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Mr. Paul Goodman : Can the Minister remind the House of whether the number of calls answered by the hotline last year rose or fell?

Mr. Plaskitt: The number of answered calls was remarkably steady, at around 200,000. There are slight fluctuations that tend to coincide with the publicity campaigns. If the hon. Gentleman reads the report we have published today, he will see that we get a surge in calls when the campaigns run on television and in newspapers. The fluctuations in the graph, which is published in the document, tend to coincide with the anti-fraud campaigns, and it is encouraging that they seem to spark renewed public interest and commitment that lasts for some time.

By getting people off benefits and into paid employment, our welfare to work policies helped to reduce exposure to fraud and error. Adult long-term unemployment has been reduced by more than 75 per cent. since 1997. The Government have outlined their ambition for an 80 per cent. employment rate for people of working age: we firmly believe that work is the best form of welfare.

I have outlined our record of achievement on reducing benefit fraud, and we know that the strategy works. However, there is still more to do. As I have said, the cost of fraud in our system is still too high. Fraud can be reduced still further and we have plans in place to ensure that it will be. We will continue to set ourselves challenging targets to reduce fraud, and we will continue to improve and refine our measurement systems to gain a more accurate picture of levels of fraud in the benefit system and where and when it is most likely to occur. That will be achieved through the public service agreement and the spending review process, and specific targets for Jobcentre Plus, which will be agreed by Ministers each year.

Miss Begg : Will the Department for Work and Pensions work with other Departments, particularly the Treasury, on the problem of fraud perpetrated by people with more than one national insurance number, and would data matching improve matters? Does my hon. Friend have an estimate of the proportion of benefit fraud due to identity fraud and the difference that a gold-standard ID card would make in ensuring that the same person cannot make multiple claims?

Mr. Plaskitt: I thank my hon. Friend for at least three questions, which I shall try to pick up. She is perfectly right to point out the importance of data matching with information held by the Treasury. That certainly assists us and we have plans to do more such work. She is also right to point out that some fraud arises through duplicate national insurance numbers. Our Department has held a cleansing operation on the NI number database and it is much better than it was. She is certainly right to point out that the introduction of national identity cards and the unique specific identifier will be of significant further help to us in that respect.
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Finally, she asked me whether we had an estimate of the extent of fraud in the benefit system due to fake and false identities. We estimate that to be between £20 million and £50 million. We anticipate that the introduction of the unique identifier that will come in with the card will certainly help us make considerable progress in reducing that element of fraud in the system.

Mr. Paul Goodman: On the point about identity fraud, will the Minister tell us the Government estimate of the total amount of such fraud as a percentage of the whole?

Mr. Plaskitt: As I have just said, we estimate that the loss to the benefit system as a result specifically of identity fraud is between £20 million and £50 million out of a total fraud loss of £900 million. I shall leave the hon. Gentleman to push the keys on his calculator and work out the percentage for himself.

We need to work more efficiently across the whole Department to use the technology available to us to stop fraud earlier, before it enters the benefit system, or as soon as possible afterwards. We are working to ensure that we receive information from other Departments more quickly.

As I said earlier, we will increase our ability to data match. We are currently able to data match our own information, as well as data from other Departments, which predominantly enables us to detect fraudsters who are working and claiming. However, a large number of fraudsters claim they live alone, when they actually live with a partner, and that type of fraud is difficult to detect using Government sources, so I can announce today that, early next year, we will be piloting a scheme whereby we match our data with those held by credit reference agencies, to help us detect people who are living with a partner but have not declared that to us. We estimate that such information will enable us to identify many thousands of cases of fraud of that type up to 18 months earlier than at present, in keeping with our strategy to detect fraud and error and correct it as soon as it occurs. Once that activity becomes fully operational we estimate that we could save up another £40 million a year. We will also explore the use of private sector data, where appropriate, to help us bear down on other frauds that are harder to detect.

We will also increase our use of risk profiling, to identify the types of people whose claims are more likely to be fraudulent, and to check more frequently that their claims are correct. We believe that the proposed identity card will be a useful tool in all the work of our Department. We shall use it across all our businesses to combat identity and other frauds, and improve the service we give to our customers by verifying their identity more speedily.

Our reorganised fraud investigation service, together with a new customer compliance approach, will enable us to detect, penalise and deter fraudsters more effectively than before. It will tackle serious, high-level frauds, as well as enforcing customer responsibilities to report changes in their circumstances on time.

We will continue to work in partnership with other Departments and local authorities to combat deliberate abuse of the benefit system. We will continue to reinforce the culture of rights and responsibilities in our
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messages to customers and the public, through the anti-benefit fraud campaign and the national benefit fraud hotline. The new targeting fraud campaign, launched on 3 October, focuses on our ability to detect fraudsters without their knowledge through the use of data matching. Our research shows that the campaign has been successful with the public; 72 per cent. of the public and 67 per cent. of our customers have got the message, "You will be caught", from those television adverts.

We have achieved much on benefit fraud. We know, however, that the monetary value of mistakes made by our staff and customers remains too high, and we acknowledge the comments of the Public Accounts Committee in that regard. We will do more to ensure that our staff administer benefits correctly and to help our customers keep their claims correct. To achieve that, we are developing plans to maximise the use of new information technology, to make the benefit system easier to administer and to introduce more timely communications with customers. We are confident that those measures will help us to reduce the overall loss to the benefit system still further.

In conclusion, as I said in opening the debate, we know that we have achieved a real, measurable reduction in fraud over the past eight years, but we are not complacent. We can do much more to bring fraud down even further. I have described the extent of our achievement to date and presented our strategy for the future. I believe that that approach will enable the Government to make further progress on reducing fraud and error. It will also help to embed the balanced culture of rights and responsibilities more deeply in the benefit system and among our customers.

2.56 pm

Mr. Paul Goodman (Wycombe) (Con): I begin my speech in this important debate by briefly telling the story of Martin Crowson. Mr. Crowson, who is from Manchester, said that he was virtually unable to walk. On that basis, he made a claim and was paid more than £17,000 in incapacity benefits. Last May, it was reported that Mr. Crowson had been sentenced and jailed by a Manchester court after certificates were unearthed that confirmed that, while he was receiving his £17,000 of taxpayers' money on the basis of his apparent incapacity, he was also training for a black belt in judo. Photographs of Mr. Crowson also came to light in which he was posed riding a camel and wrestling with an alligator.

The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr. David Blunkett): That is the new test.

Mr. Goodman: That will come as news of great interest to the waiting media.

I could go on to tell the story of Gloria Taylor from south Wales who received £13,000 in benefits, while simultaneously having £200,000 in savings; or the story of David Graham, who received more than £4,000 in disability benefits after claiming that he could walk no further than 30 yd at a stretch, but was discovered to be
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playing golf twice a week; or the story—perhaps the best known to the readers of the tabloids—of Lizzy Bardsley, the "Wife Swap" star.

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