HC Deb 23 February 1998 vol 307 cc4-5
3. Mr. Colman

If she will make a statement on the level of fraud in housing benefit. [29076]

4. Dr. Whitehead

What plans she has for tackling organised fraud by landlords. [29077]

9. Fiona Mactaggart

What plans she has to tackle housing benefit fraud. [29082]

The Minister for Welfare Reform (Mr. Frank Field)

The Government's resolution to seek out fraud wherever it occurs is matched only by our diligence to seek out those who are eligible but do not claim.

Mr. Colman

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. I particularly commend to him the London team against fraud, which consists of all 33 London boroughs working together and sharing information to stamp out housing benefit fraud. Will he deal with the team's concerns about whether banks and building societies can share information with it, or whether, as banks and building societies believe, they are precluded from doing so under the Data Protection Act 1988? Will he consider how he can ensure that the London team against fraud is able to deal effectively with housing mortgage fraud, which is part of housing benefit fraud?

Mr. Field

I shall certainly consider the matter. The idea for a combined effort throughout London was put to the Select Committee on Social Security, and the proposal was implemented by the previous Government. I ask my hon. Friend to take the thanks of the House to his local authority, which regularly exceeds its target for weekly benefits savings on housing benefit fraud.

Dr. Whitehead

I, too, thank my right hon. Friend the Minister for his answer. Does he accept that part of the problem of fraud by landlords relates to their bad or incompetent management of DSS tenancies? Will he countenance projects whereby good and responsible landlords are encouraged to collaborate with local authorities and manage those tenancies more effectively?

Mr. Field

I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. In the area which I represent in the Wirral, such projects are already occurring.

Fiona Mactaggart

I thank my right hon. Friend for his reply. He might be able to implement two further measures that could help. First, he could make it easier for local authorities, such as Slough, which has been doing a great deal of work in this area, to initiate a prosecution where a claim has been withdrawn. That happens when people think that they are being sniffed around. The claim then disappears and the ability to take action is reduced.

Secondly, it might be possible to consider incentives for local authorities to improve prevention rather than opting for prosecution. I am certain that that would make a real difference, with the result that it would not be necessary to put as much energy into prosecution as is currently being expended.

Mr. Field

Last November, we increased the powers of local authorities to prosecute landlords who are committing fraud. In December, we issued a verification code, which enables fraud to be tackled at the outset of claims. I thank my hon. Friend and my hon. Friend the Member for Putney (Mr. Colman), whose local authority massively exceeds average weekly benefit savings.