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Housing Benefit Fraud

Volume 268: debated on Tuesday 12 December 1995

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To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security what measures he is taking in respect of housing benefit fraud; and if he will make a statement. [3568]

As I said in my recent social security statement, I am stepping up the fight against housing benefit fraud. In particular, from next summer, I am setting up a central computer register to make it possible to cross-check people claiming from more than one local authority. I am strengthening the financial incentives for local authorities to crack down on fraud and I am introducing challenge funding to encourage them to develop innovative ways of tackling fraud.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his determination to combat fraud, the savings that he has made in his budget for housing and his efforts to direct money to those in greatest need. Will he contrast his policies with those of the Opposition, who have opposed all benefit reform and refuse to make any savings? Does he agree that taxes would have to rise to meet the bill run up by their policies?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. He will recall how, during the social security statement, the official spokesman for the Labour party condemned and opposed every single measure that we proposed to reform social security, including the housing benefit measures. That means that a Labour Government, if ever there were one, would need to meet extra expenditure of more than £1 billion from higher taxes. The Opposition, by and large, have not been honest enough to admit that, unlike the honest 10, one of whom, the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner), has declared that he recognises that a Labour Government would have to put up taxes, which is true.

Why should anyone take the Government seriously in their supposed crackdown on fraud? Does the right hon. Gentleman realise that some time ago I asked him a question about the number of officers in his Department who had been reprimanded, sacked or prosecuted for fraud? Does he recall that he told me that such information could not be gathered without undue cost to the taxpayer? Why, therefore, when The Sunday Times asked his Department for that information, could it be provided within four hours? He told The Sunday Times that about 200 officers were involved in fraud, but why should we believe that answer when I am informed that in one London office alone 79 staff have been reprimanded, sacked or prosecuted for fraud? If he was serious about fraud, he would know those figures immediately.

I certainly regret it if any information was made available to the press but not to the hon. Gentleman. I will certainly look into that.

We obviously take fraud immensely seriously. As I have often said before, the hon. Gentleman is probably the only member of the Opposition who takes it seriously, and probably the only one who, at the end of the Budget, wanted to vote for tax cuts, whereas the rest of them all wanted to vote for higher taxes—10 of them brought themselves to do so. Unless we are prepared to crack down on fraud, as we have, and therefore save considerable sums of money to the taxpayer, we must either reduce benefits to those in genuine need or put up taxes. We take the matter extremely seriously.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his decision to introduce a new central register for housing benefit, which will stop people claiming benefit from more than one local authority. Does he agree that it will help to tighten the social security housing package?

Yes. We believe that the introduction of the register could be an important measure to enable local authorities, which handle and administer housing benefit, and often have different and incompatible computer systems, to consult the central register and to cross-check whether anyone is claiming housing benefit in more than one local authority and whether there is any inconsistency with the central record, for example, of income support claims. That should help local authorities to improve greatly their savings in respect of fraud, which I am glad to say they have already doubled as a result of the measures that we have taken so far.

The Labour party obviously supports actions that combat benefit fraud, but it is a little surprising that it has taken the Government so long to act. Of equal concern, however, is the Government's planned cuts in housing benefit to people under 25. Did the Minister read the excellent speeches given at Centrepoint last week, which highlighted the plight of homeless young people? Does he not recognise that the increase in the non-dependent addition, and the limit on housing benefit, will force many more young people on to the streets or into multiple-occupation houses, with the consequent danger to their health as well as their physical and moral safety? Will he not therefore immediately scrap that plan and accept what the Princess of Wales said when she described the appalling dangers and vulnerability of young people who have been forced out on to the streets because of changes in housing benefit?

The hon. Gentleman said that it is obvious that Labour Front Benchers supported action against fraud, but anyone who has heard them sneer at, deride and describe as purely notional any measures to combat fraud would know that they do not support action against it. Anyone who heard the hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett) say that the Labour party had for too long been associated with freeloaders would agree that Labour has been too slow to get round to the need to attack fraud.

I deprecate the attempt of the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr. Bradley) to bring the royal family into party political debate. He entirely misrepresents what was said. He equally misrepresents the policy change that we are introducing, which will limit benefits to those on income support aged under 25 to the average for shared accommodation in an area. We shall thereby end the absurdity of someone out of work being able to afford better accommodation than those in work. I am surprised that the Labour party wants that situation to continue.