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29 Jan 2003 : Column 932—continued

Mr. Bacon : I am enjoying listening to my hon. Friend' interesting speech. I particularly remember the questions that he asked the permanent secretary at the Department of Social Security; I, too, was unimpressed by her answers. Indeed, I have a videotape of my hon. Friend's contribution on that occasion, and I recommend it to any hon. Member. My hon. Friend finally forced the permanent secretary to admit that what he was saying was correct.

Does my hon. Friend agree that this attitude to prosecution is not confined to social security? Our hearings have produced evidence from various sources, including the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Ministry of Defence, Customs and Excise and others, that in Government generally—I am sure that it was the case when we were in office, too—there is an unwillingness to pursue prosecutions. Does he agree that that needs investigation?

Mr. Gibb: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention and hope that he continues to enjoy watching that video. He has made a valid point. Across Departments, the decision whether to prosecute is based on detailed departmental guidelines that we need to examine to find whether they are appropriate in today's climate. Like him, I believe that we are not prosecuting sufficient numbers of people, not just in respect of benefit fraud but of tax and customs and excise matters. Prosecution is a deterrent.

Mr. Andrew Love (Edmonton): I have been listening with great interest to the hon. Gentleman. Does he accept that a major contributory factor to the difficulties outlined in the Committee's investigation is the complexity of the benefits regime? Does he agree that there are also major problems in assembling the level of evidence necessary to prosecute cases, and that until we deal with those two issues, we will never get to the bottom of the fraud problem in our benefits system?

Mr. Gibb: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. Of course complexity is a key reason, particularly for customer error and official error, but the simpler one makes the system, the less fair it becomes. It is a balance between complexity and fairness.

The hon. Gentleman is right that it is difficult to obtain the evidence to pursue frauds. To arrive at an estimate of 216,000 cases of fraud a year, a sample of 30,000 is taken, on which detailed annual reviews are conducted to determine how much fraud there is in the sample. The results are then extrapolated across the whole population. We must do such sampling for real, across a much larger proportion of the population, and then pursue the prosecutions once that review has taken place. The problem is that that is very expensive, but the invest-to-save approach will be well worth while in the long run.

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The Department will not be able to reduce the level of fraud until it invests significant sums in tackling fraud to provide real deterrence against the submitting of false claims. If the only punishment for making a false claim is that the money must be repaid if one is caught, there is no deterrent against submitting one. Because of the complexity of the system and the difficulties in obtaining evidence about whether a person is living with another person—these are terribly intrusive questions—it is necessary to rely on the deterrent effect of prosecutions. Where enough evidence can be compiled to pursue a prosecution, a decision should be taken to go ahead with it. I suspect that the small sums of money involved mean that there is no real desire to pursue prosecutions, even when evidence can be compiled, because the focus of the Department is on organised crime, which causes only a small proportion of the fraud.

Mr. Love: I must declare an interest in that I have written at length to the Comptroller and Auditor General on this issue. Does the hon. Gentleman accept that, in the sample 30,000 cases that he mentioned, a strong element of subjective value judgment is used in deciding whether fraud has been perpetrated? Many people outside the National Audit Office consider that the figures for fraud are vastly inflated.

Mr. Gibb: I do not agree that the figures for fraud are vastly exaggerated, because of what one hears anecdotally. The hon. Gentleman will hear from his constituents of cases where people are claiming benefit while working. The number of times that we hear of such cases from constituents makes us realise that there is a widespread culture in certain parts of our constituencies and in certain sections of society where falsely claiming benefit is regarded as par for the course. We must end that approach to the benefit system, not just because it costs the taxpayer at least £3 billion a year, but because it fosters a culture of dependency, which is not good for society and very damaging to the people caught up in it. We shall inquire into benefit fraud later in the year when we examine jobseeker's allowance, and I hope that the Committee will be presented with evidence that shows that real progress has been made in reducing these unacceptable levels of fraud.

