§ Mr. Kilfedder
asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland whether he will make a statement giving the results, to the latest convenient date, of steps taken to deal with social security fraud.
§ Mr. Alison
The problem of social security fraud needs to be kept in perspective. Our system now processes over 750,000 new claims and pays out over £460 million in benefits each year. Payments of pensions and child benefits account for three-quarters of these payments. The vast majority of claimants are completely honest, but there is undoubtedly a minority who strive to abuse the system. We must, therefore, try to achieve a balance which will prevent or detect abuse while not hindering those with genuine needs from getting the benefits to which they are entitled.
The increasing effectiveness of our counter-measures is evidenced by the results achieved in 1978. In that year 1,074 cases were sent to the Director of Public Prosecutions, an increase of 54 per cent. on the previous year and three times the number in 1974. The courts take a serious view of fraud, as is evidenced by the sentences imposed. In 1978, 54 claimants received terms of imprisonment compared with 31 in the previous year and 73 suspended terms against 42 in 1977. Fines, too, were generally heavier, the maximum—£400—being imposed in three cases. Fifty-two employers who had colluded with their employees to claim benefit falsely were prosecuted. Ten of these received prison sentences and two others suspended terms of imprisonment.
Improved methods have reduced the number of paying instruments which go astray from one Girocheque in 2,000 to one in 3,000. About £5 million Girocheques were issued in 1978 but only 874 irregularities required to be reported to the police. The number of order books issued increased to over 1. million, and 101 cases of fraud were reported to the 514W police. One hundred and twenty-six persons were prosecuted in connection with instrument of payment frauds, of whom 16 were sent to prison and 38 given suspended terms of imprisonment.
In the longer term it is of overriding importance that we improve our means of preventing fraud. But it is clearly an immediate and continuing task to detect and prosecute the fraud which does take place. The figures for 1978 show our success in pursuing this objective. This is a considerable achievement by the staff of my Department and it has been done without any lowering of standards.