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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Malcolm Wicks): We are making good progress in tackling benefit fraud, and we expect that progress to continue. Results show that by March 2001 we had reduced the level of fraud and error in income support and jobseeker's allowance by 18 per cent.nearly double our first milestone of 10 per cent. That was a year ahead of schedule. By 2004, we are committed to reducing fraud and error by 25 per cent., and to halving it by 2006.
Bob Russell: I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. All fraud is to be deplored, but does he agree that it is important that the message goes out that genuine applicants should not be put off by whatever propaganda the Government are using, rightly, to attack fraud? Will he join me in supporting the Government message, and make it loud and clear that the majority of asylum seekers and refugees, when they are given an opportunity to work, are net contributors to the public purse and do not take from it?
Malcolm Wicks: I certainly agree that when, for reasons that we all understand, people are properly granted asylum, they become economically active and are an asset in all sorts of ways to our community and our economy.
Mr. Bill Tynan (Hamilton, South): I am sure my hon. Friend would agree that in spite of the successes in countering benefit fraud, it continues to be a major drain on the country's resources. Does he agree that one of the problems is the lack of co-operation between the various Government Departments in exchanging information that would ensure more convictions and less fraud?
Malcolm Wicks: We all agree that the more we can crack down on fraud, the more money we will have for social priorities such as care of the elderly, education and health. There is now a great deal of co-operation between Government Departments. That was a major problem in the past, but under, for example, the Social Security Fraud Act 2001 we can not only share data with other Government Departments but require data from banks and even utilities. It is vital that the fraudster cannot play off one Government agency against another, which is why we have taken the powers to collect the data to attack the fraudster.
Patrick Mercer (Newark): Between October 1999 and December 2001, there were 50,000 investigations of working families tax credit fraud, but only 28 prosecutions. Will the Minister undertake to look into the matter more carefully and demonstrate a new resolve to deal with fraud in relation to the working families tax credit next year?
Malcolm Wicks: Working families tax credit is, properly, the responsibility of the Treasury. I will draw the hon. Gentleman's question to the attention of its officials. We have responsibility for, among other things, the Benefits Agency. Between 1997 and 200001, the total number of prosecutions, cautions and penalties increased from 11,700 to almost 27,000. That demonstrates that we are tough on the fraudster and detecting fraud out of the system, and tough on the causes of fraud.
The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr. Alistair Darling): As I said a short while ago, people need to save more for their retirement. Our approach is based on a partnership between state and private provision, as both are essential. Since 1998 we have reformed the structure of pensions in this country to build and strengthen existing partnerships between the state, the pensions industry, individuals and employers.
Gareth Thomas: I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. Does he accept that there is real concern that people are not making adequate provision for their retirement? Does he also accept that the Government have a crucial role in educating the public and encouraging them at an
Mr. Darling: My hon. Friend is right. People need to be aware of the fact that as we can all reasonably expect to live longer we have to make provision to finance us at whatever standard of living we think we want in retirement. The introduction of annual pension statements will help to concentrate minds, but more needs to be done with pensions and other financial products. As I said on previous occasions, when we reach the stage when pension products and the way in which they are sold are heavily regulated, we may unintentionally impede access to the very products that we want people to buy. A number of measures are necessaryfirst, to make people aware of the need to save and, secondly, to make it easier for them to acquire the means to save.
Mr. George Osborne (Tatton): Following the Government's heavy defeats on Friday on the Pensions Annuities (Amendment) Bill, will they now accept the Bill and give people the chance to have a decent income in retirement?
Mr. Darling: No, because the purpose of the Bill is to benefit a minority of people in this country who are better off and on higher incomes. I have made it clear time and again that although the Government are willing to consider ways in which the annuity market might be improvedindeed, we are consulting on themwe will not introduce a system that blatantly benefits a tiny minority at the top of the income scale at the expense of everybody else. That approach might be all right for the Conservatives, but it does not commend itself to us.
The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr. Alistair Darling): At the start of this month, we launched Jobcentre Plus, bringing help on jobs and benefits together under one roof with a very clear work focus. That will ensure that personal advisers are more responsive and can inform claimants of the full range of support available and the options open to help them move from welfare into work.
