HC Deb 28 January 1997 vol 289 cc137-8
3. Mrs. Jane Kennedy

To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security if he will make a statement on housing benefit fraud by landlords. [11370]

The Minister for Social Security and Disabled People (Mr. Alistair Burt)

We have a comprehensive strategy, which is strengthened by the current fraud Bill, to combat all housing benefit fraud, including landlord fraud. We support local authorities through an incentive scheme and, now, through challenge funding, £8 million of challenge funds were made available to authorities in 1996–97, and we will double that to £16 million in 1997–98. We are also setting up an inspectorate to help to ensure that all authorities tackle fraud effectively.

Mrs. Kennedy

Notwithstanding the Minister's answer, will he confirm that housing benefit fraud is currently estimated to cost us £2 billion a year, and that the largest part of that is recognised to be organised landlord fraud? Have not the Government missed an opportunity, during the passing of the fraud Bill, to introduce a new offence of landlord fraud, as the Opposition suggested? Does that not show the Government's commitment to a deregulated, private housing-for-rent market at all costs, including costs to the taxpayer?

Mr. Burt

I do not recognise all the figures given by the hon. Lady. Housing benefit fraud is estimated at about £1 billion, and landlord fraud constitutes about £150 million of that, so it is not the largest part.

The Bill that we are currently taking through the House substantially strengthens powers against all forms of fraud, including landlord fraud. All the measures involved—data matching, new powers of entry to landlords' premises, more ways of recovering overpaid housing benefit, and easier prosecution and suffer penalties where false representations have been made for claims—including up to seven years' imprisonment for one offence—show that we deliver serious penalties for housing benefit and landlord fraud. For all that the hon. Lady says, it is we who introduced those measures, and we have brought the Opposition along with us.

Sir Donald Thompson

Will my hon. Friend ensure that he pursues landlord fraud vigorously in Liverpool, London or wherever it occurs? At the end of the day, it makes honest landlords less likely to let their properties and, consequently, makes honest people looking for property less likely to find any.

Mr. Burt

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. It is important for the private rented market to continue to expand; it is important to the integrity of benefit for it to be properly handled, and for fraud to be clamped down. We are prepared to consider ideas advanced by all kinds of authority, and, indeed, the local authority in the constituency of the hon. Member for Liverpool, Broadgreen (Mrs. Kennedy) has received a £140,000 challenge fund grant to help it to root out more landlord fraud.

My hon. Friend makes a fair point about the need to ensure that honest landlords are protected like everyone else.