Finally, I mention our report on improving air quality, on which I was particularly dismayed by the lack of rigour in policy making. My hon. Friend the Member for Tatton (Mr. Osborne) was able to extract from Mr. Martin Williams, the head of technical policy at DEFRA, the information that the measures being proposed to deal with just one out of nine pollutants to be dealt with would cost the United Kingdom economy some £1 billion a year. In defence of that very large sum, the permanent secretary said that it was not a trivial issue as we were trying to deal with


to use his phrase. On the face of it, a mere £1 billion per pollutant would be very worthwhile expenditure if it were saving 24,000 people a year from untimely and tragic early deaths, but of course it all depends on what is meant by 24,000 early deaths. The correct technical

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phrase that the permanent secretary should have used was, "24,000 deaths brought forward". The definition of "deaths brought forward" is given in a footnote to the NAO report, as


In other words, we are talking not about someone in their thirties struck down in the prime of life, but about losing a day or so over a lifetime. If the cost of that day or so is having to earn an extra £1 billion per year per pollutant divided by the number of people in Britain, generating that extra wealth for the country may cost us all more than a day, or a few days, or a week of our lives. I therefore wonder whether the policy is the right one.

I am especially concerned about the fast and loose way in which facts and figures are bandied about without any focus on rigour. Far more accurate cost-benefit analyses are needed before we pile on to ourselves restrictions and costs that might be far more harmful to us than beneficial. If we are to restore people's faith in the political process, we need to be far more scrupulous in the use of facts and statistics, but in my time on the PAC, I have seen too many examples of an absence of rigour in their use. I hope that the coming year will bring evidence of more intellectual rigour in the development of policy, more integrity in the use of facts and figures, and more professionalism and relevant experience among the people who are charged with advising on policy and direction in our public services.

3.56 pm

Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): I am delighted to follow the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr. Gibb). It was a pleasure to listen to his wise and considered speech—there was a lot of sense in it. I only hope that mine matches his.

I want to place on record my thanks to the staff of both the Public Accounts Committee and the National Audit Office for the excellent work that they carry out in a highly professional manner. I feel especially sorry for the PAC staff, who have to put up with my constant requests for assistance. Perhaps it is because I am getting old and forgetful that I am always searching for my papers—they are never in the right place at the right time—but the staff are always very obliging and make sure that I get them. My thanks go to them and to the NAO staff, who are always ready to give members of the PAC expert advice and the information that we want.

Serving on the PAC is one of the most worthwhile and enjoyable duties that I have as a Member of Parliament, especially here at Westminster. It is easy for a Back-Bench Member in a Government party that has a substantial majority to become very bored and to have to go looking for something to do, but I assure the House that that is not often necessary when one is a member of the PAC with two thick reports a week to digest; there is plenty to do if one can get through those reports.

The beauty of the Committee is twofold: first, we keep it non-political and out of the realms of policy, although members of the Committee occasionally try it on—especially Opposition Members—

Mr. Bacon: Surely not.

Mr. Steinberg: Yes, they do, but the excellent Chairman of the Committee makes sure that the

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Opposition do not get away with it and are soon brought back into line. We all share the same aims: to root out inefficiency and waste, and to seek value for money—and to embarrass the accounting officer, some more than others. The second aspect of the PAC that I like is that it covers so many topics, as we can see from today's Order Paper. When I was a member of the Select Committee looking at education, education was the subject of report after report, week after week, year after year. To be frank, it was extremely boring. With the PAC, we have a different report twice a week and the topics are varied: from defence and social security to smuggling and the royal family. I did not put those two together on purpose. I do not intend to speak about those subjects today, and I am sure that the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton will be delighted to hear that.

For the first two or three years that I was on the Committee, we produced reports on the previous Government, so it was easy to criticise. It is becoming a bit more difficult now that it is the present Government's policies that are being examined and we can see the mistakes that they are making. However, that does not deter us; it is a pleasure to do it.

Another topic on which I do not wish to dwell is the PFI, an issue that will be a constant source of discussion over the next few years. We need more time to consider the PFI and deliberate before we come to any firm conclusions, although I accept that each PFI scheme will be looked at individually. I was very sceptical about the PFI, particularly at the beginning, but I must admit that I am beginning to warm to it a bit more. It will be interesting to see the reports on the present PFI schemes.

