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Winter Fuel Payments

6. Mr. Nick St. Aubyn (Guildford): If he will make a statement on winter fuel payments. [136111]

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The Secretary of State for Social Security (Mr. Alistair Darling): Winter fuel payments have been increased to £200 this week. Payments will be issued from today.

Mr. St. Aubyn: Is not the real fraud that is being perpetrated on pensioners today the fact that a Social Security Minister promised in July that all payments for past winters would be cleared by the end of September? However, nearly 1 million pensioners are still waiting for their winter fuel payments from previous winters. Would not it be far better to consolidate winter fuel payments in the basic pension and to give a benefit, no questions asked, to all pensioners, which they would receive when they needed it, not when the Government decide that they should get it?

Mr. Darling: I note that the hon. Gentleman has the brass neck to refer to the subject of Question 5. He sheds crocodile tears about the winter fuel payment and his comments are unconvincing because the Tories are committed to getting rid of it. He is concerned about men between the ages of 60 and 65 who have not yet received their winter fuel payment, but the total is only 3 per cent. and claims are still being processed. He must tell those men that under the Tories they would not get any help whatever because they would lose £200 per household. His concern has no credibility.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North): Two days after Christmas 1996, I took a group of Labour Members to No. 10 Downing street to urge--to plead--for some help to be given with heating costs because of the freezing weather. No action was taken.

Am I not right in thinking that before we came to office there were no heating additions at all unless the weather was freezing for seven consecutive days--and it had to be seven consecutive days--in which case some £8 was given only to those on income support? Is that not the difference between what we did the moment we came to office, and what the Tories did? They should hang their heads in shame.

Mr. Darling: My hon. Friend is right. The cold weather payments scheme meant that it had to be cold for a long period, and that happens less than people might think, even in parts of the country where it appears to be cold all the time. The difference is that under our scheme every pensioner household receives a £200 winter fuel payment. The payments are being made between today and Christmas, which means that pensioners will have the money when the weather is starting to get cold, and will not have to worry about turning up the heating this winter.

What pensioners must realise is that, were the Tories to return to office, that £200 would be taken away. It is benefit-free and tax-free. However, 2.5 million people who either do not receive the pension or do not receive the full pension will lose out as a result of the Tories' policy.

Mr. David Willetts (Havant): We will put it on the basic pension.

Mr. Darling: The House of Commons Library looked at the hon. Gentleman's figures, and said that the best he could claim was that pensioners would be 42p a week

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better off. I am more than happy to stand by what we are doing, in contrast to what the Tories are promising to take away from pensioners.

Sir David Madel (South-West Bedfordshire): Why are women who reached the age of 60 last month unable to receive the winter fuel allowance this winter?

Mr. Darling: Because, as with many other provisions, there has to be a qualifying date. Otherwise, it would not be possible to ensure that all the payments were made. There has always been a qualifying date; nothing has changed this year.

Gillian Merron (Lincoln): Can the Secretary of State confirm that the new £200 winter fuel payment will be payable to men aged 60 to 64? Is he aware of the importance of his assurance to constituents of mine such as Mr. Hutchings, who has rightly campaigned for prompt payment of the benefit to those in his age group? There is no doubt that men aged 60 to 64 would lose out following the implementation of Tory plans to axe the benefit and replace it with absolutely nothing.

Mr. Darling: My hon. Friend is right. We have received more than 1 million claims from men aged between 60 and 65; 990,000 have been met, while about 3 per cent. have yet to be processed but will be met shortly.

The hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) shouted that men aged between 60 and 65 would receive the money in their pensions. They will not, because they are not retired. They will lose £200 as a result of the Tory policy.


7. Mr. Paul Burstow (Sutton and Cheam): What contribution he made concerning age discrimination in his capacity as Minister with responsibility for older people to the framing of the European Union directive on discrimination in employment. [136112]

The Minister of State, Department of Social Security (Mr. Jeff Rooker): We have worked closely with colleagues in the Department for Education and Employment throughout negotiations on the EU directive to ensure that the final text provides a clear and workable foundation on which all member states can base their legislation.

Mr. Burstow: Can the Minister confirm that the Government backed a six-year delay in implementation of the age discrimination aspects of the directive? Does he agree that it is very much a case of cold comfort for 50-year-olds who face discrimination now to be told that they must wait until they are 56? Will the Minister and his colleagues take steps towards legislating to implement the measures that are necessary to protect people from age discrimination now, rather than waiting for another six years?

Mr. Rooker: I understand why the hon. Gentleman has raised the issue, but I remind him that the European directive is not just about age discrimination. In any event, measures could not be introduced overnight.

