at those addresses were the 90 for whom there was room.
§ Mr. Andrew F. Bennett
Is it being suggested that it became clear to the Oxford office that the problem existed in July? As I understand it, the Minister's officials in discussions earlier this week said that it first came to their attention in February and the police were first involved in about April. The Minister, having said that they first noticed it in July, then said that it appeared that there had been a big build-up in May and June. When did the Department start talking to the police? Was that in July?
§ Mr. Rossi
—because of what was happening in May and June, the police visited the local office saying that a murder inquiry had highlighted that a problem of fraud existed in respect of these addresses. The local office then explained to the police that it had already set in train inquiries and had informed the regional fraud section, but from that point onwards the matter became a joint operation—
§ Mr. Rossi
That was at the end of June. The hon. Gentleman will appreciate that there was good sense in a joint operation between my officials and the police, for reasons that I have already given. The vast majority of the people claiming to live in the same two houses were itinerants and it was expected that few, if any, would be able to give an alternative address to those used in connection with fraudulent claims. The problems therefore were how to deal with large numbers and how to prevent claimants from absconding.
The police have the resources and the powers to overcome both these problems. The matter was referred to them at the early stage to which I referred. Any attempt to deal with the fraud in a piecemeal fashion would have resulted in many of the offenders avoiding detection. There is also a distinct advantage in seeking police assistance in such a case because where there has been an arrest the case can be brought before the courts quickly, even on the same day, as was done in this case. Everybody arrested and charged was brought before the magistrate that same day. Again, cases can be dispensed with quickly on the first hearing before the magistrates' court. By contrast, departmental fraud procedure involves the issue of a summons, which can lead to a large lapse of time between discovery of the offence and its final disposal in court, with the impending prosecution hanging over the person involved.
§ Mr. Bennett
Do I take it that at this stage of the joint operation between the Minister's Department and the police the minister or one of his ministerial colleagues was told about it?
§ Mr. Rossi
I shall come to the question of ministerial knowledge and instructions in due course. I shall deal with the events chronologically.
The DHSS staff co-operated with the police in setting up the operation and in interviewing the suspects when they came into the temporary office to make their claims, but action taken thereafter was a matter entirely for the police.
As a result of the operation, 283 people were arrested, 179 of whom were subsequently charged and remanded by the courts. In the event, 160 of those charged pleaded guilty to obtaining benefit fraudulently and 15 pleaded not guilty. Four cases are still outstanding. There were 165 convictions and 10 acquittals. All those who were convicted received terms of imprisonment ranging from seven to 180 days. Of those convicted only 20 had no previous convictions.
§ Mr. Bennett
Will the Minister make it clear whether the 20 had previous convictions for supplementary benefit fraud or for other offences?
§ Mr. Rossi
I believe that the nature of the previous convictions varied from individual to individual. I cannot give the hon. Gentleman the specific details. These matters were all mentioned in open court.
Of the four cases remaining to be dealt with by the courts, two of the defendants—Jones and Carron—have been charged with conspiracy. Jones has pleaded guilty, and Carron has pleaded not guilty and has been committed for trial. They are facing much more serious charges than the other defendants for whom the hon. Gentleman showed the greatest concern. He will appreciate that I cannot comment upon a case which has still to come before the courts.
The hon. Gentleman has joined in the criticisms of the decision to set up a special office. Those in charge of the operations took the view that it was necessary to interview all those concerned on the same day. This could not have been possible by using either the local social security or the unemployment benefit offices. Therefore, it was decided to open separate premises for this purpose. This enabled all claimants using the suspect address to he brought together, at the same time avoiding inconveniencing other claimants attending the office on legitimate business. These temporary premises were school premises and they have been used subsequently as an emergency office during the strike in the Oxford area office.
The hon. Gentleman has made a great deal of the fact that the news media estimated the extent of the fraud at being anything up to £l½ million. I can assure the House that neither this figure nor anything like it emanated from my Department. I can only assume that the amounts quoted were the result of speculation. A press conference was held by the Thames valley police on the day of the operation. That is a matter for them. At the conference a police spokesman said that the fraud involved was of a substantial amount. When pressed he said that it ran into thousands rather than hundreds of pounds. At no time was any other reference made to the amount of benefit 809 involved. I have that information on the authority of my regional information officer, who sat at the back of the police press conference as an observer.
I and other Ministers have subsequently made it clear on a number of occasions that had the situation been allowed to continue for a full year the wrongful claims would have amounted to £450,000. The Department incurred costs of £21,000 in mounting the operation and I am informed that police costs amounted to £15,000 over and above normal duty costs. The hon. Gentleman has asked whether I or my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State gave instructions for a great spectacular because we were seeking some large publicity gimmick. We did no such thing, and would do no such thing.
As I had made plain in my letter to The Guardian, which the hon. Gentleman has seen fit to denigrate, Ministers do not direct investigations into individual cases; nor do they decide who should be prosecuted. It is right that that should be the case. If Ministers were to make themselves responsible for each of the 130,000 investigations into fraud that take place every year—assuming that it was physically possible for them to do that—there would be questions as to whether there might be some political bias in the way that they directed their investigations against particular individuals, or particular groups of individuals.
