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House of Commons

Friday 16 July 1993

The House met at half-past Nine o'clock


[ Madam Speaker-- in the Chair ]



9.34 am

Mrs. Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham) : I beg leave to present a petition that has been collected by Elizabeth Mary Lambert, a redoubtable lady of the constituency of Chesham and Amersham. She and nearly 3,000 petititoners wish to give more support to local police forces in relation to criminal damage to private and public property. They are appalled by decisions of the Crown Prosecution Service and believe that decisions not to prosecute are demoralising to the police. They want us to give more support to the police throughout the country.

The petition ends :

Wherefore your petitioners pray that your honourable House will take the aforementioned into consideration.

To lie upon the Table.

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Social Security Fraud

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.-- [Mr. Lightbown.]

9.35 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security (Mr. Alistair Burt) : I am pleased to introduce this debate. My first tasis to give the apology of the Liberal Democrat spokesman on social security, the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood), who told me last night that he would be unable to attend this morning. As we know, we arrange our business only a few days in advance, whereas sometimes business for other parties is arrranged much further in advance, and that is why the hon. Gentleman cannot be here this morning. I know of his interest in this subject, so I thought it best to record his apology. He has also taken the trouble to speak to the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr. Bradley).

Mr. Patrick Nicholls (Teignbridge) : In the context of that apology, perhaps my hon. Friend could place on record the Liberal Democrats who have attended today in their leader's absence?

Mr. Burt : During the morning, we shall see whether any Liberal Democrats attend. My hon. Friend makes a valid point and during the day we will see whether any hon. Members travel the Liberal Democrat Benches.

It is a year almost to the day since the House had an opportunity to debate the important subject of social security fraud. On that occasion, at a considerably less civilised time of the day, my hon. Friend the Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Mr. Evans) secured an Adjournment debate to which my hon. Friend who is now the Under-Secretary of State for Employment responded.

My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary asks and receives no quarter. She brings a vim and vigour to the Dispatch Box which she displayed to the full in those debates. Indeed, a debate between her and my hon. Friend the Member for Welwyn Hatfield on the subject of fraud and social security abuse could sell more tickets than a gala night for "Jurassic Park". She takes that spirit to her new Department, and all her colleagues in the Department of Social Security wish her well in her new appointment.

Since the previous debate, the subject of social security has rarely been out of the public eye. Many facets of the benefit system are currently being subjected to scrutiny and welcomed public discussion. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Security has made it one of our priorities to bear down on fraud and abuse in social security, as every penny misappropriated means less for those in real need.

Today, the House has an opportunity to hear about the prevention, detection and deterrence measures that we are taking to tackle fraud and abuse in the system, and I propose to make that the focus of my remarks today.

The sheer scale of spending on social security means that it is in everyone's interest to maintain and preserve the integrity of the system. This year, spending on social security will be in the region of £80 billion--a massive amount by any standards, amounting to nearly a third of general Government expenditure and over 12 per cent. of the country's gross domestic product. To the taxpayer, that represents an enormous financial commitment--about £13 for each working person every working day.

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Without doubt, the vast majority of people claiming benefits are fully entitled to them. Social security exists to help those who genuinely need it, which is why we spend over £15 million a year on publicity to ensure that people have the information they need to enable them to claim what they are entitled to.

Regrettably, however, there are some people whose behaviour and actions bring the social security system into disrepute. They are cheats, pure and simple, whose exploitation of the system is costing the taxpayer dear ; cheats because they effectively deprive the needy and vulnerable by claiming money from the public purse to which they are not entitled ; and cheats are disliked by all fair-minded people in society.

Let us be quite clear about it ; social security fraud is a crime--and a very selfish one at that, since every pound claimed fraudulently is a pound less available to people who are genuinely in need. It has been estimated that social security fraud could amount to more than £1 billion a year --in other words, the fraudsters are costing at least £1 a week for every working person in this country. When people go down to the pub tonight, or visit the supermarket at the weekend, they should look at the prices and think about the extra pound that they could have had in their pocket. That pound has been taken from them by someone who has cheated.

