HC Deb 28 February 1984 vol 55 cc227-36

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Archie Hamilton.]

10 pm

Mr. Gordon Brown (Dunfermline, East)

I wish to raise the important issue of the operation, procedures and very existence of the Department of Health and Social Security's specialist claims control section, whose members are commonly known as the super-snoopers. The discretionary powers of the members of the section, their arbitrary intrusion into private lives and their exaggerated claims of efficiency are matters of concern to many of the 7 million who depend on supplementary benefit and to those whose job it is to adminster our social security system.

The House was informed in 1981 of the creation of the specialist claims control unit to investigate and root out fraud and abuse. The House was not informed of its guidelines, rules, procedures, methods of control or evaluation, if any. Despite numerous requests and questions, the House has still not been informed about what the members of the section do, what techniques they use, the detailed results that they produce and the cost of so doing. Justification for such reticence can hardly be the now familiar pretext of national security.

The information that we have comes from concerned members of the Civil Service. My sources for the information that I shall put before the House are two unpublished DHSS documents—FIG (RO) 2 and, more recently, FIG (21), instructions to civil servants which the Minister has persistently refused to make public, despite numerous requests to do so.

The documents show that single parents and the unemployed—two of the poorest and most vulnerable groups in the community — have been singled out to become the selected targets of specialist claims control and to be subjected to techniques which the Department itself admits lead to allegations of harassment and bullying These are techniques which involve shadowing, surveillance, spying, observation, checks with neighbours, the police and other Government Departments, and even searches of personal belongings, for these are the official instructions.

The approved method is one of random sampling of the unemployed or single parent claimants who meet certain "criteria" but about whom there may be no previous suspicion of fraud. It is perhaps not surprising that unemployed claimants who appear to have a suspiciously high standard of living are to be under scrutiny in this exercise. However, it is strange that the out-of-work are candidates for surveillance if they have a skill, a record of self-employment or even relatives who are known to be in business or self-employment. It is perhaps even more surprising that they are candidates for surveillance if they happen to be "fit". It seems to be assumed that if a person is fit and out of work there is justification for suspicion of fraud. That is one of the assumptions that is made in a land where 3.5 million are unemployed. It is an assumption that is breathtakingly naive and cruel.

The second group targeted for investigation are single parents. This raises problems which the instructions to officials admit are of "a sensitive nature". The method by which the problems are tackled are far from sensitive. Candidates for investigation are single mothers in respect of whom no information is held regarding identity of the father and his whereabouts are not known and against whom the claimant refuses to take proceedings for maintenance. Other candidates are those who have children of an age which would enable the mother to take up work. That is a happy assumption of the rewards of job seeking in the Britain of 1984.

Simply because they meet those criteria, individual single mothers are to be random targets for what have become early morning visits to establish whether they have sexual partners. Investigators are instructed — I quote precisely from the document—to check: What explanation has been given to account for the presence of male items? Has this occurred frequently? The Minister told me in a written answer that investigators have no powers of search. Is that compatible with an instruction to check for the presence of male items—clothes, shoes, and even underwear—which the police cannot do without a warrant? That is achieved by investigators with no statutory powers to search but an ability somehow to insinuate their way into the homes and even the bedrooms of ordinary citizens.

The Minister will claim that he has no evidence of abuse by his officials. Has he not studied a number of cases? An Ayrshire milkman was systematically shadowed while doing his rounds and accused of benefit fraud, the officials having mistaken him for his unemployed father, who also was innocent of any fraud. Has the Minister's attention been drawn to the case of the Edinburgh woman who rightly claimed an allowance for her 14-month-old son? The first official response was a fraud investigation visit accusing her of cohabitation, and her benefit was then wrongly cut.

If there is no evidence of abuse, why did the Minister last summer in another directive, kept from the House and the public, find it necessary to remind his investigators that certain approaches—impersonating officials from other Departments, inventing poison pen letters and telling lies to trap claimants — were not permissible? Perhaps whoever drafted the memorandum had in mind such cases as the claimant who was asked by an investigator—this is documented "What is a girl like you doing living alone? Do you not want a sex life?" Another claimant was advised, "Do as you are told, or you will be watched 24 hours a day." In my county of Fife, a single parent was investigated by special investigators for suspected fraud. Her house entered on a pretext and her bedroom and clothing, including her underwear, were searched. Three times she was asked to sign a statement admitting a fraud she had not committed.