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The directive affects discrimination on the grounds of disability, age, religion or belief, and sexual orientation, so implementation will have a significant impact on the UK and other member states. We have allowed six years to consult on the implications of the directive and introduce it. Before the hon. Gentleman does down this country, I might add that the only countries in Europe that are ahead of the UK in employing over-50s are Sweden, Denmark and Portugal. We are therefore the fourth biggest employer of over-50s in the European Union.

Mr. Dafydd Wigley (Caernarfon): Does the Minister accept that one group suffers a triple discrimination--namely, older people who are disabled and on social security? In the context of the new European initiatives, will he look at speeding things up to try and ensure that there is no inbuilt discrimination within the system, as referred to in last week's statement? That would enable any changes in policy to be introduced quickly instead of waiting for the European directive.

Mr. Rooker: I entirely agree with the right hon. Gentleman. First, six years is allowed to do everything in the directive, but much can be done in less than six years. Secondly, regarding age discrimination in employment, as opposed to other aspects that I have talked about, we have introduced a voluntary code of practice. We want that to work and will meet employers tomorrow and listen to the issues that they want to raise. We have already said that if the code does not work, we shall take other measures, as we are not going to let the idea wither. We are attempting a voluntary approach to start with, but if that fails, we shall look at other approaches.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): In anticipation of the possible--indeed, likely--passage of the directive, what review has the Department undertaken of its own employment practices?

Mr. Rooker: Tied in with the directive is the publication of "Winning the Generation Game" by the performance and innovation unit, which relates to older people right across the board. Departments must certainly look at ensuring that they set an example. It is no good Ministers telling industry to do certain things if we do not take action in our own Departments. My Department is taking a lead in allowing people to work beyond 60, and I want that to be extended across Government. Some Departments have yet to resolve certain issues--such as the Home Office, which must deal with a cut-off point that applies to some members of the prison service but not others.

We must justify our actions before forcing people to retire early. There must be good grounds for that, and we must not simply say, "This is how it has always been". That is not sufficient.


8. Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby): What recent assessment he has made of the amount of money fraudulently obtained from the benefits system since 1997; and if he will make a statement. [136113]

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15. Mr. John Randall (Uxbridge): If he will make a statement on the amount of benefit fraud since May 1997. [136122]

The Minister of State, Department of Social Security (Mr. Jeff Rooker): The estimated loss due to fraud is £2 billion per year. That figure refers to the fraud we know about. We have now increased the targets for reducing the amount of fraud and error in the system. We are aiming to reduce the losses from fraud and error in income support and jobseeker's allowance--the two most vulnerable benefits--by 25 per cent. by March 2004, and by 50 per cent. by March 2006.

Mr. Robathan: Despite all the rhetoric, according to a study by the Department, which was revealed in The Sunday Times in May, the cost of fraud in benefit may be as high as £7 billion--although, according to the Public Accounts Committee, it is £4 billion. Will the Minister confirm that, under the Labour Government, successful prosecutions for housing benefit fraud have halved since May 1997? Will he also confirm that, according to figures that he released to the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field), there are about 20 million more insurance numbers than there are people in this country?

Mr. Rooker: May I deal with the last point first, as it is part of a myth? There are indeed more national insurance numbers on the system than people in this country, and a good example will suffice for hon. Members to understand why that is so. To pay a widow's pension based on her husband's contributions, we need to maintain the national insurance number for the deceased. We must also maintain numbers for people who leave the country, because we do not know whether they will come back. There is an extensive programme for managing the national insurance number system because, clearly, there can be problems with it. However, the system is not operated willy-nilly and it is not right to say that, because there are more numbers than people in the country, 20 million of them are open to fraud.

I dispute the point. What I said was: "fraud we know about". By definition, we cannot count the exact amount. There are estimates given--the hon. Gentleman has given the PAC's estimate, and the higher figure that appeared in a newspaper report this year--but may I explain? Changes that we have made in income support alone since 1997 will save £1 billion in this Parliament. One in three payments of income support was made in error when we came in, so we can save £1 billion.

There is now much more cross-checking than ever before of Department of Social Security records with other Government records--I have said it before at the Dispatch Box--for data-matching purposes, to find out where people are on the fiddle. So far, we have saved £150 million. We will soon cross-check benefit and tax records to flush out benefit cheats in the building industry.

We have continued the prosecution policy. There are some 200 prosecutions a week in respect of the Benefits Agency. I make a final point as an example. By March 2001, specialist identity checks will be introduced

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nationally. Those have been piloted in the Balham area of London since June 1997. The pilot projects alone have led to more than 200 arrests.

Mr. Randall: How many initiatives does the Minister think his Department has launched to cut fraud since the Government came to power in 1997?

