Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Hogg: Will the Minister please respond to the question that my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) asked him? It related to the fact that the motion is drawn in such terms as to apply to any motion relating to regulatory reform that might be before the House. Will the Minister be good enough to give a guarantee that the only motion relating to regulatory reform to be discussed will be the one now on the Order Paper?

Mr. Stringer: The motion will clearly relate to the Regulatory Reform Act and the establishment of a new Select Committee with extended terms of reference.

I ask the House to support the motion.

Question put and agreed to.


(1) at the sitting on 2nd May the Speaker shall put the Questions necessary to dispose of proceedings on any Motion in the name of Margaret Beckett relating to Regulatory Reform not later than Seven o'clock, and such Questions shall include the Questions on any amendment selected by the Speaker which may then be moved; and
(2) if proceedings on any such Motion have not been completed before Seven o'clock, the Private Business set down by direction of the Chairman of Ways and Means for consideration at that hour may be proceeded with, though opposed, for three hours after it has been entered upon

1 May 2001 : Column 760

Orders of the Day

Social Security Fraud Bill

As amended in the Committee, considered.

The Minister of State, Department of Social Security (Mr. Jeff Rooker): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Before we begin proceedings on the Bill, may I extend orally an apology that I gave the House yesterday in a written answer? I repeated an error in a written answer at Question Time, on the Floor of the House, and I feel that I should correct both answers.

I gave a written answer yesterday, which can be found in column 518W of Hansard, relating to departmental advertising. Towards the end of the answer, I corrected a written answer that I had given on 7 March to the hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts), which can be found in column 233W. I have also written a long letter to the hon. Gentleman, explaining how that came about. The letter, which is long and convoluted, has been placed in the Library.

During Social Security questions on 2 April--this can be found in column 11--I effectively repeated the same error relating to advertising expenditure. It is only proper, according to the terms of the code of conduct, for the error to be corrected and apologised for in both written and oral form, and I do so now. There was certainly no intention to mislead the House; I am as annoyed about this as anyone else, and I am glad to have been able to set the record straight both in writing and orally.

Mr. Speaker: I thank the right hon. Gentleman.

New Clause 2

Disclosure of benefit details

'The Secretary of State may require, by amending any benefit application form, that all benefit applicants shall give consent in writing, as a condition of receiving benefit, to the provision of some or all of their benefit details by an authorised officer to--

(a) any person falling within section 109B(2A) of the Administration Act; and
(b) any other person whose principal duty is to counter fraud;
provided that the benefit recipient has a conviction for fraud or the officer has reasonable grounds for belief that the benefit recipient may be committing, or intending to commit, fraud.'.

Brought up, and read the First Time.

4.6 pm

Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead): I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second Time.

The new clause is billed as "Disclosure of benefit details", but it could have been entitled "Joining CIFAS"--or indeed, given its genesis, termed the "wish list" of the Minister of State, who has expressed the wish that the Government could join the credit industry fraud avoidance system.

Although I doubt that any Member present does not know what CIFAS is and who belongs to it, I shall say a brief word about it before trying to explain what the new clause does. CIFAS is a fraud avoidance system, which, as I shall demonstrate later, has proved effective. As we all now know that we can wear glasses safely, I shall put

1 May 2001 : Column 761

mine on--they are not as expensive as some people's, but I hope that they are as effective--and read a list of the organisations that have voluntarily united to try to counter the fraud that their firms and other bodies suffer. The membership of CIFAS includes banks, building societies, insurance companies, credit card companies, share dealers and finance houses. The roll call includes more than just representatives of what we normally think of as the traditional finance industry.

The aim of CIFAS is to build up a register of those suspected of, or known to be, committing fraud against members and, therefore, against their customers and shareholders. What we must ask today is, "If this works so well for the private sector, do we not want the public sector to be fully involved in it?" CIFAS is about beating fraud and spreading the good practice that arises from attempts to beat it. Its latest press release could have been taken from any of the Green Papers that have been published during this Parliament on how best to go about protecting taxpayers' money.

Although in a previous debate on the Bill there was some questioning of the extent of social security fraud and how the total was arrived at, CIFAS has no problem working out what is saved in countering fraud. At its annual general meeting last week, it was able to register that about £203 million had been saved by member organisations as a result of their collective action--action not merely to protect each organisation itself from fraud, but to share information with other organisations, so that they are best equipped to counter fraud against them. Those who have had e-mails about last week's AGM or were there themselves know that the members reported that the fastest growing form of fraud is giving false identities. The position that the Department faces cannot be dissimilar.

In its response to the Bill, the private sector has welcomed the Government's attempt to get a better grip on countering fraud, but has expressed considerable dissatisfaction with the way in which they are approaching the issue. Although the Government talk about data sharing, the private sector views it as data raiding. The Government are not doing any sharing at all. They ask CIFAS and other organisations for information on what is known and on membership but return nothing in its place.

CIFAS and its members--the private sector--argue that while the Bill may be effective in shifting fraud around, it will be ineffective in countering fraud. The more successful the Government are in protecting taxpayers' money--something that we all wish to be pursued as effectively as possible--the greater the chance that the Bill will just push the fraudster out of the public sector and into the private sector.

There are costs for the private sector. The costs are, as required, listed in the Bill, although no one in the private sector believes that the cost will be limited to that level. New clause 2 attempts to fulfil the wish that the Minister expressed in a previous debate: that if we could join CIFAS, we would. The new clause would allow the Government to do precisely that.

One of the arguments that came up in that debate--it may or may not be advanced today--was that there was a difference between people claiming benefit and,

1 May 2001 : Column 762

for example, people opening a bank account: people are free to open a bank account, but, if they are eligible, and particularly if they are poor, there is no freedom about drawing benefit. I wonder whether that argument holds because the Government are intent on moving benefit payments to banks. The checking that banks will do to ensure that they are not enrolling known fraudsters will involve all the people who currently do not have bank accounts, but whom the Government wish to persuade to open them, so that benefit payments can be made much more efficiently, cheaply and, we hope, with much less fraud. The major argument for there being something special--something ring-fenced--about drawing benefit that separates it from other activities that people voluntarily undertake and prevents the Government, on behalf of taxpayers, from joining CIFAS therefore falls to the ground.

I hope that when we have had our debate and the Minister replies, we will all be delighted and hear not only that he wishes to join, but that he has now, with the help of his colleagues, found a way of doing precisely that. It is clear to those of us who have visited CIFAS members--I know that he has been to some of those that I have visited to see how they operate--that they probably already have in place a more effective way of countering fraud or preventing fraudsters from entering the system than the Department has. That is not to denigrate the importance of what the Department does, but CIFAS membership would be another effective string to the Government's bow in helping to counter fraud. Given that the new clause has support on both sides of the House, I hope that the Government, who are serious about dealing with fraud, will take this opportunity--late as it is in the Bill's proceedings--to ensure that after the general election whoever forms the next Government will become a full member of CIFAS.

We should use CIFAS's techniques alongside our own in protecting taxpayers' money and show that we are not merely about raiding the private sector for information or trying to shift fraud from the public to the private sector. We should also demonstrate that we do not wish merely to shift fraud around, but to limit the amount of fraud committed.

Next Section

IndexHome Page