HC Deb 04 March 2002 vol 381 cc4-6
3. Syd Rapson (Portsmouth North)

What steps he is taking to reduce housing benefit fraud. [36326]

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

We are working with local authorities on many fronts to reduce fraud and error in housing benefit. Most significantly, in 1998 we introduced a framework for local authorities to make proper checks on claims. We have now made it easier for councils to adopt the framework; 77 per cent. of them are now operating it and that proportion will increase. So far, net savings from the verification framework are estimated at about £100 million.

Syd Rapson

I thank my hon. Friend for that very informative answer, but I am sure that he is aware that most of the problems with housing benefit fraud are caused by the administration of the scheme. What steps is he taking to ensure a higher standard of administration? How will he also ensure a spread of good practice across the country?

Malcolm Wicks

My hon.Friend takes a great deal of interest in this matter. He is right to emphasise the fact that better administration is the key to getting rid of fraud from the system. A performance standards framework, including standards to prevent, detect and punish fraud wherever it occurs, will be published in the spring. A help team is available to help local authorities with particular difficulties. The benefit fraud inspectorate has published the results of its inspections of 115 local authorities. I take this opportunity to thank Chris Bull, the head of the inspectorate, and his team for the important work that they are doing.

Mr. Nick Gibb (Bognor Regis and Littlehampton)

How many cases of housing benefit fraud were there last year?

Malcolm Wicks

Local authority prosecutions and sanctions against fraud have more than doubled during the past two years. The hon. Gentleman asks about the number of cases. For the first time in many years, we are carrying out research to verify the amount of housing benefit fraud in the system, and we will publish the results when we can. We are not complacent about fraud. We have already saved the £100 million that I mentioned and we are working in many ways to get fraud out of the system—an objective that can be shared by the whole House.

Glenda Jackson (Hampstead and Highgate)

Are not many people losing their homes because of the incompetence of private companies that administer housing benefit for and on behalf of local authorities? My local authority, Camden, has received two chartermarks for the efficacy of its housing benefit system. Is it not time for the Government to insist that those at Camden should assist their local authority colleagues, many of whose residents are losing their homes?

Malcolm Wicks

I pay tribute to the good system of housing benefit administration in my hon. Friend's borough of Camden, which I twice visited to listen and to learn. One of its key officials has been transferred to Hackney, which has had particular difficulties, and is doing good work in tackling housing benefit fraud. Standards in Camden are being maintained. A local authority must decide whether to administer housing benefit in-house or to contract it out. Either way, it must insist on the highest standards.

Mr. David Willetts (Havant)

What does the Minister have to say to the couple I met in Birmingham on Thursday—[Interruption.] Labour Members would benefit from doing the same. The couple had been to their local council office to say that they believed that their neighbours were working while fraudulently claiming housing benefit and income support. They were overheard giving their suspicions and the information got back to their neighbours. A gang came round, beat them up and sprayed CS gas at the guy. They were driven out of their house, taking as many possessions as they could manage to take in two taxis; what was left behind was subsequently stolen. They virtually became homeless as a result of telling their local council office that they suspected someone of welfare fraud.

Does the Minister believe that local authorities and the Government have an obligation to protect people who complain about welfare fraud? Does he accept that everyone involved manifestly failed in their responsibilities to protect that couple? Does he regret the fact that many of the advertisements used in the Government's advertising campaign on welfare fraud give no telephone number, so people cannot phone the confidential anti-fraud hotline?

Malcolm Wicks

The number of the fraud benefit hotline is widely published.

The incident that the hon. Gentleman describes is very serious. I should like to talk to him about it to ensure that everything that should be done as regards rehousing and police action is being done. Much of it will be a matter for the police. There seems to have been a breakdown in confidentiality. We need good citizens to report benefit fraud—there should be no question about that—and those who do so have a right to confidentiality and, if in extremis things go wrong, a right to proper protection by the local authority and police service. The hon. Gentleman raises a very serious matter and I take it very seriously.

Mr. Andrew Love (Edmonton)

Surely the problem lies in the complexity of the benefits system introduced by the Conservatives. What steps is my hon. Friend taking to simplify its administration and the complexity of its rules?

Malcolm Wicks

My hon. Friend is right to say that it is easy for the Opposition to huff and puff about fraud, as they now do, but it blows away no fraudsters. They did very little in government over 18 years; we are doing many things to detect and rid the system of fraud.

Bob Spink (Castle Point)

It is getting worse.

Malcolm Wicks

It is not worse. We are taking action, and we have already reduced housing benefit fraud by £100 million. We have a performance framework, the benefit fraud inspectorate is doing its work, and we are taking a number of steps. Are we winning the war against fraud? Yes, we are. Are we complacent? No; there is much more to be done.

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