All Opposition Members deplore fraud and wish the so-called social security system to be protected against abuse. However, what evidence does the Minister have of the inefficiency of previous procedures that might justify the creation of the corps d'elite of snooperdom? Already the unemployed have their benefit claims checked by trained officers. They may be visited not just once but on a number of occasions to verify their claims. The unemployment review officer may review their case. They may be asked to attend for medical examination. They are advised to visit retraining centres and their benefit is cut if they turn down any job offered.

Without taking specialist claims control into account, 5,000 DHSS staff are already attached to one fraud investigation or another — 30 times as many as the number of staff solely allocated to the far more serious problem of tax evasion. There are 3,270 people employed as unemployment review officers or liable relative officers. About another 1,500 are employed as local office fraud officers and about another 500 as special investigators in regional teams. In addition, the Department of Employment employs not only 650 officers whose sole job is to detect fraudulent claims but about another 100 on regional benefit investigation teams on special exercises.

When a local officer, home visitor, unemployment review officer, liable relative officer, local fraud officer, special investigator, Department of Employment fraud officer and Department of Employment special investigator are each already charged with the responsibility of investigating every possible abuse, what possible justification is there for specialist claims control?

Hon. Members will be familiar with a recent Public Accounts Committee report on benefit fraud and abuse. That Committee noted that the Department had cut its home visits, reduced its front line staff, been slow to develop computer systems and allocated insufficient resources to prevent mistakes by staff—something that led the Social Security Advisory Committee to talk of claimants being treated as second class citizens.

Should there not be an argument for more money, staff and effort to improve the front line services in home visits and over the counter, rather than create yet another more expensive tier of fraud investigation directed at the most vulnerable, who apparently are being made to pay the price for the inefficiency and underfunding in the service as a whole?

When the unemployed and single parents need the benefit of a home visit, of advice, encouragement and assistance in making their proper claims, and when thousands lose out as an estimated £680 million goes in unclaimed benefits, why is it that so often, and increasingly, the first knock on their door, indeed, the foot in their door, comes not from a sympathetic adviser but from one of the Department's many fraud squads? Is it not rather like someone telephoning for an ambulance and the first official response being an accusation of making malicious telephone calls?

The Minister will tell the House that the innocent have nothing to fear. Those are words we hear in Parliament every time a Minister defends something of which he is ashamed. If those intrusions into people's privacy are random and can occur when there is no previous suspicion of fraud, and if the whole emphasis, as the document states, is on saving benefits, and if benefits are withdrawn even when there is no evidence that could withstand the public examination afforded by a court hearing; if, as the Department admits, a major source of its initial information is poison-pen letters, if mistakes can be and are made, and if the Department's guidelines instruct officers, "to maximise recorded savings", and states that one of the purposes of the exercise is to justify the declared ministerial policy that fraud prevention should be a top priority", have not the innocent everything to fear?

Now that the instigator of this attack on the poor, the former hon. Member for Aberdeen, South, Mr. Sproat, has been dismissed by the electorate, the responsibility lies entirely with the DHSS and the Minister. The Minister was once a humane man who appears to have trimmed his methodism to his monetarism, and he will no doubt tell us that the financial savings accruing from this exercise justify the invasion of privacy, that somehow the end justifies the means.

The Minister must explain to the House how it is that, despite his claims that there are annual savings of £17 million as a result of the exercise, the detailed returns that I have from his Department in Scotland record month by month savings averaging no more than £3,000 as a result of the activities of specialist claims control? Only £3,000 is officially recorded in return for 1,500 hours work in the field by 16 officers. As the document states, that is only £180 per month for each officer involved. It is hardly enough to pay for their petrol and overnight allowances, far less their salaries.