On the Order Paper today, we see reference to two reports on PFI schemes: on the Royal Armouries museum in Leeds, which was a bit of a cock-up—if one is allowed to use that expression in the Chamber—and the other on the Treasury building. There will be many more in the future and we will be able to see the success, or otherwise, of such schemes.

Before I refer to the reports, I want to place on record my thanks to the Chairman of the Committee, the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh), who does an excellent job.

I want to concentrate on three different, but worrying, reports, each of which deals with how taxpayers have to pick up the bill when things go wrong. When a mistake is made, it is our constituents who pick up the bill, which can add up to billions of pounds. We talk about "billions of pounds", but we do not realise how much that is; at least, I do not. It is a huge amount of money.

The first report to which I shall refer was entitled "Tackling Obesity." It seems like an age since we did it, but it still seems to be hitting the headlines now. Although the hearing had its humorous moments, the topic is of immense importance because of the problems of obesity. Most adults in England are now overweight; that includes myself, although I would not go so far as to say that I was obese. One in five adults are obese, which results in about 18 million working days lost because of sickness and about 30,000 premature deaths a year. Those 30,000 deaths are probably not the ones to which the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton referred; obesity cuts people's lives considerably.

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Obesity is costing the NHS about £500 million a year and additional costs mean that the total comes to something like £2 billion. The situation is getting worse year by year. The National Audit Office estimated that, by the year 2010, the cost to the NHS would be something in the region of £3 billion a year.

When I read the report and listened to the evidence, I was—to say the least—a little cynical. There are, of course, people who are obese because of a medical condition but, frankly, most of them are obese because they over-indulge. They eat and drink too much and do not do enough exercise. Were it not for the fact that the taxpayer had to pick up the bill, I would probably say, "Let them get on with it. It is up to them." Unfortunately, the consequences for the rest of us are serious, so we should not allow them to get on with it. We should do something about it.

The vast majority of those who are obese or overweight, including myself—I do not deny that—eat too much, drink too much, eat the wrong food and do not do enough exercise. I am a lot more careful since I was told that I had high cholesterol. I went to see my doctor, who told me that I was too fat. I lost about a stone and a half and I do quite vigorous exercise now, so I feel rather proud of myself. I hope that people will take notice of what I am saying.

Should not every GP automatically advise their patients, as my doctor did? They do not, I am afraid. That does not happen. We found that doctors' attitude towards patients who are very fat or obese is pathetic. Only 40 per cent. of GPs identified those patients as being at greatest risk, and 2 per cent. of GPs did nothing. If they saw a great big fat lump sitting in front of them, they did not even mention it. They just allowed the patient to get up and walk out, without mentioning their weight. That is wrong. Seventy-five per cent. of GPs sent overweight patients somewhere else to do something about it. All they needed to say was, "Look, you're too fat. You need to take some exercise and you have to eat less." but they did not do that. They simply sent the patients somewhere else and brushed over the matter.

I concluded from the report that GPs were failing to tackle the problem, either because they did not take it seriously enough or because they did not have time. It is correct that they do not have time. The report is accurate about that and about the diseases associated with obesity. Doctors are contributing to their own work load, because if they fail to treat obesity, more patients will come back to them with the associated illnesses, so the doctors' attitude is counterproductive.

Targeting schoolchildren and influencing them is the most important way to combat the problem. It is probably impossible to change most adults' way of life. There was an article recently in one of the daily newspapers about a head teacher who, for the benefit of the pupil, had informed the parents that their child was obese, and rightly so. If I were a head teacher, I would have done the same thing. What did the parents do? Far from saying, "Thank you very much. We'll do something about it", they blew their top and went to the press, complaining about the disgraceful way in which the head teacher had picked on their child. If the parents had had any sense, they would not have reacted with outrage but taken notice of the head teacher and done something about the problem.

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We must educate children so that they can educate their parents. Parents must learn that a trip to McDonald's is not so much a treat as a health hazard. I asked why, for example, the Food Standards Agency does not target the unhealthy fast-food outlets or pressurise the food manufacturers to produce cheap, tasty, low-fat, low-salt, healthy food. The FSA does not do that and I did not get the impression in the hearing that it intended to do so.


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