HL Deb 21 December 1982 vol 437 cc919-21
The Lord Bishop of Oxford

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 positive benefits resulted from the recent DHSS prosecutions for fraud in Oxford, when set against the large number of persons detained of whom only 53 per cent. were subsequently charged, and the cost of the operation.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health and Social Security (Lord Trefgarne)

My Lords, the operation referred to was conducted jointly by the DHSS and the police and resulted in 179 people—63 per cent. of those arrested—being charged, 159 of whom have since been convicted. Its purpose was to stop the claimants concerned from receiving benefit to which they were not entitled and to deter others from claiming fraudulently. The cost was about £36,000, against which must be set about £450,000 of wrongful payments that would otherwise have been made in a full year. I am sure that taxpayers and the vast majority of people receiving benefit who are honest in hteir dealings with the department wish for effective counter-measures to be taken against fraud, particularly, as was the case in Oxford, where there is large-scale abuse of the system.

The Lord Bishop of Oxford

My Lords, while thanking the Minister for that reply, may I ask him to comment in this connection on the lack of adequate provision made for the single homeless in the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act 1977?

Lord Trefgarne

With respect to the right reverend Prelate, my Lords, that is another question.

Lord Wells-Pestell

My Lords, how many of those convicted were subsequently found to be entitled to far larger benefit than they were in fact receiving?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, so far as I know, none. These people were, in general, convicted because they were receiving benefit far more than that to which they were entitled.

Lord Kilmarnock

My Lords, what percentage of the sample under review is represented by the 179 convictions the noble Lord mentioned?

Lord Trefgarne

As I said in the Answer, my Lords, 63 per cent. of those arrested were charged. Virtually all of those charged, but not quite all, have since been convicted, but a small number of cases remain to be dealt with.

Lord Wallace of Coslany

My Lords, apart from the percentage of people found guilty, may I ask the noble Lord to say how many people were detained? Would he agree that a better system should be found to check on these matters, rather than the spectacular type of mass raid, which can also inflict a great deal of anxiety on innocent people who would like to claim but who might be deterred from so doing in case they should become involved in a similar incident?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, the total initially arrested I think numbered 283, of whom, as I said, 179 were subsequently charged. The other hundred or so were not charged because the evidence available was not thought to be sufficient to justify prosecution.

Lord Elwyn-Jones

For how long were they detained in custody, my Lords—that is, those who were innocent and not charged in due course?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, none was detained for longer than 24 hours.

Lord Molloy

My Lords, while this exercise on behalf of the DHSS was, no doubt, designed to try to reduce the cheating which goes on and which amounts to some £4 million a year, may I ask the noble Lord to explain the sense of carrying on in this way to recover £4 million while at the same time reducing the Inland Revenue's staff who are working on the black economy, which is now running at £9 billion?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, I think, if I may say so, that the noble Lord plucks figures out of the air in this matter. The extent of alleged fraud in regard to social security, for example, is very much greater than the figure he mentioned.

Lord Molloy

Tell us what it is.

Baroness Faithfull

My Lords, can my noble friend say how many of those charged and found guilty were Oxford people? Secondly, in support of the right reverend Prelate, may I ask my noble friend to say whether, if there were a network of accommodation throughout the country for homeless people, the Government would save a great deal of money?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, the basis of the complaint against all those who were charged (I think I am right in saying all those who were charged) was that they were not living at the address in Oxford at which they were claiming to live, and they were subsequently convicted in that sense. Regarding the second part of my noble friend's supplementary, I am afraid I must answer her in the same sense in which I answered the right reverend Prelate: that is another question.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, further to the question asked by my noble friend Lord Molloy, is it not the case that the Government have recently refused to appoint more inspectors with a view to collecting more money from the wealthy sections of the community? Why are the Government so hard on the poor and so soft on the rich?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, I am not sure that is a question I really need answer because the assertion inherent in it does not bear examination. However, it might be of interest to know that for the year ended April 1982 the department's investigators achieved benefit savings of £96.1 million through the detection of fraud, at a cost of some £33 million.

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