Is that the new Conservative efficiency in Government about which we have heard so much—only £22,600 in recorded savings in Scotland after nearly eight months' work by investigators? Is that what the Government mean by cost-effectiveness—bringing the best of Marks and Spencer techniques to the affairs of state, and arbitrarily multiplying the recorded figures by the 52 weeks in the year—a piece of self-serving whimsy which even the Department has had to describe as only speculative? Is that the standard of frankness that we expect from a Government Department—not to be able to tell us in written answers how many claimants have lost their benefits or had them adjusted, how many have been prosecuted, if any, not to be able to say how many employers are illegally hiring claimants, and yet to claim a success rate of 40 per cent. when the detailed figures from Scotland show a far lower figure, and when, in some cases, as in Wester Hailes in December last year, only three benefits were adjusted after nearly 600 hours work by four trained investigators?

Even if all the Government's figures could withstand the close scrutiny that we would like to give them, could the Minister justify the insensitive treatment, the embarrassment, the bullying, the suffering and the indignity experienced by the 10,000 British claimants who are investigated every year, and who are all completely innocent, and later proven to be completely innocent, of any abuse?

If two huge and vulnerable groups are to be spied upon and shadowed simply because they are dependent on the state; if they—and they alone—are to be subjected to an invasion of their privacy; if a visit from the Department is now to denote menace rather than assistance; and if this expensive and callous assault upon the civil liberties of the poor—which, so I am informed, offends against the European convention on human rights—is allowed to undermine the principles of freedom and dignity upon which our welfare state was founded, what will remain of the concept of social security? There can be no social security so long as the Government not only desert their duty to maintain a decent minimum standard for the unemployed and the single parent, but also seek to legitimise treating such people as second-class citizens.

For three years the House has been kept in ignorance of the nature and activities of specialist claims control. For three years, the best intentions of social security legislation have been subverted in the interests of an exercise which has brought uncertainty, shame, anger and poverty to thousands of homes. For three years the Minister's Department has supported an exercise in fraud control which is insensitive, unnecessary, expensive, manifestly inefficient and calculated to discourage the legitimate claims of thousands of people.

The Minister may seek to justify that exercise in terms of savings, but I have shown that they do not exist. He may seek to justify it in terms of the absence of complaints. If so, he has not heard them or—worse still—he has not listened. He may seek to justify it by saying that the innocent have nothing to fear. The innocent have everything to fear in a world where simply to be a single parent with school-age children is to be selected for investigation: a world where to be healthy and unemployed is to come under suspicion of fraud; a world where to be unable to explain articles of clothing in one's bedroom is to be found guilty without trial and condemned to immediate and helpless poverty; a world where the crime is poverty itself, and the punishment replaces any public examination of the evidence. Our world may still be a long way from the image of a boot stamping on a human face for ever, but we are nearer to that image than we have been for some time.

10.18 pm
The Minister for Social Security (Dr. Rhodes Boyson)

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Dunfermline, East (Mr. Brown), who initiated the debate, because it gives the House a chance to hear some information about specialist claims control. There have been some very misleading stories about SCC, and I shall take the opportunity to try to put the record straight.

First, I should like to give the House the background to the Department's anti-fraud effort. This year we are paying social security benefits to the tune of £35 billion, and at any one time there are about 20 million people in this country receiving benefits in one form or another. That means, of course, that the Department makes many millions of payments, some of them substantial, through its local offices, across post office counters or by post. The vast majority of people are honest, but there are opportunities for the money to get into the wrong hands. It is therefore essential that strict control is kept and that every possible effort is made to detect 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, if we did not do that.

That has nothing to do with a reluctance to help people to get their rights. We attach great importance to ensuring that people who are entitled to benefit get what is due to them. But equally we must deal effectively with fraud, which costs money which could be put to other uses and which, if unchecked, would being the social security system into disrepute. This need has of course been recognised for very many years, and a considerable programme of anti-fraud activity has been maintained by previous Governments.

