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Benefit Fraud

9. Mike Gapes (Ilford, South): If he will make a statement on new measures he plans to combat benefit fraud. [55495]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Malcolm Wicks): In April, we introduced a range of measures using powers taken in the Fraud Act 2001 which will help us to tackle the fraudster. Investigators can now request information from banks and utilities to find evidence of fraud. They also have stronger

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powers to tackle employers who collude with their staff to defraud the benefit system. We now also have the power to remove benefits from those people who persistently abuse the system. That shows the Government's determination to crack down on the fraudster.

Mike Gapes: I welcome that reply, and those measures are long overdue. Previous Governments allowed far too much fraud by employers and unscrupulous people and it is good that this Government will put that right. Can the Minister give us some indication of the effectiveness of the measures that have been taken so far? Will he give consideration to further measures in the future, including perhaps biometric cards or other technological means to ensure the effectiveness of identity checks?

Malcolm Wicks: My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the possibility of identity fraud. We have systems and technologies enabling us to identify it wherever possible, and we are beginning to win the war against the social-security fraudster. Between 1999 and March 2001 we reduced the amount of fraud and error in income support and jobseeker's allowance by 18 per cent., nearly double our first milestone of 10 per cent. Moreover, that was achieved a year ahead of schedule.

Mr. Archy Kirkwood (Roxburgh and Berwickshire): I acknowledge that much has been done, which is right and proper, but will the Minister turn his attention to housing benefit fraud and to the verification framework in particular? According to recent written answers and departmental research, central Government expenditure on the framework has amounted to nearly £1 billion, for a net win of £100 million annually. Bearing that in mind, along with some of the administrative delays caused by the framework, will the Minister ask his officials to conduct a cost-benefit analysis?

Am I not right in thinking that last April, more than a year ago, the Department decided to undertake a housing benefit review? I do not think we have heard any more about that to date.

Malcolm Wicks: We are conducting a research exercise to produce an up-to-date figure for the amount of housing benefit fraud. We are not complacent, but we feel that the money we are spending will prove cost-effective. More and more local authorities are safeguarding the system by adopting the verification framework. They can now adopt chunks at a time, by means of a modular approach.

As with fraud related to income support and jobseeker's allowance, we are confident that we are beginning to win the war—but yes, much more needs to be done.

Mr. Michael Jabez Foster (Hastings and Rye): Does my hon. Friend agree that employers frequently know that their employees are cheating the system? Subject to evidence, should such employers not be prosecuted for aiding and abetting?

Malcolm Wicks: Yes. There is capacity in the system for employers to collude with employees, but we are on to the problem. It should be tackled, and it is being tackled.

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Mr. David Willetts (Havant): How many national insurance numbers are there in the country? Will the Minister give us the latest figure, and tell us how much greater it is than the entire British population? Will he also tell us what measures he has taken to tackle abuse of national insurance numbers, one of the most rapidly growing forms of benefit fraud?

Malcolm Wicks: We are tackling the abuse of national insurance numbers. We now employ rigorous processes when people apply for them, and a number of people are turned down every week and every month.

I realise that there is some confusion about the total amount of national insurance numbers. We are conducting an analysis in the Department, so that everyone knows what we have already made clear in parliamentary answers—that there is a difference between those of working age with national insurance numbers and those who have retired, but must still have numbers for obvious social-security purposes.

Mr. Willetts: Is the Minister aware that there are more than 80 million national insurance numbers, 20 million more—

The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr. Alistair Darling) rose

Mr. Willetts: It seems that the Secretary of State is going to answer my question. I look forward to hearing his answer.

Is the Minister aware that, according to the most recent parliamentary answer, there are more than 80 million national insurance numbers, over 20 million more than the entire British population? Whatever ingenious explanations the Minister offers, in terms of national insurance numbers for the deceased husbands of widows and suchlike, we still have a problem: far more national insurance numbers are being issued than there are people who legitimately need them.

Malcolm Wicks: Unlike a previous Administration, we are being rigorous about the issuing of national insurance numbers. As I have said, we turn down numerous people every week and every month. We are conducting an exercise so that we can explain fully to the House why the numbers in existence are in existence, but when someone dies, the widow or widower's entitlement is an issue. Common sense suggests that the national insurance number should therefore be retained.

Single Room Rent Restrictions

10. Mr. Gordon Marsden (Blackpool, South): What assessment he has made of the impact of single room rent restrictions on the accommodation situation in seaside and coastal towns. [55497]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Malcolm Wicks): We introduced improvements to the single room rent provisions last July. They now strike a more effective balance between ensuring that young people have access to accommodation

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while making sure that the benefit system does not provide them with better housing than young people who are in work.

We also plan to commission a joint study with the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions to examine the impact of these changes later this year.

Mr. Marsden: Grateful though I am to my hon. Friend for that reply, does he appreciate that the present restrictions bear down particularly hard on young people in seaside and coastal towns who are looking for work? Streetlife, a charity in my constituency, said that it had about 30 landlords who would take young people presenting as homeless before the rent restriction was introduced. Since its introduction, the number has declined to zero. I ask my hon. Friend, in whom I have

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great faith, to speed up the review that is taking place over the summer and, notwithstanding that, to put some oomph into his officials, who have been remarkably complacent about the issue in recent years.

Malcolm Wicks: I can assure my hon. Friend that our officials have plenty of oomph—those who work on behalf of the House and the public are very energised people. We have changed the system for single roomrent. It used to be limited to the average cost of a non-self-contained room with a shared toilet and kitchen. It now allows someone to have exclusive use of a bedroom, with shared use of a toilet, bathroom, kitchen and living room. I looked up the evidence, and about71 per cent. of all single adults under 25 without children who live in the privately rented sector have accommodation of that kind. I am confident that we are striking the right balance but, of course, we keep all such matters closely under review.

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Points of Order

3.31 pm

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Have you had any request from the Ministry of Defence to make a statement on the relief—let us use the polite word—of Brigadier Lane in Afghanistan? Does not the House of Commons deserve to know what the heck is going on in Afghanistan, particularly in the prisoner camps? If what was outlined in "The World Tonight" on Friday and to my hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) and me is true, it is almost holocaust-like and the west should be ashamed. If the reports are true, should not the House of Commons be told?

Mr. Speaker: The hon. Gentleman's first question was whether I had been contacted by any Minister with regard to a statement. The answer is no. It is the responsibility of the Minister concerned to come before the House.

Sir Sydney Chapman (Chipping Barnet): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I wish to raise, not for the first time, the inordinate length of ministerial replies to supplementary questions, as the Question Time that has just finished showed. Will you make a study of Hansard tomorrow and, if you believe it appropriate, write to Ministers or communicate with them to ask them to make their replies shorter? They really are becoming longer and longer.

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