HC Deb 23 February 1998 vol 307 cc11-3
12. Mr. Mitchell

What proposals she has for increasing the resources devoted to fraud detection efforts in respect of social security benefits. [29085]

Ms Harman

We are currently spending £400 million a year on tackling benefit fraud. We will take whatever measures are necessary to tackle fraud in social security.

Mr. Mitchell

Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is more sensible to begin the necessary work of reforming social security with a more vigorous onslaught on fraud and fiddles, whether they are perpetrated by employers or by beneficiaries, than to create an atmosphere of fear and terror by talking of cuts—cuts in benefit, cuts in rates, cuts in eligibility—and continuing the shakedown that the Conservative Government started among the disabled, which is going on at this moment?

Ms Harman

Let me take this opportunity to reassure people with disabilities and people who are claiming benefits that no one who is genuinely entitled has anything to fear from our welfare reforms. However, we want to rebuild support for the welfare state and we cannot do that if people believe that, although the House lays down the rules for entitlement, they can decide for themselves whether they will draw benefits. We will take tough action to ensure that there is no fraud—tough action in relation not only to claimants, but to employers who evade their national insurance contribution responsibilities.

I can report that, after one month of our new hotline to tackle national insurance fraud by employers, the Contributions Agency is now investigating 1,000 new cases of reported employer fraud. Such cases, if they are proved, not only defraud the national insurance fund, but strip employees of their entitlement to pensions and to sickness and other benefits.

Mrs. May

Does the Secretary of State accept that the number of cases of disability benefit fraud has proved to be extremely small? Will she state categorically that that is the case? Will she also reconsider the request from the all-party disablement group for the Government to suspend the benefit integrity project pending an independent review, in the light of real cases of hardship in which disability benefit has been cut or taken away?

Ms Harman

The benefit integrity project is not an anti-fraud project; it is a project to ensure that those who receive disability living allowance are entitled to it. Some people, although they may have been entitled to it when they first claimed, cease to be entitled because their circumstances change. I am sure that the hon. Lady agrees that it is right for us to ensure not only that those who are entitled receive their benefit, but that those who are not entitled do not receive it. As the Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham) said earlier, we are taking steps to improve the quality of decision making in the benefit integrity project.

Mr. Swinney

As the Secretary of State will know, fraud accounts for only 12 per cent. of the 20 per cent. of cases in which disability living allowance has been reduced; the remaining 8 per cent. are the result of other factors.

Following the right hon. Lady's statement and her written answer to me of 9 February on securing additional evidence about decisions made in the benefit integrity project, does she accept that the Government have a responsibility to consider that 8 per cent. of cases and to take the initiative in deciding whether individuals have been properly treated by the Benefits Agency and the project and to restore benefits if that is appropriate?

Ms Harman

My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary made it clear earlier that it is important for anyone who feels that he has been unfairly treated by the benefit integrity project to understand that he has a right to review if he wishes to take up that option. We introduced extra safeguards to the benefit integrity project so that if it is proposed that someone should have his disability living allowance cut or taken away, action will not be taken until further evidence has been sought to ensure that the decision is right. It is unsatisfactory for benefit to be reduced or taken away and for people to have to wait eight weeks for the matter to be sorted out by a review. That is why we have introduced the extra safeguards. We are reviewing the fraud targets on disability living allowance that were laid down by the previous Government because our evidence so far from the benefit integrity project suggests that they were not right, although it seems that the overpayment estimate probably was.

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