The technique of SCC itself is not new and has evolved over a number of years under various Governments. Indeed, it was already in use in parts of the country prior to its introduction on a national scale in November 1981. Evidence from the earlier exercises had shown that it was necessary for the Department to take the initiative to check carefully on claims in cases where experience had shown that there was a high risk of fraud. The basic function of specialist claims control is to monitor on a regular basis those parts of the caseload which are considered to be most at risk.

Clearly, it would be unacceptable to select an individual for investigation simply because he or she was unemployed or a lone parent. Experience has enabled us to develop detailed criteria which need to be satisfied before a case is selected for examination. In the case of the unemployed, for example, the criteria require that an individual has been unemployed for some time and go on to list a series of other requirements which restrict the cases that may be selected. In addition to selecting claims for investigation, specialist claims control teams also deal with cases that are referred by the local office and when a suspicion exists about the validity of the claim. I should point out that on average nearly 50 per cent. of the cases examined by specialist claims control teams are referred by the local office on the basis of some suspicion and are not selected by the team.

Perhaps at this stage I should put specialist claims control into perspective in relation to the Department's other fraud techniques and its general responsibilities. The Department employs some 90,000 staff, of whom just under 63,000 are employed in our regional and local offices. Of this number 2,200 are deployed on anti-fraud activities. Of these 175 are engaged in SCC. SCC therefore represents only 8 per cent. of our anti-fraud resources and 0.3 per cent. of all the staff employed in regional and local offices. Those 175 staff are divided between the Department's seven regional and central offices. Within each region they are organised in teams which usually consist of three or four staff. The teams visit each local office in the region cyclically.

The teams are strictly supervised. Each team has a team manager, accountable through the management line to the regional controller for the way in which its work is organised and the manner in which it operates. One of the team manager's major concerns is to ensure that teams work within the very clearly specified rules of conduct which are laid down. He liaises with the manager of the local offices visited and receives and takes appropriate action on regular reports on how each exercise has been conducted. It is also open to a local office manager to report any anxieties he might feel——

Mr. John Maxton (Glasgow, Cathcart)


Dr. Boyson

I shall give way later if there is time. I must continue with my speech as the Department's staff are being attacked and I want to put the record straight. As I was saying, it is also open to a local office manager to report any anxieties that he might feel about the scope of an operation or the way in which it is being conducted. I therefore entirely agree that SCC operations must be tightly controlled and accountable.

I have already referred to the operational instructions under which the teams work. They are clearly defined guidelines relating to their conduct, the types of cases to be investigated and the manner and methods of investigation. They were revised in mid-1983 to take account of the findings of a joint study group of trade union representatives and departmental officials on specialist claims control procedures.

I thought that the hon. Gentleman was slightly unfair when he said that I did not listen. No case has been brought to my attention. There is a board outside on which hon. Members can put matters so that they are brought to my attention. I shall personally investigate any abuse. I have said that time and again. I said so on radio last week. I asked for details of the case that was quoted, but none were sent to me. I shall write to the producer of the programme to ask for those details. I am as worried as the hon. Gentleman about this problem.

There is anxiety on both sides of the House. If there is abuse it should be examined. I respect the hon. Gentleman's integrity. The least that we can do in the House is to respect each other's integrity. I shall write to him about the example to which he referred, where only a few cases were found, in Edinburgh. Later on, 15 cases were found. They were removed from benefit or in three cases had their benefit reduced. Abuse must be examined. Like any other member of the Government or any right hon. or hon. Opposition Member, I would be the first to follow such cases up.

I should now like to deal with how the teams operate. Before each exercise takes place, it is usual for the team manager to visit the local office to discuss the exercise with the local office manager and his staff. The opportunity is taken to answer any questions that may arise. Every effort is made to ensure that the exercise does not interfere in any way with the smooth running of the local office. When the team arrives, it examines carefully the cases which have been referred to it, and selects those cases which it considers suitable for investigation.

Cases are subject to preliminary inquiries, a process of checking available information against that which the claimant has provided. In most cases, the claimant is also interviewed to check that the details on the claim form are up to date, and to give him or her a chance to report any change of circumstances that may have occurred or may be about to occur. Any inconsistencies will be pointed out, and an explanation sought. Our interviewer will explain the purpose of the review. He may well take the opportunity to discuss the range of benefits available to make sure that the claimant is fully aware of his entitlement.

