HC Deb 06 March 2000 vol 345 cc751-3
5. Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough)

What recent representations he has received from outside organisations about his policies for tackling organised benefit fraud. [111833]

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

A number of organisations were consulted as part of the review of organised benefit fraud. They are listed in the report, which is in the Library.

Mr. Leigh

Does the finding of the Government's Scampion report that there was insufficient information, or no interchange of information between local authorities, on benefit fraud underline the need for a single national benefits investigation agency to co-ordinate these matters and ensure that we crack down on fraud?

Mr. Darling

The hon. Gentleman makes one good point in particular. In the past, the flow of information between the Benefits Agency and local authorities was not satisfactory. We changed that when we came to office so that, by the end of this financial year, any local authority that wants it—and nearly all of them do—will have access to the Benefits Agency computer systems and the Benefits Agency will have access to council computer systems to cross-match data. Cross-checking DSS records and other state records, as well as local authority records, has already saved £150 million. So it is important that councils and the DSS work closely together, and some people, in some parts of the country, have already seen the results.

Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead)

Does the Secretary of State accept that one very useful measure to counter organised fraud would be to get every local authority not to redirect girocheques to safe addresses? Does he accept that one estimate suggests that £400 million would be saved by universalising that move? Would that not pay for a huge campaign to ensure the take-up of income support among our older pensioners? That being so, will he set a time limit for all the laggards among local authorities to sign up to that scheme within the next two months?

Mr. Darling

My right hon. Friend is right: I attach much importance to stopping the Post Office from redirecting mail—that is why I announced just such an initiative almost a year ago. I am glad to say that an increasing number of local authorities now operate a scheme; I am confident that all of them will do so before too long. It saves substantial sums. What is surprising is that the previous Conservative Government did nothing about the problem.

Mr. Steve Webb (Northavon)

Last summer, the Government set themselves a target of a 10 per cent. fall in benefit fraud by 2002, yet the latest departmental figures show a negligible fall, described by the Secretary of State's own civil servants as not statistically significant. Will he reaffirm that target, or is this another case of the DSS talking tough and achieving little?

Mr. Darling

Of course the Government are adhering to those targets. The hon. Gentleman should know better than most that there are several problems within the system that will take some time to remedy; for example, the computer systems that we operate will have to be replaced. In addition, the move to make direct payment of benefits into bank accounts, of which his party is critical, will save substantial sums lost in fraud. Furthermore, we have insisted that people must now establish their identity to the satisfaction of benefit officers before they can obtain benefit. That will save £1 billion during this Parliament alone—[Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman can wave documents as much as he wants, but he must face the fact that, unlike him, we are not just talking about reducing the amount lost through fraud; we are taking concrete steps to do so by tightening up the gateways to the benefit system and making it more difficult for people to fiddle the system. If they fiddle the system, they will get caught—as a growing number of people are finding out.

Mr. Dale Campbell-Savours (Workington)

My right hon. Friend referred to establishing one's identity to the benefit officer. What is our position on the use of national identity cards in that matter? Are we still wholly opposed to it?

Mr. Darling

As far as I am aware, no one is suggesting that we should introduce a national identity card system. There are many difficulties with that—not least the expense of setting it up. There are means to identify people at present: everyone has a national insurance number; and it is possible to ascertain people's names and addresses. All those matters are common sense—to coin a phrase. It is curious, therefore, that the Conservatives did nothing about it during the 18 years that they were in power. Perhaps we are about to find out why.

Mr. Eric Pickles (Brentwood and Ongar)

What does not make sense is to boast that numbers are going down based on figures that the Department described as statistically insignificant. The Secretary of State does not seem to understand what is going on. He talks about computers, but Scampion points out that much of the anti-fraud initiative is written down—it is being carried around manually. He refers to local authorities talking to the Benefits Agency but, according to Scampion, the problem is that local authorities are not talking to one another. They cannot tackle organised fraud because they are not passing on good tips. When will the right hon. Gentleman do something about fraud? When will he actually establish something? Is this not the purest example of all talk and no delivery?

Mr. Darling

I admire the hon. Gentleman's panache. He refers to the fact that local authorities do not always give us the information we need.

Mr. Pickles

They do not.

Mr. Darling

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman points that out. When we telephoned Brentwood to find out why we were not receiving the information to which the Government are entitled, we were told that it was an apparent oversight by the benefits manager, who was away from the office. That is happening in his own local authority. That authority is not telling us what we need to know. Instead of asking me what is going wrong, he should ask his own council why it is not collecting and giving us the information that we need.

Mr. Pickles

Brentwood is a Liberal Democrat council.