HL Deb 12 April 1994 vol 553 cc1379-81

Baroness Sharples asked Her Majesty's Government:

What action they are proposing to take in response to reports that some prisoners have been claiming unemployment and other benefits.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Social Security (Viscount Astor)

My Lords, we introduced new procedures at the beginning of March to check the benefit records of all prisoners and take appropriate action where fraud is suspected.

Baroness Sharples

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that reply. Is it true that six years ago Ministers were warned about the fraud? Can my noble friend say whether the computers within the DSS and the Home Office are compatible or is it illegal for computrs to talk to each other?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, we became aware of the problem last September and have been working on it. In March this year, we ran a cross-check of all sentenced prisoners against benefit records. It indicated that 2,600 prisoners had received some benefit payments during the past year and since entering prison. Investigations have been opened on 1,450 of those cases where benefit is still being paid. Procedures are now in place to check benefit records of all newly convicted prisoners; those procedures will in the future include the use of information technology. All the cases of fraud are being investigated. In each case prosecution will be considered and recovery pursued. Efforts are being made to catch and charge any accomplices.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, is it not the case, however, that the National Association of Probation Officers reported fraud in 1988, as the noble Baroness mentioned? Why is it that the DSS only appears to have taken action in the past six months?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, we have taken action in the past when fraud has been brought to our attention and there have been successful prosecutions. The recent survey, matching all records of prisoners with the records in the Contributions Agency, went a stage further than we had been able to go previously.

Lord Molloy

My Lords, although there seems to be no real evidence, does it not appear, according to what I have read, that there have been occasions when employees and their employers have been conniving so that those employed can draw unemployment benefit? There seems to be no hard evidence but from responsible reports it seems that it may be worth examining the matter.

Viscount Astor

My Lords, we are investigating allegations of involvement by third parties, including allegations of involvement by employment service staff. Of course, in many cases the prisoners themselves do not benefit from, and may be unaware of, the fraud. It may be carried out by third parties without the prisoner's knowledge. However, I can assure the House that we are investigating all the cases that have come up and will prosecute any cases where we are able to do so.

Lord Marlesford

My Lords, is this not just another example of the failure to computerise the administration of prisoners, as recommended in his report in the early 1980s by Lord Justice May? Is my noble friend aware that recently, if one asked the prison service where a prisoner was, the only information was "the last recorded address" of the prisoner. The service did not even know in which prison every prisoner was. Are all prisoners now on a single computer register? Does that register show the national insurance numbers of prisoners?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, all I can tell my noble friend is that on 3rd March there were 34,428 sentenced prisoners serving sentences in the 127 prisons in England and Wales. There is also a turnover of around 1,500 sentenced prisoners entering and leaving prison each week; that is apart from remand prisoners. I can tell my noble friend that liaison between the Contributions Agency and the prison service has not been adequate in the past and that steps have been taken to address the problem so that the Benefits Agency and the Contributions Agency are notified of the names of new inmates when they enter prison.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, is the noble Viscount aware that it is not a matter of prison records but of records of the social security payments system? If there were an automatic means of identifying people on the payments system through the national insurance number of any person who had been given a prison sentence, we would not have the problem in the first place. We could stop it arising.

Viscount Astor

My Lords, I am not sure that one necessarily knows a person's national insurance number when that person is sentenced. However, when anyone receives a sentence, the prison service now informs the Benefits Agency and the Contributions Agency of that person's name, address and national insurance number, if the service knows it. That is then checked against the records.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, can my noble friend say whether there is any system at all under which the centralised, computerised records of prisoners are sent to the relevant department that pays unemployment benefit? Is there a system? And how does it work?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, the answer to my noble friend is that there was not a system. The parts of the existing system that were in place did not work as well as they should have done. There is a system now. We hope that it will work better so that information can be passed on and that not only will departments talk to each other but also perhaps computers will be able to talk to each other.

Lord Stallard

My Lords, the Question mentions "unemployment and other benefits". Can the Minister say what those other benefits are and how substantial they are?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, they could be any benefits to which someone was entitled when entering prison. There are some benefits which prisoners are entitled to receive while in prison—for example, family credit. That is because entitlement is for a fixed period and is based on customer circumstances at the date of the claim. Housing benefit is also available in limited circumstances. For example, it may be paid where there is need to safeguard accommodation until a prisoner is released.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, perhaps I may refer the Minister to the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford. Is not the strength of the noble Lord's point reinforced by the inability of Home Office Ministers to give any adequate answers about the number of prisoners returning late from leave? If there were an adequate computer system, perhaps we might get better answers out of the Home Office.

Viscount Astor

My Lords, for as long as I have been in this House I have felt that the one thing upon which one can always rely is my noble friend Lord Ferrers giving an adequate answer at the Dispatch Box.

Noble Lords

Hear, hear!

Lord Peyton of Yeovil

My Lords, do the "other benefits" include constant attendance allowances?

Viscount Astor

No, my Lords. I believe that people get "constant attendance allowance" free of charge while they are in prison!

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