Mr. Rooker: I would not dream of counting them. The main one is to get a strategy for dealing with fraud--that is, to get the benefit right, paid to the right person and maintained properly in the system. If we do not do that, it gets out of control. Therefore, we have taken that strategic step.

All the other measures relate to a myriad different benefits, some means-tested, some contributory--we must still watch fraud on those--and others are neither; those include disability benefits. We must have action on that. We have strengthened the fraud investigator's powers. As time permits in the House, we will take steps at an early opportunity, for example, to introduce measures relating to those who have defrauded the Benefits Agency twice--two strikes and they are out of benefit.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow): Is it not a generalised truth that rumour, hearsay and sometimes malice exaggerate the amount of fraud?

Mr. Rooker: The answer is yes, but we must accept that we pay in benefits a total of £2 billion a week--dozens of benefits to millions of people. For example, we issue 1 million order books a week. Our system is under attack by organised crime--organised criminals. I am not on about someone who is working and claiming, although I am not condoning that. I am on about organised crime.

We have measures to deal with that. There are attempts at multi-million pound scams on our benefit system, so we have to take steps. One of them, which has been suggested many times in the House as a step towards stopping that, will be the payment of benefits via credit transfer to stop fraud on instruments of payment: the benefit books, which are thieved, manipulated and changed so that the public are defrauded. So we must take the matter seriously; but we must also accept that there is rumour, and malice on the part of people who want to undermine the system.

Mr. Jim Cousins (Newcastle upon Tyne, Central): Protection against fraud is extremely important--the Minister is right to point that out--but so too is common humanity. I have in my hand a letter to one of my constituents who was declared dead while living in a homeless persons hostel. His income support was stopped, his housing benefit was stopped and his community care resettlement grant was stopped. He was not dead, however. As a result of an anti-fraud protection measure, he now finds himself living in a council flat in my constituency without the benefit of his community care resettlement grant of only £285; and it cannot be reissued to him for a further six weeks.

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Later this afternoon, I will contact the Department of Social Security in Newcastle upon Tyne about the matter. I hope that I have the Minister's support in saying that such an anti-fraud measure does not display common humanity and must be corrected.

Mr. Rooker: Clearly, a gross error has occurred. I hope that my hon. Friend is not going to wait to contact Newcastle, but will give me the information immediately after Question Time.

Mr. Eric Pickles (Brentwood and Ongar): The Minister of State has just said, to use his exact words, that he is concerned about stopping people "on the fiddle" in relation to benefits. He has also talked about the need to tackle organised crime, and for co-operation between various Departments and agencies. Can he therefore explain the extraordinary guidelines given to the Department's staff telling them not to supply information to police in cases involving car theft, muggings or burglary? Does he realise that the Department's guidelines suggest that those are minor crimes and that it is more important to protect customer records? Is he surprised, therefore, that Mr. Glen Smyth of the Police Federation has described the new guidelines as a "criminals' charter"?

The guidelines are not the best way to start an anti-fraud strategy--which, as we have already had 42 initiatives, must be the 43rd. Will the Minister take this opportunity to repudiate the new guidelines and to issue instructions for them to be torn up?

Mr. Rooker: They are not new guidelines--they are exactly the same as those issued by the previous Government. Nothing has changed whatsoever, except that the Police Federation has an axe to grind. I do not know what number initiative we are on now--

Mr. Pickles: It is 43.

Mr. Rooker: Then let us have 44 initiatives. We are taking the issue so seriously that senior staff in my Department are being joined by the former head of investigations at Customs and Excise and by the former deputy director of MI5.

Ms Rosie Winterton (Doncaster, Central): Are not some of the worst examples of benefit fraud committed by predatory private landlords who exploit some of the most vulnerable and poorest members of our society and milk the benefits system for all it is worth? What action is my right hon. Friend taking to improve the benefit system, so that not only is better housing provided, but fraud by those latter-day Rachman landlords is cut?

Mr. Rooker: We have--at the risk of adding to the number of initiatives--a verification framework to ensure that those who are claiming housing benefit are who they claim to be; that they have legitimate reasons for giving the address that they give; and that there is no collusion with landlords to fiddle the rent amount. We have also provided local authorities with remote access terminals so that they can cross-check with the Benefits Agency on the matters that have to be checked. We have also set up the Royal Mail "do not redirect" service, as a way of stopping giro drops. Although I know even from my own

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constituency that there have been complaints about how those measures have slowed down claims, they are a way of cutting fraud.

Some landlords and other people are willing to exploit the system. Sometimes landlords collude with tenants. We have to take the action we can to get those people out of the system and to prosecute when possible.

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