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Mr. Plaskitt: The hon. Gentleman recently fought a general election campaign, following which he was returned to the House, that was in part based on the James report. Does he still stand by what it says about staff numbers in the Department for Work and Pensions:
Mr. Benyon: I am talking about the validity of the cuts not in general, but in particular. I will provide the Minister with details of serious morale issues in the organisation, which I feel he needs to address.
Danny Alexander: I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's kind remarks, and he will also be interested to know that there is a similar example in Nairn, which is one of my constituencies, as it were. The jobcentre was threatened with closure. That threat was suspended during the general electionI was fighting the sitting Labour MPbut the jobcentre was closed only a month ago following the reinstitution of those cuts. I think I share the hon. Gentleman's suspicions about the process.
Mr. Benyon: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention, and the Minister might like to reflect on the fact that we proposed transferring Jobcentre Plus to the private sector at no loss of jobs. That is an important point.
It is rather tired to talk about the last Conservative Government, as they were in power eight years ago, but, for the record, it is worth paying tribute to the efforts made by that Government and by my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley), who worked himself to a frazzle trying to sort out the issue of benefit fraud and introduced reforms and technologies that, at the time, were revolutionary, such as the smart card.
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We are all aware of the Department's hard-hitting campaign and the stereotypical fraudster depicted in those advertisements. No one in the House would criticise that approach, and it is important to bear down on benefit fraudsters of the kind that the campaign portrays. No one in the House would oppose many of the reforms and the campaigns that the Government intend to introduce to crack down on benefit fraud, perhaps with the exception of what the Minister said about ID cards. I and many of my colleagues, and the Liberal Democrats, feel that the enormous amounts of money involved in the flawed IT and all sorts of other problems would be much better spent in providing, for example, more police to feel the collars of benefit fraudsters in another way.
I want to speak to a particular point concerning disability living allowance, which was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr. Goodman). The Government's own figures estimate that in the last financial year £730 million was overpaid in DLA, which amounts to 9.1 per cent. of expenditure. The equivalent estimate of underpayment is £200 million, representing 2.5 per cent. of expenditure.
I was working on those figures as I prepared for this afternoon's debatemulti-tasking, which my wife claims I cannot do, but I was obviously in touch with my feminine side. While working through my correspondence, I read a moving and brave letter written to me by a constituent. She admits to suffering from the horrendous condition of schizophrenia, but says she is
"The current system of applying for DLA depends on your ability to describe your illness and people who are more articulate seem to have a better chance of getting it. It also seems to depend on who reviews your"
Part of the Government's strategy must be to make it easy for people not to commit fraud as well as bearing down hard on those who are committing fraud. They can do that by making the system easy to understand, by improving the training and morale of those within the
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organisations who monitor benefits, and by creating a much more level playing field for applicants, giving professional advice and assistance to organisations such as citizens advice bureaux, which do such a fantastic job in constituencies such as mine in guiding people through the morass of paperwork.
Members are constantly told by constituents that those who break the rules are rewarded, and that those who wish to obey them must follow a tortuous path of bureaucracy and, if anything, are penalised for doing what is right. I urge the Government to bear those points in mind as they work through this important matter.
Mr. Philip Dunne (Ludlow) (Con): I am pleased that we have an opportunity to discuss these issues today, not least as part of my learning curve as a new member of the Work and Pensions Committee. It is invaluable to have some good research time to help to prepare for such debates, and the whole subject of benefit fraud and error is very topical given the publication of the Public Accounts Committee's report earlier this week. To ensure public confidence in our benefits system, it is utterly vital that we as a nation are seen to cut down on fraudsters.
For people on benefits, there is nothing worseall MPs have experience of these casesthan seeing people claiming benefits to which they are not entitled. It cuts to the core of a legal system that chases up those who seek to defraud, and we must bear down hard on it. We must also ensure that the public bodies that administer benefits do so efficiently and do not cause problems that aggravate the difficulties that those who rightly claim benefit and who may have been overpaid suffer when the authorities challenge them.