No responsible Government can ignore fraud and abuse on such a scale. That is why my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has placed his commitment to bear down on fraud and abuse alongside our other priorities of making sure that help is focused on those genuinely in need. I stress that that commitment on fraud and abuse is made alongside our other priorities on behalf of the needy and the vulnerable in the system.

We have taken a number of measures to ensure that benefits are more effectively focused on people in need. For example, the Employment Service, which administers benefits paid to unemployed people, has in place procedures to test that those signing as unemployed are available for work and, moreover, are actively seeking it. Only this week, we have tightened up the income support rules that apply to people who come into this country from non-European Community member states so that they no longer have entitlement to benefit. Our intention is to make sure that those people who are entitled to help get what they are entitled to--no more, no less. My essential message for the House is this : those who deal with us honestly and who are in genuine need have nothing to fear ; but those who try to cheat the system will be caught, made to repay and could end up in court and earn a criminal record for themselves.

I recognise, of course, that the battle against fraud must be tackled on a number of fronts. On the one hand, there are claims that are fraudulent-- either from the outset, or arising from a failure to disclose a material change in circumstances. Some people deliberately set out to defraud the system in this way ; there is a worrying element in the criminal fraternity that has developed rackets involving multiple claims and false identities.

Others, however, seemingly drift into fraud--perhaps even unwittingly at first--for example, by simply forgetting to report a change in circumstances. But later, when they reflect on the cost of rectifying what started as

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a small lie, they turn a blind eye and perpetuate the falsehood, and, before they know it, a substantial overpayment has arisen. The boundary between forgetfulness and fraud has then been crossed. Another area of fraudulent activity relates to the misuse of order books. To put this in context, in 1991-92 some £230 million worth of social security order books were recorded as lost or stolen, and 35 per cent. of those, worth approximately £85 million, were shown to be fraudulently encashed. A further £16 million was lost through fraudulent encashment of girocheques. Against that backdrop, it must therefore be right for the Government to take measures, first, to prevent fraud occurring, secondly, to detect fraudulent activity and thirdly, to deter would-be fraudsters from committing fraud. In short, we are minimising the opportunities for fraud ; we root out fraud when it occurs, we stop it from continuing and we recover amounts overpaid and prosecute offenders when appropriate. Prevention is therefore at the heart of our anti-fraud effort. The social security system has always incorporated internal security and management checks--they are essential to prevent both internal and external abuse--but we owe it to the taxpayer to keep a tight system of validation and verification checks in operation to prevent abuse. We are constantly looking at ways in which to make those more effective through comprehensive assurance checks and an audit trail analysis to help us identify inconsistent or dubious pieces of information.

In this respect, technology plays a crucial role. The DSS and its agencies have been developing comprehensive and ambitious plans for fraud-resistant computer systems. We have already installed new computers to help fraud managers to identify patterns of crime, monitor performance and deploy resources in the most effective manner.

We are not only tightening up systems within the DSS. In recent months, significant progress has been made in combating order book and girocheque fraud through close co-operation and joint working with the Post Office-- yet more proof, if it were needed, of the importance of the Post Office to the DSS.

A whole variety of improvements are now beginning to emerge, including, first, new, clearer guidance to Post Office counter clerks to help them spot various types of fraud which can occur--for example, bogus payees or manipulated and counterfeited payments. Secondly, an illustrated anti-fraud handbook has been produced for counter clerks called "Foil Fraud", which has been reinforced by a series of articles in Post Office Counters' internal magazine. Thirdly, the DSS and the Post Office have ensured more secure delivery of order books, safer storage and tighter control of order books once delivered. Fourthly, methods have been introduced to prevent encashment of order books reported missing.

That last intitiative is known to us as the ALERT project. It is particularly exciting, since it involves the use of new technology and the reading of bar codes printed on order books. Trials in the London area have already shown some impressive results, and an extension of the project is planned for the autumn.

The House will also know that we have been encouraging people to opt for automated credit transfer, ACT, because it is a safer, more cost-effective means of making benefit payments, and is far less prone to fraud and abuse than order books or girocheques. Hon.

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Members on both sides of the House have recently made clear the importance they attach to preserving choice in the method of payment, and we have reaffirmed our commitment, as I did today, to maintaining a network of post offices. But the fact remains that ACT is less susceptible to fraud, and our policy will continue to be to encourage people to opt for it.

