HC Deb 06 March 2000 vol 345 cc762-4
16. Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West)

What plans he has to implement fundamental reform of housing benefit. [111847]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security (Angela Eagle)

We intend to publish a Green Paper on housing policy later this year. It will consider housing as a whole, including the role of housing benefit.

Mr. Swayne

When implementing the working families tax credit, what lessons did the Government try to learn from housing benefit? What is the threshold number of claimants of the working families tax credit at which the Government will cease to congratulate themselves on the success of the benefit and start to panic?

Angela Eagle

The live case load for the working families tax credit, mixed with the remnants of family credit, is 1 million. We continue to accept claims; 1.5 million families will therefore ultimately be better off.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)

How will the taxpayer be reassured by the hon. Lady's answer? A Green Paper later in the year on the general subject of housing and a letter-writing campaign by the Secretary of State about housing benefit fraud are hardly adequate measures when there were only 700 successful prosecutions for housing benefit fraud last year. That is underlined by the fact that the National Audit Office found that 25 per cent. of the councils that it visited were in on the act.

Angela Eagle

We have done a great deal to improve the administration of housing benefit. For example, we have introduced remote access terminals, which allow local authorities to examine Benefits Agency information; we are introducing the electronic transfer of data, which will mean that 20 million fewer paper notifications of benefit changes are made—they will be made electronically instead; and we have changed the weekly benefit saving system for anti-fraud purposes. The latter will reward local authorities that undertake prevention and prosecution.

What did the Conservative party do? They landed us with the fragmented, complex system in the first place.

18. Sir Sydney Chapman (Chipping Barnet)

If he will make a statement on progress in tackling fraud in the social security system, with particular reference to housing benefit. [111849]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security (Angela Eagle)

We have already demonstrated our tough stance on tackling housing benefit fraud through a more direct interventionist approach with local authorities than the previous Government ever envisaged.

We have targeted the benefit fraud inspectorate inspection regime where it will have most effect and made a substantial financial investment to get local authorities to operate tighter controls over the benefit system through rigorous checks on evidence and identity.

Sir Sydney Chapman

How can the Minister say that, when more than a third of all councils have never prosecuted any benefit fraudster, and when councils in 57 local authorities have refused to name councillors or council officials who have committed fraud? I respect and welcome the Secretary of State's belated announcement that he will get in touch with councils; but will the Minister assure us that measures will be backdated at the very least and that those councillors or council officials who have committed fraud will be prosecuted?

Angela Eagle

I can say what I said because it is true. Since we came to power we have been doing what the Conservatives should have done years ago.