HC Deb 15 April 2002 vol 383 cc352-3
8. Bob Russell (Colchester)

What progress has been made in meeting his Department's targets on tackling benefit fraud. [45018]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Malcolm Wicks)

We are making good progress in tackling benefit fraud, and we expect that progress to continue. Results show that by March 2001 we had reduced the level of fraud and error in income support and jobseeker's allowance by 18 per cent.—nearly double our first milestone of 10 per cent. That was a year ahead of schedule. By 2004, we are committed to reducing fraud and error by 25 per cent., and to halving it by 2006.

Bob Russell

I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. All fraud is to be deplored, but does he agree that it is important that the message goes out that genuine applicants should not be put off by whatever propaganda the Government are using, rightly, to attack fraud? Will he join me in supporting the Government message, and make it loud and clear that the majority of asylum seekers and refugees, when they are given an opportunity to work, are net contributors to the public purse and do not take from it?

Malcolm Wicks

I certainly agree that when, for reasons that we all understand, people are properly granted asylum, they become economically active and are an asset in all sorts of ways to our community and our economy.

On the first point, it is vital that we present the message that people must claim the benefits to which they are entitled. Government have a role to play in that, as do local authorities. It is also vital that every pound that we spend on social security is spent properly and honestly. That is why publicising entitlement and waging the war against the fraudster go hand in hand and are largely dependent upon one another.

Mr. Bill Tynan (Hamilton, South)

I am sure my hon. Friend would agree that in spite of the successes in countering benefit fraud, it continues to be a major drain on the country's resources. Does he agree that one of the problems is the lack of co-operation between the various Government Departments in exchanging information that would ensure more convictions and less fraud?

Malcolm Wicks

We all agree that the more we can crack down on fraud, the more money we will have for social priorities such as care of the elderly, education and health. There is now a great deal of co-operation between Government Departments. That was a major problem in the past, but under, for example, the Social Security Fraud Act 2001 we can not only share data with other Government Departments but require data from banks and even utilities. It is vital that the fraudster cannot play off one Government agency against another, which is why we have taken the powers to collect the data to attack the fraudster.

Patrick Mercer (Newark)

Between October 1999 and December 2001, there were 50,000 investigations of working families tax credit fraud, but only 28 prosecutions. Will the Minister undertake to look into the matter more carefully and demonstrate a new resolve to deal with fraud in relation to the working families tax credit next year?

Malcolm Wicks

Working families tax credit is, properly, the responsibility of the Treasury. I will draw the hon. Gentleman's question to the attention of its officials. We have responsibility for, among other things, the Benefits Agency. Between 1997 and 2000–01, the total number of prosecutions, cautions and penalties increased from 11,700 to almost 27,000. That demonstrates that we are tough on the fraudster and detecting fraud out of the system, and tough on the causes of fraud.

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