Mr. Keith Bradley (Manchester, Withington) : When we debated ACT, there was some confusion about the financial implications for the Post Office of a large-scale move to that method of payment. Can the Minister give a further guarantee that, should that happen, no post office will be financially disadvantaged to the point where the savings the Government may make on ACT will mean that the post office network is no longer financially viable? Can he guarantee that the financial consequences of that policy change will not lead to the closure of post offices?

Mr. Burt : I am quite assured that the DSS's encouragement of people to opt for ACT is not a threat to post offices. As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, the financing of post offices is a complex matter, involving contracts with other Departments. We need a network of post offices, because they help us in so many ways to deliver benefits. We therefore believe that ACT, on its own, will not harm the post offices. I assure the hon. Gentleman that that is not the intention of the DSS.

Mr. John Sykes (Scarborough) : Does my hon. Friend accept that Opposition Members--there is only one here--are aware that people who want to opt for ACT can do so of their own accord? No Government on earth can force them to do so. The Opposition have whipped up a campaign of hysteria.

Mr. Burt : My hon. Friend is right. It is a great shame that, all too often, policy ideas with many good intentions behind them can be unhappily distorted for purely party political ends by the Opposition. As a result, people are genuinely scared about matters that pose no threat to them. It is essential that we put our commitment on record. My hon. Friend is right that it is a great shame when those who should be more responsible fail to act in that manner.

As my hon. Friend has said, people will still have the option to receive payment at the post office and, for those who choose to be paid by order book, we are introducing this month a new design of order book, which contains a number of new security features. It will make illicit copying more difficult, with more secure watermarking and a variety of other complex design features aimed at decreasing the incidence of fraud and abuse.

The old order book had remained unchanged for many years. With new, modern printing technology, it is now easier for us to produce an order book. In addition to security arrangements, the new order book will combine a more user-friendly, easier-to-read format, which represents a significant step forward in our commitment to the customer, as well as illustrating our determination to prevent abuse and keep ahead of the fraudster. We shall continue to make the best use of design and print technology, introducing-- without warning--new, subtle design changes from time to time to frustrate the efforts of criminals.

Our determination to root out fraud and abuse is perhaps best demonstrated by the sheer scale of the

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resources that we have dedicated to tackling fraud, the significant savings that they achieve, and examples of the kind of cases that have been identified in recent months.

This year, the Secretary of State has set a target of savings amounting to some £1 billion to be saved through the intervention of fraud teams working in the Benefits Agency and local authority housing benefit and council tax departments.

The Benefits Agency alone employs just over 3,000 highly effective and professional fraud staff. Most are employed in the 168 fraud sector teams, and 250 specialist staff based in London and other major cities are dedicated to the investigation of organised fraud, including cases involving stolen, altered or false proof of identity to make multiple claims ; counterfeiting order books and girocheques ; bulk or systematic theft and the buying or selling of instruments of payment ; and pledging order books to moneylenders in exchange for cash loans.

In 1992-93, the organised fraud unit alone made 1,400 arrests and secured £42 million worth of savings.

The House should be under no illusion about the kind of determined fraudster we are up against today. Some are sophisticated, while others are plain brazen. The House will have seen or heard of the results of the operation in south-east London yesterday morning. I am assured by the team involved that it was not staged with a view to helping us out on this debate, but the publicity that it has usefully generated this morning has brought to the public's mind, first, the skill and determination of our fraud teams, to which I pay due tribute, and, secondly, the scale of the problems involved. I shall give a couple of examples to colour in some of our people's activities. Some investigations start with a tip-off delivered on a scrap of paper. After nine months' investigation, Operation Rolling Stone led to the arrest and conviction of five men who had defrauded the benefit system of more than £500,000. In that case, the suspects were also being investigated by Customs and Excise for their part in a multi- million pound VAT fraud.

The gang used complex anti-surveillance techniques to evade the investigators, frequently changing journey patterns en route to the benefit office. After much painstaking work, our investigators could construct the pattern of the journey and gather crucial evidence of the criminal activities.