There are cases reviewed by special claims control where there has been an increase of benefit afterwards, because it has been found that the right claims have not been submitted. When I made inquiries from local offices today, I was told that the most significant case was one from Sheffield, East at the end of 1982 when it was found that the dependent child had not been claimed for, and £667 of back benefits were immediately paid.

Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Port Glasgow)

How long ago was that?

Dr. Boyson

That was in 1982.

The essential point is this: unless and until information comes to light which casts serious doubt on, or is at variance with, the claimant's declared circumstances, the process is in effect no more than a review of a claim. I should perhaps add that at present specialist claims control teams are examining on average about 17,000 cases a year. This represents less than 1 per cent. of the relevant supplementary benefit case load.

It has been alleged that breaches of civil liberties and infringements of personal privacy occur when inquiries are being carried out. I insist that our approach to these matters must be above reproach, and I should like such cases, if they exist, brought to my attention. This is why the rules which govern the activities of specialist claims control teams are so tightly drawn, and why supervision is so close. Amongst other things, the rules provide that where, in the course of an investigation, inquiries have to be undertaken before a direct approach to the claimant is made, strict confidentiality about the claimant's private affairs, and the nature of the investigation, has to be maintained. The officials concerned do not have the right to demand entry to private homes, have no right to search or, indeed, to request to search, or in any way examine a person's home.

I accept that specialist claims control teams operate in sensitive areas. The staff are aware of this, and their instructions were drafted with this in mind. Not one substantiated case of harassment of claimants has come to light in the two years of specialist claims control operation. If I am wrong, I should like to have the material sent to me, if it can be proved, because none lies on my desk. I can only repeat what I and my predecessors have said on numerous occasions. Any complaint will be thoroughly investigated and, if necessary, disciplinary action will be taken.

There is one very important point that I should like to clear up. Specialist claims control staff do not make decisions on benefit entitlement. Such decisions are made by the independent statutory authority in the local office. All they do is to report back to the local office. In the local office, the supplementary benefits officer makes the decisions on the information given to him or her. In addition, claimants have the right to appeal to an independent tribunal against those decisions. That is an important fact. They do not make the decisions, but provide the information.

What, then, does specialist claims control achieve? The most important result is that, in about 40 per cent. of those cases examined, benefit is adjusted. The figure varies slightly in different parts of the country. In Scotland it is 33 per cent., but, on average, in four out of 10 cases examined, the claimants concerned were receiving benefit to which they were not entitled. That is not to say that all these cases were deliberately fraudulent, but the fact remains that, were it not for specialist claims control these wrongful payments would have continued perhaps indefinitely, at a great cost to the taxpayer, and to other beneficiaries.

Accusations have been made about exaggeration of the sums saved by specialist claims control. When a saving is made on a case, it is made not only for one week but for a future period during which the uncorrected claim would have continued. The argument is whether one multiplies this by 52, or does it some other way. It is reasonable, therefore, when quantifying the savings made, to estimate the duration of this future period in order to determine the saving to the Exchequer. I do not pretend that the quantification of savings can ever be precise. It is something on which we must agree in order to make it more accurate. The best we can do is to estimate on the basis of the information available.

We have also been criticised because specialist claims control exercises do not produce a large number of prosecutions. The main purpose of specialist claims control is to stop individual frauds, and not to pursue cases to the extent that the consideration of proceedings becomes inevitable. This is totally consistent with the Department's general policy in recent years. The view is taken, and was encouraged by opinion outside the Department, that it is far more important and humane to check the abuse of the system when it is detected than to mount expensive prosecutions and drag those individuals through the courts. There are, of course, exceptions. The number we are prosecuting overall had dropped to about a third or a fourth of the number three or four years ago. It is expensive to prosecute and it seems better if the problem can be solved without prosecution. I am surprised if Opposition would like us to prosecute in all these cases and drag the people through the courts. I am sure their humanity would not——

The Question having been proposed at Ten o'clock and the debate having continued for half and hour, MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at half-past Ten o'clock.