HL Deb 10 November 1976 vol 377 cc333-5

2.44 p.m.


My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government what steps they propose to take to prevent or detect false claims for Social Service benefits; and whether they will review the legal penalties now operative.


My Lords, I would refer the noble Baroness to public statements made by my right honourable friend the Minister for Social Security on 29th July this year and 21st September this year in which he described the further measures being taken to deal with Social Security fraud. It is intended to increase the maximum fine for an offence under the Supplementary Benefit Act, which is in addition to a maximum sentence of three months imprisonment, from £100 to £400, as is already provided under the Social Security Act 1975. These penalties, together with those which can be awarded when proceedings under the Theft Act are appropriate, are adequate.


My Lords, while thanking the noble Lord for that reply, the announcement was made in, I think he said, July, which is about four months ago. Can he tell us whether these new penalties are operative at this moment? Is the noble Lord aware that many steady, hard-working people are deeply resentful of the abuse of those who jog in and out of jobs, working out just how long they have to work to be eligible for benefit and to get their income tax back? Is the noble Lord also certain that employment officers are strict enough in seeing that people take jobs and are not allowed to refuse jobs which they are perfectly capable of carrying out?


My Lords, in reply to the noble Baroness I should say that the penalty at the moment is a maximum of £100 and/or three months' imprisonment. We intend to seek the necessary power to have that increased to £400, and that will bring it in line with penalties of a similar nature. I pointed out that if proceedings are brought under the Theft Act, the penalty, so far as imprisonment is concerned, can be considerably greater. We have not failed to recognise the seriousness of this matter. I think that on a previous occasion I pointed out that there were over 15,000 successful prosecutions in 1975, which was twice the number for 1970, and it looks as if this year—I regret to say, in some respects—we are going to exceed that figure, because at present about 1,000 new cases are being investigated every week. So we are really trying to come to grips with this problem.


My Lords, will the noble Lord undertake to study the implications of a judgment by Mr. Justice Brightman, reported in The Times today, where a gentleman living on Social Security spent his time collecting money for charity for orphans and pocketing the proceeds, and Mr. Justice Brightman said that he was doing nothing illegal?


My Lords, the noble and learned Lord would not want me to comment on that, but I will bring the matter quite seriously to the notice of my right honourable friend the Secretary of State, because at first glance it would appear to need real inquiries.


My Lords, can my noble friend confirm that if the noble Baroness opposite would look at the Annual Report of the Supplementary Benefits Commission she would find much information that puts this problem into perspective? In particular, if there has been a recent increase this has to be related to the number of persons actually legitimately drawing Social Security benefit.


My Lords, in reply to the noble Baroness—

Several noble Lords



My Lords, the noble Baroness cannot reply, but she can ask another question.


My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that I do indeed keep myself apprised of the reports of the Ministry, but I am very concerned that all those people who have faith in the National Insurance Scheme, and the many millions who willingly pay their dues for possibly their own and for the genuinely needy to draw upon them, are deeply resentful when they see this abuse? I am concerned that it brings the whole scheme into contempt by a bad minority who I think should be properly dealt with.


My Lords, I think we would all accept that. I can only hope that publicity will be given to the fact that I gave to the noble Baroness a moment or two ago, when I said that every week about 1,000 new cases are being investigated.


My Lords, has the noble Lord noticed that almost every noble Lord who asks a Question in this House starts his first supplementary question with the words, "While thanking the noble Lord for that reply, will he do something or other?", which is an absolute nonsense because it means that the Minister is thanking himself?