HC Deb 21 October 2002 vol 391 cc16-7
12. Mr. Gareth Thomas (Harrow, West)

What his targets are for the reduction of benefit fraud. [73071]

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

We have announced firm targets for reducing fraud and error in income support and jobseeker's allowance for working-age customers. We are aiming for a 33 per cent. reduction by 2004 and a 50 per cent. reduction by 2006. We have also announced a new target aiming for a 25 per cent. reduction in fraud and error in housing benefit by 2006. Latest figures show that we have already achieved a 24 per cent. reduction in fraud and error in income support and jobseeker's allowance for all customers—more than double our target of 10 per cent. To spell that out, it means a saving of some £240 million.

Mr. Thomas

Perhaps as part of the plan to meet that new target, and given that many instances of benefit fraud involve the fraudster using an identity other than their own, what further measures will my hon. Friend's officials be developing, perhaps in partnership with organisations such as the Council of Mortgage Lenders or the UK fraud prevention service, to tackle the specific problem of identity fraud within the benefit system?

Malcolm Wicks

Identity fraud is a very sophisticated form of fraud. A special unit in the Department for Work and Pensions looks at that particular area. We work with partners both within and outside Government on that issue. It calls for a very sophisticated response from Government. I think that we have that response.

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham)

Is the Minister aware that one of the main reasons for so many errors and so much fraud is the incredible complexity of the system? Would it not be helpful if the Minister tried to simplify it so that my constituents who really needed the support knew they could get it and knew how to get it, but those who were trying to work the system found it more difficult because it was much more transparent? Would he not then be able to set a proper target of getting rid of fraud almost completely, instead of living with the unacceptable, high levels that he is forecasting well into the future?

Malcolm Wicks

What we are also forecasting is a determination to reduce fraud. I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman welcomes the fact that this Government—I cannot speak for other Governments—are succeeding in reducing fraud. All of us want more simplicity. There is a balance to he struck: how to simplify the system when meeting the specific needs of specific members of the community. These are difficult issues, but only last week my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State announced pilots/pathfinders on housing benefit, which will produce much greater simplicity in that complex area of social security policy.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire)

No one in the House would condone and all would condemn any form of benefit fraud, but where there are tighter targets how will changes be introduced with sense and sensitivity? Surveys have often shown that savings from the failure to take up benefits have been greater than the cost of the fraud associated with them. Is there not a risk of throwing the baby out with the bath water if the targets are too tight and the framework too inflexible?

Malcolm Wicks

We have to be tough minded about rooting out fraud. To put this in context, the £240 million that we have saved by tackling fraud on two benefits, income support and jobseeker's allowance, means that the Exchequer has more money available for police forces, for schools and for hospitals. They are the people's priorities. I often find in my constituency that the people who are most angry about fraud in their communities are hard-working families, often on low incomes, who want taxpayers' money to be spent properly.