HC Deb 25 October 1999 vol 336 cc688-90
4. Mr. Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden)

What steps he has taken to involve the public in the campaign against social security fraud. [93748]

5. Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire)

What recent representations he has received over his proposals for eradication of social security fraud. [93749]

The Secretary of State for Social Security (Mr. Alistair Darling)

We are strengthening the social security system to cut down on fraud and error, and the reforms that we are making will strengthen public confidence and support.

Mr. Lilley

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that reply, but can he confirm that the truth is that the Government have run down the beat-a-cheat line and closed down the spotlight on fraud campaign, which was succeeding in saving more than £100 million a year? They have so starved the Benefits Agency fraud investigation service that it has had to shut down its operations because of lack of money. Is not the truth that the Government have gone soft on fraud?

Mr. Darling

No, it is not. I shall deal first with the national benefits hotline. We receive about 13,000 to 14,000 calls a month on the hotline, and from 1 November we shall spend nearly £500,000 on another advertising campaign because we believe that the public support and information that we get are invaluable in support of the fight against fraud. Since we came into office, we have increased by a third the number of serious cases that are prosecuted, which has resulted in a 50 per cent. increase in custodial offences. Many of the spotlight on fraud campaign features that worked have been incorporated into the Department's fight against fraud.

I remind the right hon. Gentleman that, at the end of his term as Secretary of State, two out of every five income support cases were being paid without sufficient evidence to justify them. Because of the changes that we have made to ensure that we get benefit claims right in the first place, we shall save £1 billion on that benefit alone during this Parliament.

Mr. Gray

Surely that smells of complacency. Is the Secretary of State aware that, in the last year of the previous Government, we achieved our fraud savings target by more than £50 million, whereas he is below his target by some £200 million? He says that he is not soft on fraud. Why, then, has he cancelled LOFIT—the London Organised Fraud Investigation Team?

Mr. Darling

That project was wound up—it was run not by my Department but by London boroughs—because of internal difficulties that made it impossible for it to carry on. That decision was taken by the London boroughs responsible for it. I remind the hon. Gentleman, that in addition to ensuring that we get income support cases right, since October we have insisted that every claimant establishes his identity before his claim can be accepted, which never happened under the Conservatives. We have stopped the Post Office redirecting housing benefit cheques to bogus addresses, something that the previous Government did not pursue. We have ensured that the benefit fraud inspectorate examines the 30 councils that spend the most on housing benefit to ensure that their procedures are tightened up, and we are now cross-checking information held by the Inland Revenue, the Benefits Agency and local authorities. There are more inspections because we are concerned not just about detecting fraud, but about preventing it from entering the system in the first place. Above all, the approach that we are now adopting is not only more robust, but supported by the National Audit Office, which, as the hon. Gentleman should know, expressed concern about the DSS accounts in just about every year that the Conservatives were in office.

Ms Ruth Kelly (Bolton, West)

Will my right hon. Friend congratulate Westminster council on its anti-fraud strategy, which has resulted in one of its Tory councillors spending some time at Her Majesty's pleasure? Will he assure me that his new anti-fraud strategy will be implemented by councils throughout the country, because fraud is completely unacceptable, wherever it is found?

Mr. Darling

I agree with my hon. Friend. It is important that not only the Benefits Agency but the local authorities that administer the housing benefits scheme understand that fraud is a serious problem. It undermines the general public's confidence in the system and is bad for the perception of those who legitimately claim housing benefit. We have offered much help to councils to ensure that they have access to Benefits Agency systems, that we all hold the same information and that we get claims right. We started a joint initiative with councils to ensure that housing benefit cheques are not redirected to bogus addresses.

All the steps that we are taking are causing a significant change of culture in the system, because we must make inroads into the sums lost in the past through fraud and error.

Mr. Dale Campbell-Savours (Workington)

My right hon. Friend referred to claimants having to establish their identity at the point at which they receive benefit. Is the national identity card back on the agenda?

Mr. Darling

No, what we are asking is that everyone who claims benefit must establish his or her identity, which means producing either a national insurance number or sufficient information to ensure that we can identify the national insurance number. The problem in the past was that many officers paid out benefit without checking that people were who they said that they were. It is all very well for Opposition Members to sneer, but for 18 years they did absolutely nothing about those problems.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

Surely what the Government have been doing has undermined the efforts of local authorities to tackle this serious problem. Will the Secretary of State give us details about the amount of successful fraud detection by local authorities between, let us say, May 1997 and now?

Mr. Darling

I do not agree with the right hon. Gentleman. If he had thought for just one moment before he asked his question, he would have realised that the Government have taken many initiatives with local authorities. I mentioned the service that will prevent redirection of housing benefit cheques, and the fact that we are giving local authorities, for the first time, access to the Benefits Agency system to ensure that the information that we all hold is exactly the same. We are sharing information in a way that never happened in the past. In addition, we have set up two pilot projects to find better ways of ensuring that the Benefits Agency and councils work together, so that there is one interview with an individual, the same information is held by both organisations and we get claims right.

The difference between this and the previous Government is that we are determined to tackle the causes of fraud and error rather than spending all our time trying to chase the symptoms. I think that the majority of the public would support us in doing that.