Our investigators must sometimes go to great lengths to pursue their quarry. In that case, they had to spend six hours in a seedy pub in a most undesirable area, with just a pint of shandy between them, and even had to join in the dancing. A final irony came when one of the team, sitting observing outside, found two of the offenders coming out of the pub. Unaware of the presence of the investigator's van, they kindly leaned against the vehicle and had a long chat about the identities that they had just used and where they were going next. Walls have ears, and so do vans.

Another case involved following a man who had claimed income support using different identities. His routine was relatively tedious : cafe for breakfast ; benefit office ; and finally the pub, where he would fall asleep. On one occasion, he varied the routine to visit the local cinema, where the film "Basic Instinct" was being shown. To maintain surveillance on that occasion turned out to be less onerous for one of our investigators. The fraudster in that case was convicted, and sentenced to four years' imprisonment.

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Another case in south London resulted in 50 minicab drivers being found to be claiming benefit. That operation saved £165,000. One individual was found to be using false documents and identities and an empty property was being used for income support claimants, with a driver travelling more than 200 miles from his home area to work. I sometimes think that if people put as much time and energy into an honest day's work as they do into fraud, they would be pretty effective.

It is not uncommon for our investigators to locate a number of counterfeit order books in premises. A recent case, Operation Hammer, unearthed 90 order books, 450 counterfeit books, credit cards, cash cards, and blank birth certificates. Some £2.4 million was saved in that operation.

Naturally, work extends to co-operation with local authorities over housing benefit fraud. In one case, a claimant and a landlord were found guilty of conspiring to defraud the DSS and a local authority. The prosecution arose as a result of a regular cheque delivery exercise conducted by the local authority's benefits investigations team. From the authority's visit to deliver the benefit cheque, it appeared that the claimant did not live at the address for which he was claiming benefit.

Further investigations by the police showed that the gentleman had a variety of different identities, for which he had housing benefit claims at two different addresses. The police also found a letter from the landlord to the claimant, warning him that local authority staff were hand- delivering girocheques, and that therefore the landlord would be preparing a room for the claimant to show that he had lived at that accommodation. For that conspiracy, the claimant received a sentence of four years and the landlord a sentence of two years.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) : Is my hon. Friend aware that the crackdown on fraud is happening nationwide? Only this week, 70 police officers were involved in swooping into properties in the Fishergate area of Preston, where more than 34 people were investigated and many were caught defrauding not only the DSS but housing benefit.

Mr. Burt : My hon. Friend makes a good point. All over the country, officers are working in close co-operation with other enforcement agencies like the police and local authorities, to find those who are defrauding the system. I am sure that my hon. Friend would like me to pay tribute to the officers involved in that operation, and to thank them for the savings that they have made on behalf of everyone else. While discussing detection, I should stress the importance that we place on liaison with both the Employment Service--with whom we have entered into a joint agreement to improve liaison and conducted 200 fraud drives last year--and with local authorities.

That brings me to the much-improved arrangements for local authorities to help them step up their efforts against housing benefit and council tax benefit fraud. My Department already provides, free of charge, fraud training for local authority investigators. From April this year, we have provided fresh financial incentives for authorities to investigate benefit fraud.

Without the intervention of local authority fraud staff, housing benefit and council tax benefit fraud would remain

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undetected, and payments would continue to be made week after week to people who were not entitled to them. More anti- fraud efforts by authorities will therefore result in significant savings to the public purse, in which local authorities can now share. In addition to housing benefit and council tax benefit savings, authorities will also share in any associated savings in income support which they discover and which result from a successful investigation. As a further incentive for authorities, full-rate subsidy is now payable on overpayments of benefit which result from fraudulent claims. Authorities will still be able to retain any overpaid amounts they recover. That presents an opportunity for authorities, as well as taxpayers, to benefit from increased efforts against fraud. Authorities stand only to gain. Once they achieve their baselines, there is no limit to the amount of financial benefit that authorities can receive from central Government under those arrangements ; the more they save the taxpayer, the more they receive in additional subsidy.

We are also considering further measures that authorities can employ to prevent benefit fraud. For example, my Department has commissioned a study into setting up a central register of housing benefit claimants. The register's purpose is to prevent individual claimants and unscrupulous landlords from making multiple claims to benefit in one or more local authority.

