Draft Social Security Administration Act 1992 (Amendment) Order 2002

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Mr. Heath: I accept absolutely and applaud the Minister's firm intent to deal effectively with fraud. My challenge is to the occasional hyperbole unsupported by the facts found in Government announcements on the subject. I would love it if the facts backed such statements up, but we are not quite there yet.

Malcolm Wicks: It is important that none of us goes in for hyperbole, even on the most heated occasions. There is a substantial amount of fraud, but we have new powers and procedures and our staff will have more training so that when we investigate, we do so properly. The new ''two strikes and you're out'' provision will deal with those who defraud the system more than once. I am satisfied that we are moving in the right direction, which is why I cite the 18 per cent. achievement that has been made already. That is ahead of target and a credit to our staff, but we are not complacent. There is much to do.

All members of the Committee share the belief that fraud is a crime. Substantial sums are defrauded, and all of us would prefer that money to be spent on enabling true claimants to receive their proper benefit and pension entitlements, or on health and education. We are united on those matters.

On the question of belief, we need reasonable grounds to believe that the person is involved in fraud. If I used the word ''suspicion'' in a more generic sense, I was not deliberately trying to mislead the Committee.

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In terms of the impact on public and private sectors, none of us wants to impose regulations for the sake of it. We are confident that the requests that we will make of the private sector are reasonable. It is reasonable that the Government ask the private sector to co-operate, but we will keep under close review our powers and the burden that they impose on business. All of us have an interest in bearing down on the fraudster, and many of the companies that we are talking about, such as banks, also suffer gravely from fraud. We need to work in partnership to tackle the debilitating culture of fraud in our community.

We only investigate fraud when there is a real belief that it is taking place. No single piece of information is considered in isolation. We should be aware that some people maliciously accuse their neighbours of benefit fraud. Ultimately, a decision on benefit entitlement is made by one of our decision makers, who are independent of our investigators or authorised officers. It is important that their independence within the organisation should be maintained.

It may be that I have not answered some of the matters that have been raised in as much detail as I should have done. I will scrutinise the Committee Hansard and write to the hon. Members for Hertsmere and for Somerton and Frome if that proves necessary.

I should assure my colleague, the hon. Member for Hertsmere, that when I suggested that the debate might be brief, I was not seeking to restrict his right to debate. My willingness to debate matters with my colleague throughout the night if necessary was demonstrated when on one occasion during consideration of the Bill that became the Learning and Skills Act 2000, we were still discussing an important matter at 3 am. I noticed that the Tories were talking about the importance of marriage and family values at a time when our partners and families were happily asleep in their beds.

Question put and agreed to.


    That the Committee has considered the draft Social Security Administration Act 1992 (Amendment) Order 2002.

Committee rose at seven minutes past Five o'clock.

The following Members attended the Committee:
Beard, Mr. Nigel (Chairman)
Blizzard, Mr.
Clappison, Mr.
Gardiner, Mr.
Heath, Mr.
Hendrick, Mr.
Hendry, Mr.
Rapson, Syd
Sawford, Phil
Simmonds, Mr.
Smith, Angela
Wicks, Malcolm

The following also attended, pursuant to Standing Order No. 118(2):
Cohen, Harry (Leyton and Wanstead)

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Prepared 14 March 2002