How many more questions would be asked if Ministers directed or instructed who the individuals should be that are or are not prosecuted? Therefore, Ministers—I speak not only for myself but for my predecessors—have nothing to do with these matters. The decisions are taken by those officials who are charged with the responsibility for ensuring that the overall policy is carried out. That overall policy is to detect and prevent fraud whenever possible.
§ Mr. Bennett
It is possible that the Minister is coming to my point, but I should like to make the matter clear. When did he know about the operation, and when did his ministerial colleagues know about it, particularly in view of the decision to spend almost £20,000 on office accommodation? If it had been spent in other ways, that money could have prevented the fraud, even if the Minister knew about it only in July, by having extra accommodation available and extra staff to do the checking up. That would have meant preventing and not catching.
§ Mr. Rossi
I knew about the matter for the first time on about 21 or 22 September, when I returned from leave. I knew nothing about the operation before I went away on leave. A note was prepared by officials for Ministers a week or so before 2 September. That was simply to advise them that a large-scale operation was to be launched in the Oxford area, which, because of its size, was bound to attract public attention. That is quite usual in cases that are likely to be reported extensively in the press, so that Miniters are not caught unawares by the figures of the people involved. Ministers are not asked for authority, nor are they given details of the way that the operation is being conducted.
§ Mr. Bennett
Presumably the Minister did not see the note because he was away on holiday, but did it go to both of the hon. Gentleman's colleagues in the Department? The Minister says that it contained a figure showing the size of the fraud. What was that figure?
§ Mr. Rossi
I am not sure whether that note went to all the Ministers in the Department at that time. Therefore, I cannot answer the hon. Gentleman's first specific point. I saw the note when I returned from holiday, and I can fairly say that if I had seen the note before I went on holiday, there was nothing in it to alert me to the fact that the offices about which complaints had been made had been set up, or that there was anything particularly unusual about the case, other than that about 200 arrests were expected.
Although the hon. Member for Stockport, North is desperate to pin some responsibility or blame on Ministers or officials at the Department, I can assure him that Ministers were notified of the impending exercise in accordance with departmental practice which, I understand, has been long standing. Equally, it has been the practice of successive Ministers not to become involved in the detailed operations of investigations for fraud, for the good reasons that I have already given.
I hope that the hon. Gentleman is not seriously suggesting that Ministers should become involved in such investigations, because there would be implicit dangers. However, we take full responsibility for the overall policy on fraud prevention and investigation. There would be considerable disquiet generally if we did not do so, and there would be allegations of political bias if we intervened in cases, or in the planning of operations such as Operation Major.
Therefore, I hope that the House appreciates that, given the scale and nature of the fraud, there was no alternative but for the Department to co-operate with the police in that way. The fraud could not have been stopped earlier, because it was impossible to identify the 90 genuine residents out of the 200 itinerant members of a fluctuating and shifting population. It would have been impossible and improper for any official to say to Mr. Smith, who approached the counter, "Oh, you live at that address. We are not going to pay your benefit, because we feel that many of those using that address are trying to swindle us." He could not do that until he was satisfied that Mr. Smith was not at that address, and was using it falsely. That could be proved only by such an exercise and by gathering together all those who pretended to use that address to sort out those who were genuine and those who were not.
§ Mr. Bennett
Does not the Minister accept that from time to time this sort of problem has arisen in other lodging houses in the country? It has been solved by the DHSS, instead of police being involved. Oxford is unique, because such procedures were used, instead of the more traditional procedures that are often used when checking whether people are genuinely staying in lodging houses. I would sometimes be the first to complain, but those procedures have been used fairly extensively in the past.
§ Mr. Rossi
The officials involved also deal with fraud and its problems in many other ways. They came to the view that, in their professional judgment, the only way to solve the problem was to co-operate with the police, as they did. I must support and back their professional judgement, because it is for them to decide such matters. What happened after the police had effected the detention, arrest and so on, are not matters for me. I cannot answer for them in any way. The hon. Gentleman must direct his question elsewhere. His complaints, as I understand them, concern matters which are outside the activities of my 811 Department and outside anything for which I can properly assume responsibility. I would accept the responsibility, if it were mine, but it is not my responsibility in many of the incidents which the hon. Gentleman mentioned.
I hope that the House will agree that the matter was handled in an entirely appropriate manner by DHSS staff, who should be commended for their vigilance. The operation was carried out in pursuit of a well established policy to take vigorous action against suspected fraud against public funds. Naturally, the Department recognises that it is preferable to prevent fraud from being committed in the first place, and we are constantly seeking ways of making our claim procedures fraud-proof. However, we must keep a sense of proportion and ensure that any checks that are introduced are not so burdensome as to deter the genuine claimant. It must be accepted that there are inevitably areas in which the benefits system is liable to be defrauded. Nevertheless, the Department has a duty to try to maintain the integrity of the system, and it must always be prepared to take effective action against fraud, wherever it is found.