The Government have put in place a package of incentives that has been widely welcomed. I have been much reassured by the spirit of co-operation that prevailed throughout lengthy consultations with the local authority associations on these issues, and I pay tribute to them. We now look to local authority and Benefits Agency fraud staff to work together, making the best use of their resources, to ensure that benefit is paid only to those with a genuine entitlement. Finally, I should say a few words about what we can do to deter fraud. I have an important message for the fraudster, "Whatever sort of benefit fraud you are engaged in, not only will you get caught, but we shall require you to repay the money, and you could well find yourself in court facing a criminal record."

No one who commits benefit fraud can be sure of getting off without criminal prosecution. Our policy is to select the most appropriate cases for court action, and we have an almost 100 per cent. success rate. More than 5,000 people were prosecuted last year alone. Increasingly, social security fraud cases attract high-profile publicity, such as we have seen this morning in some of the national newspapers. People are rightly disgusted when they see what cheats get up to, and the sense of moral outrage is understandable, particularly when every pound lost by fraud means a pound less to spend on the needy and vulnerable.

It is right that people should be outraged by social security fraud, so I also have a message for people who know someone else who is committing fraud : "If you know someone who is abusing the system, you are having to foot the bill, not the Chancellor--not me, not my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and not the Government, but you, the ordinary law- abiding citizen of this country." I believe that publicity can act as a powerful deterrent, and I can assure the House that social security cheats will increasingly find themselves under the spotlight.

I thank those national newspapers that take the trouble to expose fraud and which cover--not just the incidents,

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but the convictions and sentences. In London, the Evening Standard has been running a campaign against housing benefit fraud, and a variety of national newspapers are also doing their best to help in the fight.

Ultimately, the Department of Social Security intends to ensure that, where there is no other means of support, the most vulnerable are protected. To do so, we need the support of the public and the taxpayer for what we do. We owe them a duty to ensure that the provision for others is spent not only wisely and fairly, but honestly. Those who seek to cheat on that support rob not just the Government, but every man and woman in this country--and up with that we will not put.

10.3 am

Mr. Keith Bradley (Manchester, Withington) : I welcome the Minister's opening speech, and the moderate and generally factual way in which he presented it. As the debate unfolds, I hope that the Jurassic tendency does not creep in, and that we can keep to the facts.

I wish to place on record immediately that the Labour party is as committed as any other party or the Government to rooting out fraud. We certainly support the measures that the Government have announced to ensure that the fraud crackdown continues.

We must place the issue in context, and I can do no better than quote the Secretary of State for Social Security, when he said that most social security claimants were

"as honest as the day is long".--[ Official Report, 18 January 1993 ; Vol. 217, c. 9.]

That does not mean that we must not root out fraud. I agree with the Minister that every £1 of fruad means £1 less to spend on genuine claimants in genuine need. We must be sure that all social security money is used for the right purpose.

The Minister briefly outlined some of the measures taken to combat fraud. They include financial incentives to encourage local authorities to fight housing benefit and council tax fraud, the allocation of additional resources to allow the Benefits Agencies to employ more specifically trained investigators and make greater use of information technology to identify fraudulent claimants, and the allocation of additional resources to fight fraud.

This morning, the hon. Gentleman has also outlined some new measures, partly based on the Comptroller and Auditor General's report, on the Government's investigation into combating organised fraud. I am pleased that the Minister has given more details on that measure.

I have a copy of the CAG's report. I found that the first recommendation involved the effective allocation of resources to meet the known fraud risk. The second consisted of four stars, as did the next. The following recommendation involved changing forms and the order books--an issue which the Minister dealt with this morning. When I looked to see what four stars signified, I found that the information was not available on grounds of confidentiality. We are meant to be enjoying the spirit of open government, but it is fairly difficult for the Opposition to comment on some of the Government's measures, because we do not know what they are. I understand the reason for the confidentiality at one level--clearly, some of the actions must be confidential--but it is difficult to comment on all the work undertaken if some of it is kept secret.