Ross Cranston: I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer and for all the work that he and his Department have done to reduce unemployment in Dudley, which has fallen by about 25 per cent. since 1997. One of the problems in old manufacturing areas such as Dudley is unemployment among older men. Will he explain what the new institutional changes will do to address it?
Mr. Darling: My hon. and learned Friend raises a very important problem. At our previous Question Time, hon. Members on both sides of the House expressed support for increasing the effort that we put into helping men over 50 to get into work. It is worth reflecting on the fact that a third of people over 50 but under retirement age are out of work, and that half of them depend on benefits for most
Other measures such as the new deal and StepUp, which my right hon. Friend also mentioned, are designed to ensure that people who find it more difficult to get back into work get all the help to which they are entitled. Getting the over-50s into work is an essential part of our welfare to work policy and has a very strong bearing on pension policy, as the two are inextricably linked.
Mr. Archy Kirkwood (Roxburgh and Berwickshire): The Secretary of State is right to point out that the creation of Jobcentre Plus a fortnight ago is a welcome step forward, as it introduces the concept of personal advisers who offer advice and back-up when people are trying to get off benefit and into work. Does he accept that analysis of the ONE project, the precursor to Jobcentre Plus, indicated that the personal advisers' case load was such that they did not have enough time to give advice and spent most of their time processing benefit claims? Will he assure the House that when Jobcentre Plus is properly launchedI accept that it will take some timethere will be a proper balance between the efficient processing of benefits and the provision of adequate time to get people off benefits and into work?
Mr. Darling: A number of problems with the ONE project became obvious in the first year or so of its operation; the hon. Gentleman highlights one of them. The advantage of setting up a single agency that brings together benefit processing and job search is that, once and for all, we can get rid of the artificial distinction between people who sign on for work and those who sign on for benefits. That is especially important for some older people who are simply written off on disability benefits.
Under the new system, when somebody goes into a Jobcentre Plus office, their benefit entitlement will be assessed by somebody whose sole job is to undertake that task. At the same time, they will be interviewed with a view to getting them back into work. The object should be to sort out their benefit as quickly as possible and then to talk to them about job search. That approach was tried out over the past couple of years, not only in the ONE project but in some of the mainstream jobcentre offices, especially on the Clyde coast. I know that the hon. Gentleman is familiar with the situation there. The approach is beginning to produce results. It is early days yet, but there is no doubt that bringing together benefits and job search is beginning to have results by not only putting people into work but ensuring that we pay the right benefit to the right person at the right ratesomething that was conspicuously lacking in previous years.
Mr. Darling: My hon. Friend is right. I was talking about older people because whereas in the past youth unemployment was by far the biggest priority that the Government had to tackle, we now need to put the same vigour and enthusiasm into tackling unemployment among older people.
We must ensure that we help young people who had difficulties at school, have fallen through the system and are not receiving the right level of help. That can be achieved through the Connexions service, and, when they are a bit older, the Jobcentre Plus network. All the evidence shows that the sooner young people can be placed in work, earning money and appreciating all the doors that that opens, the less risk there is of their falling back into unemployment or the other difficulties that they often unfortunately face.
Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York): Does the Secretary of State realise that there is a problem of access, especially in a deeply rural constituency such as the Vale of York, where not a single jobcentre is to be found? Does he accept that there is a gulf between his Department's aspirations and its delivery on the ground?
Mr. Darling: We try our best to position jobcentre offices around the country. As I understand it, it is not Conservative party policy to spend millions of pounds more on setting up jobcentresindeed, it is quite the opposite.
Mr. Darling: It is very good of the hon. Lady to do so. It may be some time before her party is again in a position to have a hand in these matters. She cannot say that we should spend less on the administration of my Department and that she wants more jobcentre offices. As we roll out the Jobcentre Plus network and make decisions about where the single offices are situated, we will make sure that there is an even spread and that transport communications are such that people can get access. If the hon. Lady supports me in ensuring that the Department is adequately resourced to do all that, I welcome her as a recruit to the cause.