Extension of Offence of False Representation for Obtaining Benefit

Orders of the Day — Social Security Administration (Fraud) Bill – in the House of Commons at 6:15 pm on 4th February 1997.

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Amendment made: No. 7, in page 22, line 26, leave out from 'notify' to 'he' in line 30 and insert— 'a change of circumstances which regulations under this Act require him to notify; or(b) knowingly causes or knowingly allows another person to fail to notify a change of circumstances which such regulations require the other person to notify,and he knows that he, or the other person, is required to notify the change of circumstances,'.—[Mr. Heald.]

Order for Third Reading read.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the Bill be now read the Third time.—[Mr. Knapman.]

Photo of Henry McLeish Henry McLeish , Central Fife

I think that there are two other Opposition contributions to be made before I speak, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Photo of Mr Clifford Forsythe Mr Clifford Forsythe , South Antrim 6:43 pm, 4th February 1997

I have no wish to detain the House, but I would like to make a few comments. I welcome the Bill again, as I welcomed it on Second Reading, and I support its implementation. However, I am very disappointed that new clause 2, covering the code of practice on privacy, was not accepted, because of the implications for Northern Ireland.

I am sorry that the Minister felt that he had not enough time to take an intervention, because that part of the Bill is most important to Northern Ireland and the security situation there. I wish to put on record the fact that the implementation of the Bill will go through the House by negative resolution, by Order in Council, so, unfortunately, we shall not have the opportunity to discuss the impact of those aspects on Northern Ireland.

I am unhappy that it was not found possible to include Northern Ireland on the face of the Bill, so that such matters could have been fully discussed and investigated in the context of the legislation. I am the social security spokesman for my party, yet I have found great difficulty in getting information about the system for dealing with social security fraud in Northern Ireland. I am unhappy about that, too.

Until we see the order, which cannot be debated but will go through the House by negative resolution, I shall not know how the system will work. I have not had an explanation. I do not know whether the provisions will be implemented by the Department or by the Benefits Agency, and I do not know how the Housing Executive will fit into the whole scheme.

The fraud situation in Northern Ireland is unique, because we have the only land frontier in the United Kingdom. That in itself creates problems. Other aspects of the situation in Northern Ireland mean that, in some areas, it will not be possible to implement all of what is in the Bill.

It is unfortunate that the implementation of the Bill's provisions in Northern Ireland will go through the House by negative resolution, because there will be no debate, and we shall not be able to consider the details of how things will be done, or whether we should change anything. That is a great tragedy for democracy in this great House.

That is why I wanted to make a final contribution on the Bill. Those who organise such things—the usual channels—may consider such matters a suitable subject to be brought before the Northern Ireland Grand Committee before the order appears. I have given the Bill a warm welcome, but I am unhappy and uneasy about the way in which its provisions will be implemented in my part of the United Kingdom.

Photo of Mr Chris Davies Mr Chris Davies , Littleborough and Saddleworth 6:47 pm, 4th February 1997

On Second Reading, my hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale (Ms Lynne), the Liberal Democrat social security spokesman, gave the Bill a cautious welcome. She expressed some reservations about details, but said that, overall, it was necessary and welcome. At this late stage in the process, I echo those sentiments.

Of course there are faults in the welfare system as a whole. The hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field), perhaps better than anyone else, has pointed out the way in which the welfare system traps people in dependency, and all too often prevents them from rising out of it.

None the less, unless other widespread changes are made, the Bill is still essential in its present form. It makes no difference what party is in power; it is the task of the Government of the day to ensure that fraud is stamped out, because there can be no place in our system for cheats—for people who rob the taxpayer. They create a climate of hostility among the public, and that leads to political pressures being applied, which ultimately mean that those in the greatest need are denied some of the help that is really necessary.

Photo of Henry McLeish Henry McLeish , Central Fife 6:49 pm, 4th February 1997

It is a pity that the Government have seen their anti-fraud strategy start to unravel during our final discussion on the Bill. The whole House is tough on fraud, and there is no point in trying to defend individuals or landlords—or organisations of both—who try to defraud the taxpayer. In doing so, they create a climate in which many people are accused of scrounging. That is a travesty, and that is why we must continue to be tough on fraud. Certainly the next Labour Government will continue to be tough on fraud.

We could have gone further, of course, and the Government failed three tests. First, we asked the Government to consider introducing a register—or a code of conduct or practice—to ensure that civil liberties are protected as the Government embark on a wide-ranging extension of data matching within both local and central Government. But the Government could not bring themselves to accept our new clause, and I am still dismayed by that.

The second test concerned the question of the specific landlords offence. In Committee, we heard that the Bill would deal with claimants and landlords who indulge in fraud, but that is simply not good enough. It is quite clear that, in view of the scale of the fraud in which landlords are involved and the volume of taxpayers' money being defrauded, we need a specific offence of landlord fraud. That would have sent a powerful message from this House that landlord cheats would be identified and dealt with in the toughest way possible. The Government failed that test, also.

The third test was the opportunity to use a Bill aimed at improving the administration of social security to tackle the problem of people who are entitled to benefits but do not take them up. If it was not so serious, the response of the Government to the matter would be laughable. They said that an attempt by the state to help people to get the benefits to which they are entitled would be invading the privacy of individuals. "Ludicrous" does not start to sum up that response.

We then heard that those people did not want to claim benefits, but we should put that to the test. I believe that many of them would want to claim. We also heard that they would resent the state forcing them to take up their entitlements. This is Third Reading—the conclusion of our discussions on the Bill. We could have introduced a common-sense measure to try to help people who need income but do not get it, and the data matching in the Bill could have been of immense help.