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I shall comment on the some of the work already under way and then widen the debate to include the general issues of fraud and the other side of the coin : ensuring that claimants receive the benefits to which they are legitimately entitled. Much work has been undertaken in recent months, particularly by the Benefits Agency working in conjunction with local authorities. It must be stressed that local authorities have been as keen as the Government to crack down on fraud, particularly in respect of housing benefit and council tax. Example after example throughout the country has shown that local authorities of whichever political persuasion are attempting to crack down on organised fraud. That fraud is often organised by unscrupulous landlords, who make bogus multiple cliams for housing benefit on behalf of individual tenants who do not exist. We must praise the Association of London Authorities, which has worked with the London treasurers in establishing a London fraud unit in local government. That fraud team will ensure the sharing of information on fraud across boroughs and assist in preventing and tracking down large-scale fraud operations across London. The team's activities have obtained some publicity, and I hope that this morning's debate will generate further publicity for its excellent work. I have read the detailed proposals of the work to be carried out by the Association of London Authorities in conjunction with other agencies. I commend its attempts to crack down on fraud across London.

My local authority in Manchester pays £130 million in housing benefit each year. An inquiry in 1991 showed that there was a high level of fraud among local landlords. Now, two fraud investigation teams have beenay in which they are seriously tackling the issue to good effect. Rooting out such fraud is in the best interests of genuine claimants.

There has been a change in the way in which local authority subsidy is arranged. The fact that local authorities received only 25 per cent. of the total cost of the money that they recovered through investigating fraud was unsatisfactory, and we welcome the fact that those authorities are now able to receive all the money obtained. An immense amount of work has been undertaken in recent months on the subject, but there is a feeling that many of the changes are being introduced too fast, without proper guidelines to ensure that the officers are fully briefed on the actions they should take. The National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux questioned the adequacy of training given to fraud officers who, it said, "often appear to be ignorant of the law and of claimant's rights and appear to be responsible to no one".

There seems to be a lack of accountability in some of the systems set up to undertake interdepartmental agency work. I hope that the Minister will look at some of the guidelines to ensure that adequate training is provided.

There is a feeling that the recovery targets set for local authorities are unrealistically high. I know that there is a lower level and a higher level, but my investigations across the country convince me that many local authorities find it extremely difficult to hit even the lower targets--not

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because of a lack of will to undertake the work, but from a feeling that the Government have set the targets unrealistically high. They should be reconsidered, to ensure that local authorities are given a realistic incentive to investigate fraud.

I make this point because local authorities have to allocate dedicated staff to undertake the investigations. Because of the tight budgets under which they operate, they want to be sure that the training and transfer of staff for fraud work will be cost effective. They must therefore be given, as promised, proper incentives by the Government to hit their targets by investing money in such work and getting it back when they actually hit the targets.

The fact that the Government, I understand, are looking again at the shape of the incentives regime is being viewed with some cynicism. I hope that the Minister will confirm today that there will be no negative change, and that local authorities will not be penalised for pursuing fraud. Local authorities must be able to gain benefits from investigations of this nature.

The Minister commented on the targets for fraud savings that the Government are setting in the social security budget. The Secretary of State has clearly said that he hopes to save £1 billion in the financial year by cracking down on social security fraud. The Employment Service has a separate target : 63,000 claims withdrawn following investigation.

That is a great hike compared with savings from previous years. In 1986-87, the target was £144 million, in 1990-91, it was £332 million, and in 1991-92, it was £433.7 million. So the target has been doubled in one year. We should continually bear in mind the fact that, in the context of the overall budget, even £1 billion is not a large amount. The overwhelming majority of claimants are honest and receive their just entitlement to benefit, as I have already said. In terms of overall expenditure on benefits, £1 billion is barely more than 1 per cent.--a tiny figure.

Clearly, every pound has to be used effectively--we do not deviate from that position--but let us always remember the context so that we do not get things out of proportion. In any case, Government targets do not always have to do with real money. Rule changes in 1989 expanded the number of items that can be counted as fraud savings. In particular, the new rules included irregularities, not necessarily proven fraud, and they provided for notional savings from cases where an investigation might have found an irregularity without recouping any cash. Moreover, the figures are arrived at by multiplying recorded fraudulent claims savings, real or notional, by a factor of 32, based on the belief that, if a fraud had not been discovered, it would have taken at least 32 weeks before it was later discovered.

