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Mr. Grieve: I perhaps did not touch on one matter in my speech, but I would be grateful for the Minister's response. We have been talking about websites, and I pointed out that many people, unless they try to access the websites of these organisations, will be ignorant of them. What becomes the status of such websites in British law once proscription has taken place, and what powers do the Government have to try to remove those websites as a result of proscription?

Hazel Blears: Any organisation that provided or displayed support, or any individual who displayed support, for an organisation that was proscribed would be committing a criminal offence. Therefore, wherever the publication was—in a book or on a website—it ought to fall within those criteria. But the hon. Gentleman knows that there is often difficulty in dealing with matters involving the internet, because although prosecutions can be brought against domestic website hosts, it is sometimes more difficult to instigate prosecutions around foreign servers. That is a problem we face not just in this field, but when we deal with issues such as paedophilia and selling illegal products.

Yesterday, I discussed the problems relating to selling guns on the internet, which is an easier issue for companies to deal with domestically than abroad. The Terrorism Bill will include provisions to deal with dissemination of material and websites. This illustrates the need for absolutely first-class co-operation between different countries in the international community, so that we can act together rather than individually.

The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) raised again the issue of transparency of process. I take his point, and it is important that we are as transparent as possible. I do not know what other jurisdictions do when they have their proscription debates, but the explanatory memorandum provides a fair degree of information and transparency for Members. He said that proscription will not solve the problem, which I entirely accept: proscription is simply another tool that we can use to try to create a hostile
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environment for terrorists in this country. I well remember our controversial debates about control orders and whether those would provide a hostile environment for terrorists in this country, on which people took different views. A range of powers are available, and we must look to use as many powers as we can to protect this country. Therefore, proscription is a useful power, but it will certainly not resolve the situation overnight. We should not hesitate to use it, however, when applicable. I hope that Liberal Democrat Members will support our Terrorism Bill provisions that seek to strengthen our powers against terrorism and to provide such a hostile environment.

My hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, South raised the question of whether all the organisations concerned were on the American list. My information is that Al Ittihad Al Islamia is proscribed by Canada but not America; Hezb-e Islami Gulbuddin is also proscribed by Canada; Lashkar-e Jhangvi is proscribed by Pakistan, America, Canada, Australia and the UN; Sipah-e Sahaba Pakistan is proscribed by Pakistan; and the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group is proscribed by the US but also by Canada and the UN. Therefore, we are not simply receiving representations from America about the need for proscription. It is important to put that on the record.

Although we are considering Islamic extremist groups today, groups from a range of different faiths and backgrounds have been proscribed in the past: ETA; the International Sikh Youth Federation; Babbar Khalsa, a group campaigning for the Sikh homeland; and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil. Therefore, it is right to emphasise that this is not simply about proscribing Muslim groups. It is about trying to see where the threat is, and taking appropriate action to meet the level of threat that faces us. I would not want to give the impression that we are acting in any other way. Fourteen different Irish groups are also proscribed, so proscribed organisations are from many different religious backgrounds and none.

The hon. Member for Newark stressed the importance of the public being aware of the nature of the threat, which he is right to do. I have had many debates with him, and it is also right that the public should be alert but not alarmed. A balance must be struck, and we are seeking to use all the tools at our disposal to make this the most hostile environment possible for terrorists, and to have sensible powers that strengthen our ability to disrupt, prosecute and bring terrorists to justice in our country.

I am very pleased by the tenor of today's debate, and as we move into debates on the Terrorism Bill in the next few weeks, I hope that we can continue that constructive engagement and that we will have some extremely good law at the end of the debate.

Question put and agreed to.


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Combating Benefit Fraud

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Plaskitt.]

2.24 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr. James Plaskitt): I am very pleased to have this opportunity to open an important debate on combating benefit fraud. I want to set out the Government's progress to date and the challenges that we still face, and I welcome the opportunity to give an initial response on some of the issues raised in the report of the Public Accounts Committee published earlier this week.

Today sees the publication of our document "Reducing Fraud in the Benefit System: Achievements and Ambitions", announced by written statement to the House this morning. This document outlines our achievements to date, as well as acknowledging that there is more that we can do to reduce fraud even further, and describes our plans to maximise the use of technology and data matching across the Department and other sectors. I hope that hon. Members have taken the opportunity to collect a copy of the document from the Vote Office.

Mr. Paul Goodman (Wycombe) (Con): When a figure in the document assesses the level of fraud in one year, and compares it with the level of fraud in another year, are those figures always drawn up on a comparable basis?

Mr. Plaskitt: I draw the hon. Gentleman's attention to the annexe at the back of the report, which I hope that he has had time to study, which explains that we are constantly trying to refine the way in which we measure fraud. It is important that we get the measurement as accurate as possible. He is therefore right that, over time, the base moves, but only because we are getting more accurate measurements. That stands in rather stark contrast to the record of the previous Government, which, for their first 15 years in office, did not even have an accurate measurement process under way.

Mr. Paul Goodman: The Minister is therefore claiming that at no point in the document published today is a figure used in such a way as to suggest mistakenly that it is comparable one year with the other.

Mr. Plaskitt: No, I have not said that. It sounds to me as though the hon. Gentleman should really study the annexe very carefully. As I progress through my opening speech, he will see that there are areas in which we can do perfectly accurate like-for-like comparisons. At the back of the report, however, we explain extremely openly how we are changing some of the measuring methodologies, and it is right that we do so, because if we have an accurate measure of what we are trying to address, we are more likely to have the right tools to address it.

It has been many years since this issue was last debated in the House. The vast majority of our constituents are rightly angered by the activities of benefit fraudsters. Benefit fraud is theft—theft from the
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public purse, from neighbours, and from hard-working, law-abiding taxpayers. Like us, the vast majority of our constituents also believe in the rights and responsibilities agenda and want the benefits system, which is after all designed to assist those most in need, to be free from abuse. We are seeing success in meeting that objective: benefit fraud is falling. That is due to the success of our policies and to the hard work of our staff in the Department and in local authorities. I am happy to take this opportunity to thank them for their dedication and commitment to helping us to reduce benefit fraud.

I want to describe some of the strategies we have used that have made it possible for us now to state that fraud constitutes less than 1 per cent. of total benefit expenditure. Our latest estimate of fraud stands at about £900 million—less than £1 billion, for the first time since proper measurements began. It is beyond doubt that we have made progress, but we are in no way complacent. The amount lost through benefit fraud is still too high. There is no place for fraud in the benefit system, and we will detect it and punish it where we find it.

Let me outline the problems that we faced back in 1997. This is relevant to the intervention from the hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr. Goodman). A few measurement exercises had been carried out then, but no systematic attempt had been made to estimate the amount of fraud in the benefit system. There was no end-to-end process to prevent fraud from entering the system. Indeed, the phrase "programme protection", meaning protection of the benefit spend throughout the life of the claim, was virtually unheard of and infrequently applied. That could not continue.

The Public Accounts Committee and the National Audit Office rightly took our Department to task. I am pleased to say that Ministers and the Department received their criticisms positively, and will continue to do so.

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