The Minister laid great store by his claims that improvements have been made in fraud detection over the past few years, and I acknowledge, as my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr. Goodman) did, the improvements made in reducing fraud in relation to income support and jobseeker's allowance. As other Members have said, however, there is no getting away from the Public Accounts Committee's conclusions that over the past three years the overall level of fraud and error in the benefits system remains pound for pound where it has been. I would be interested to hear anything from the Minister when he responds that gives us some comfort that things are moving in the right direction across the piece. We have heard snippets here and there.
I am particularly concerned about the lack of success in achieving the Government's targets for housing benefit. If there are more measures on that in today's report, I should be pleased to read about them.
The Work and Pensions Committee is due to start a review of incapacity benefit and pathways to work, one element of which is an attempt to get to the bottom of what is happening on fraud. Unfortunately, the statistics in all the reports that I have seen so far are estimated, and incapacity benefit has not had as thorough a job done on it as other benefits. In a way, that is right, because we hope that few who claim incapacity benefit do so fraudulently, but human nature being as it is, I fear that there may be some hidden fraud in that area, too.
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Let me list some of the successes achieved by local authorities. A number of written statements on this matter have been published this week, and I am pleased to say that an authority in my constituency, Bridgnorth district council, is judged to have achieved a qualified success. According to the comprehensive performance assessment of April 2004, the council's benefit service was giving a "fair towards good" performance. A more recent assessment suggested that the council had met the standard in respect of 84 of the 89 components of counter-fraud. It was described as having
Its overall performance was assessed as very impressive compared with that of other similar-sized authorities. It has approximately £8.4 million of benefits to distribute, so it is at the small end of councils in the country, but it has imposed a strong culture of cracking down on fraud.
Let me illustrate some of the shifts that have taken place since control of the council moved to a Conservative and Independent administration. There is an assessment of the number of cautions issued by the council. Between 200203 and 200405, the number was halved from 33 to 16. The number of administrative penalties imposed during the same period tripled from eight to 24. The number of prosecutions rose from six in 200203 to 16 in 200304, and fell back to eight in 200405. That is attributed to the fact that rather than using cautions as its primary means of combating fraud, the council has chosen to impose penalties and to be seen by the community to take cases to court.
I labour the point for a reason. I believe that if we are to restore confidence in our fraud-combating system, such issues must be brought into the public domain. In my area at least, successful prosecutions achieve publicity all too infrequently. Let me make a plea to the Minister. Local authorities that are constantly invited to do more on behalf of the Government are rarely given the facilities that would enable them to do the extra work. Publicity for cases or more resources for anti-fraud measures would be very welcome. I speak not just for Bridgnorth district council but for South Shropshire district council, which is also in my area.
Let me now say something about errors. It is up to local authorities and Government agencies to ensure that enough resources are given to assessment of benefits across the board. As other Conservative Members have pointed out, it is hard to reconcile the proposed Gershon job cuts with greater bearing down on fraud and an accurate assessment of benefits. I shall give another personal example, if I may. Ludlow, a town in my constituency, has a Jobcentre Plus centre that will close next year. Half the current staff will lose their jobs, and half will be relocated to some place yet to be determined, probably the tourist information centre. I find it hard to understand how a sub-optimal team who may or may not be able to provide full nine-to-five cover will be able to do their job properly. I met the regional director, who assured me that the job could be handled perfectly well by a town 15 miles away, but I do not see how that efficiency saving assists in the proper calculation of benefit and bearing down on fraudmajor issues across the country, as hon. Members have argued.
To achieve a balance, however, I want to pay tribute, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Mr. Benyon), to the work done by citizens advice bureaux in
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assisting people who get into difficulties with the assessment of their benefits. There is no question but that, where errors arise, it causes immense frustration among some of the most vulnerable people in our society. Such people often have to rely on citizens advice bureaux for whatever help they can get. I have received representations from the citizens advice bureau in Bridgnorth, which tried to help elderly pensioners on modest incomes who were struggling with the various assessments made of them and greatly feared having to repay overpayments. It is important to improve standards of benefit assessment in order to allay such anxieties.
Inevitably, with large organisations and complicated benefits, these problems will arise. Unfortunately, we see them across too many areas of government these days. The complexity of the systems that have been put in place gives rise to more and more problems for ordinary people. I urge the Minister to argue with his colleagues in favour of increasing simplicity in our benefits system.
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