Thus, many target figures are only notional, not hard cash savings. They are extrapolations which the Government use to arrive at their £1 billion-worth of savings.

There is some danger of overstating the amount of fraud in the system. The Benefits Agency admits that it has no way of determining the true level of fraud :

"There is no fraud targeting of specific groups of people whether by race, region or national origin or by social status."

The agency emphasises :

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"We do not keep statistics on benefit fraud broken down by nationality or by immigration status, including asylum seekers." It therefore seemed a little strange that the Secretary of State should say in Brighton last year :

"We have tightened up on bogus asylum seekers. Already nearly 20, 000 have evaporated into thin air."

We are not arguing that bogus asylum seekers or people claiming social security benefits illegally should not be clamped down on ; but I hope that, when the Government give statements to the press or the House, they will talk about actual figures and cases, and not make generalised statements that can be misconstrued. The problem, after all, is small.

I hope that we will remain cautious and not use emotive language when dealing with cases of fraud. Quite a number of welfare rights groups have expressed their concern about the treatment of certain groups who appear to be subject to special scrutiny and unreasonable testing, in the form of DSS identity checks in local offices. I want absolute assurances from the Minister that fraud will be dealt with case by case, not by lumping together groups of people and making assumptions about whether they are more likely than others to put in fraudulent claims. We must ensure that investigations are done sensitively by well trained officers--and case by case, not judging by people's circumstances or status, be they homeless, young or any other type that the Government may want to pursue.

Mr. Nicholls : Does the hon. Gentleman agree that welfare rights organisations themselves should perhaps come out and make the point that it is no part of their remit to make light of fraud? Given the consensus between us on this occasion, it might considerably help the public debate if they made the point clearly that fraud is unacceptable, and if they urged their members and those whom they look after to co-operate as fully as they can in stamping it out.

Mr. Bradley : I am not aware of any welfare rights organisation that has publicly condoned fraud or that has not undertaken its duties with the highest professional competence. These organisations ensure that they do not assist bogus claims, and they carry out crucial work to make certain that everyone entitled to benefit receives the benefit for which he has sought assistance. These organisations also ensure that all the benefits to which people may be entitled are properly administered on their behalf.

As I have said, we must be careful not to be emotive or to generalise. I hope that we will not fall into the trap to which the Minister alluded--in previous debates some of those who have spoken have done no credit to themselves. They did not further the cause of ensuring that the debate is taken seriously.

The Secretary of State's speech at last year's Tory party conference had more to do with rallying his supporters and perhaps strengthening his position in the Cabinet than addressing the issue of fraud. [Interruption.] I shall take that as a sedentary comment. Would the Government Whip like to intervene?

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Janet Fookes) : Order. We will obey the rules here.

Mr. Burt : The hon. Gentleman spoke about conduct in debates. My hon. Friends can speak for themselves, but I

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can say that no Minister has ever done anything less than full credit to himself in fraud debates. It is the Government's duty to make it plain to the House and the country how we feel about fraud. It is entirely right for us to express our views on fraud in strong terms.

Mr. Bradley : I shall leave others to judge the intemperate nature of those debates by reading them.

Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) : Fraud is obviously wrong, but does my hon. Friend agree that it would be useful to have in Government time a debate on tax evasion in the City of London, and major fraud by major companies?

Mr. Bradley : My hon. Friend anticipates the next part of my speech. It is important to adopt an even-handed approach to fraud, and to examine it from all sides. To get a proper perspective, we must examine some high- profile fraud cases, expecially those involving tax evasion.

The Minister waved today's editions of the papers. By chance, I looked at yesterday's Evening Standard which states :

"Whitehall caterers cooked the books in £1 million fiddle." We cannot look at social security or local government fraud without looking at fraud in Government, industry and private enterprise. High-profile trials have included Guinness, Blue Arrow and Maxwell. Those and many others have cost taxpayers billions of pounds.

Madam Deputy Speaker : Order. I remind the hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members that, although it is perfectly in order to make a passing reference to issues that may appear to be germane, the debate must centre on social security fraud.

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