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Payment Fraud and Error

Volume 455: debated on Monday 8 January 2007

9. What steps he is taking to reduce fraud and error in relation to income support, jobseeker's allowance and pension credit; and if he will make a statement. (113155)

We have made significant progress in reducing fraud and error in income support, jobseeker’s allowance and pension credit. In fact, fraud in income support and jobseeker’s allowance is at the lowest level ever recorded; it is down by almost two thirds from 1997-98. We are determined to reduce both fraud and error even further, and we will publish our strategy for reducing error in the very near future.

The Government admitted at the end of last year that in the past three years, due to fraud and error, they wrongly paid out £13 million in benefits to prisoners, and they also admitted that the problem is getting worse. Is that a result of fraud, incompetence, or a combination of both?

The figure to which the hon. Gentleman refers relates to estimates of overpayments, accumulated over three years. In his allegation about overpayments to prisoners, he overlooks the Department’s success in identifying overpayments and recovering them.

My hon. Friend will realise that there are different performance levels in different regions. What action is he taking to ensure that best practice, and therefore the lowest error and fraud rates, are rolled out across the country and become national practice?

My hon. Friend makes a good point. If we consider the performances of individual offices across the country, especially in respect of official error, we find different levels of performance, as he says. The Department is trying to put in place a twinning arrangement between the best performing offices and those that are still not performing as well as we would like, in order to ensure the spreading of best practice around the system. I am confident that that will help us to make even more progress in reducing error.

The total cost of customer fraud and error for the three benefits in question alone is over £500 million a year. A staggering £100 million a year of that is down to people claiming to be single, when they live with a partner. That is because the system sends the message: “Pretend to be single, and you’ll get much more benefit than you would as part of a couple.” When will the Minister get a grip on that dysfunctional system, and end the damaging discrimination against couples, both married and unmarried?

That is a bit rich coming from the Opposition. I remind the hon. Gentleman that, for the benefits concerned, the amount of fraud was £850 million in 1997, but it is now £250 million. The figure for official error was £280 million, but it is now £230 million, so right across the piece, on fraud and on error, the Government have made far more progress than was ever made under the previous Administration, and we will continue to do so.