We have lost an opportunity this evening, and I hope that some of these matters may be discussed in another place. I also hope that the Minister will tell us why the Government have refused to strengthen a measure which started by aiming to tackle fraud in a tough way. We should be tough on fraud, and our only disappointment is that the Government have not gone further. They should have sent a powerful message to everyone that not only do we talk tough on fraud, but we implement legislation that hits hard—especially landlord cheats.

Photo of Oliver Heald Oliver Heald Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department of Social Security) 6:53 pm, 4th February 1997

The Third Reading debate presents me with the opportunity to thank the Committee for the care that it has taken in discussing the Government's proposals. The Bill received a thorough scrutiny during the 11 sittings of the Committee, but, throughout, business has been conducted in a constructive and professional manner.

I would like to thank the two Chairmen—my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test (Sir J. Hill), and the hon. Member for Blaydon (Mr. McWilliam)—for their guidance, their forbearance and their wisdom. I should also like to thank Opposition Members for their constructive contributions, especially the hon. Members for Fife, Central (Mr. McLeish) and for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham). Each member of the Committee in his own way made a positive contribution.

Above all, I should like to thank the Minister for Social Security and Disabled People, my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North (Mr. Burt), who was my partner in taking the Bill through. He is that political rarity, a man who commands equal respect from both sides of the House. His good sense and plain humanity have helped the progress of this Bill in equal measure.

The Bill proposes a number of measures designed to reduce the opportunity for the fraudulent claiming and payment of social security benefits, and a number of other measures to improve the security, control and accuracy of social security administration.

The hon. Member for South Antrim (Mr. Forsythe) played a distinguished part in Committee and raised the issues that affected Northern Ireland, and I pay tribute to him for that. He raised two points on Third Reading. First, he referred to security and the importance that should be attached to data security in Northern Ireland. The principles of data security that I outlined earlier apply to Northern Ireland in exactly the same way as to the rest of the UK.

The Social Security Agency in Northern Ireland takes security and confidentiality very seriously. The hon. Member for South Antrim will be aware of the moves to mirror some of the developments on benefit fraud investigation and security in Northern Ireland, and I am sure that he will welcome those measures. As someone who knows about this matter intimately, he will know that the agency does a good job, often in very difficult circumstances. We should all pay tribute to it.

Secondly, the hon. Member for South Antrim referred to amending the legislation for Northern Ireland by Order in Council. We discussed this matter in Committee, as he will remember. When Northern Ireland legislation follows Great Britain legislation and the Bill provides for that—as this Bill does—the convention is to proceed without amendment, but other issues which may arise in Northern Ireland were discussed in Committee. The hon. Member said that he had tried to intervene earlier, but that I had not given way. I hope that he accepts that it is most unusual for me to do that, and I apologise.

The main provisions of the Bill are: to enable certain other Government Departments to supply relevant information to the Department of Social Security for the purposes of preventing and detecting social security fraud and for checking the accuracy of social security information; to enable the Department to share information with local authorities, and for authorities to share information with each other; to enhance and improve the range of penalties available against those who abuse the system; and to give the Secretary of State the power to inspect local authority performance, make directions as to the standards that are to be achieved and, in the event of the directions being ignored, to reduce subsidy.

The hon. Member for Fife, Central asked whether enough is being done about landlord fraud. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State's 10-point plan—which I outlined earlier—will lacerate landlord fraud, and will put paid to the abuses to which the hon. Gentleman referred. More importantly, we should perhaps ask why it would be sensible—in circumstances where different kinds of individuals and organised criminals commit serious fraud—to single out landlords when the level of criminality can be just as serious with another kind of offender.

The Opposition's thoughts on the matter—particularly in circumstances where there is no evidence that landlords are committing the bulk of the fraud—result from their views on landlords. My hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Mr. Bruce) made the point that there is a demonology of the left, in which a landlord who commits an offence—whatever the level of criminality or the comparisons that can be made—should somehow warrant a 12-year sentence, when everybody else committing the same offence with the same level of criminality should receive a six-year sentence. I do not understand that, and nor does the rest of the House.

Photo of Mr Alan Howarth Mr Alan Howarth , Stratford-on-Avon

By the same token, is there not a demonology of the right as far as disabled people are concerned? Why are two clauses in the Bill particularly pitched at disabled people? Is that not at least as invidious?

Photo of Oliver Heald Oliver Heald Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department of Social Security)

The answer to that is a frank no.

The Bill will create powers for duly appointed local authority officials to check benefit entitlement, such as powers to enable them to enter business premises, including those of landlords; and it includes other powers which I believe will represent an important step in the Government's increasingly successful strategy to counter benefit fraud—a strategy which has produced record savings for the taxpayer year after year, and as a result of which we are expected to save £7 billion in the next three years.

It is not good enough for Labour Members to give the impression that they have had 17 years of good ideas on ways to counter benefit fraud, which the Conservative Government have ignored. They are Johnny-come-latelies on this issue. As recently as 1993, the Labour Front Bench spokesman, the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr. Bradley), was describing the problem of benefit fraud as a mere bagatelle.

Photo of Oliver Heald Oliver Heald Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department of Social Security)

No; I shall not give way any more. I have had enough of these ill considered—

Photo of Oliver Heald Oliver Heald Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department of Social Security)

I have already answered the response which I know will come, which is feeble in the extreme. The hon. Gentleman admitted that, when he was in local government—

Photo of Oliver Heald Oliver Heald Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department of Social Security)

No.

The hon. Gentleman admits that he was telling the Labour authorities and the Labour party that this was a serious issue, and they ignored it. It is only because the Government have taken the effective steps and action they have that fraud is now being tackled, and tackled effectively.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill read the Third time, and passed.