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Written Statements

Volume 732: debated on Thursday 11 May 2023

Written Statements

Thursday 11 May 2023

Business and Trade

India Trade Negotiations

The eighth round UK-India free trade agreement (FTA) negotiations took place from 20-31 March. The ninth round took place shortly afterwards, from 24-28 April. As with previous rounds, these rounds were conducted in a hybrid fashion, a number of officials travelled to each other’s nations for negotiations and others attended virtually. Detailed talks took place across a range of policy areas.

The UK-India trade relationship was worth £36 billion in 2022. A deal which respects the domestic sensitives of both sides will strengthen the economic links between the UK and India, boosting the UK economy and bringing benefits to UK businesses, families and consumers.

In this negotiation, as with all our FTA negotiations, the NHS and the services it provides is not on the table. This Government will continue to work towards a high level of protection of the environment in new trade agreements.

We have provisionally closed 17 chapters across the FTA, and both sides continue to work towards a modern and comprehensive agreement. We will only sign a deal that is fair, balanced and ultimately in the best interests of the UK.

The 10th round of negotiations is due to take place in the coming months.

The Government will continue to keep Parliament updated as these negotiations progress.

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Northern Ireland

Independent Commission for Reconciliation and Information Recovery: Implementation

The Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill represents the Government’s pledge to address the extremely complex and sensitive legacy of Northern Ireland’s past. The Bill aims to deliver better outcomes for those most affected by the troubles, while at the same time putting in place mechanisms to encourage and promote reconciliation. In seeking to achieve this critical objective, the Bill establishes a new body, the Independent Commission for Reconciliation and Information Recovery (the ICRIR).

The Government believe that the success of the ICRIR will rely on its ability to operate independently of Government. This is why it is being established as an arm’s length body. It will not report to Ministers, but instead to a board of commissioners, and will be staffed by public servants and seconded police officers who will be accountable to the commissioners.

Last month Lord Caine, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, provided Parliament with information about the Government’s proposed approach to appointing ICRIR commissioners. This included criteria for each role and the selection processes which would inform the exercise of my power to make ICRIR commissioner appointments. The Government outlined the importance of beginning the process of advertising and identifying candidates for commissioner roles, so they could begin work to design and set up the body as soon as the Bill completes its legislative process.

Following the process set out for the selection of the Chief Commissioner, having received advice from the judiciary, I have identified the right hon. Sir Declan Morgan to be appointed Chief Commissioner of the ICRIR. His appointment will take place following Royal Assent and the establishment of the ICRIR, taking account of any further considerations and final requirements of the Act.

Sir Declan brings a wealth of experience from his previous role as Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland from 2009 to 2021. A hallmark of his distinguished career has been his commitment to addressing Northern Ireland’s past. I am confident that he will bring the highest level of experience, expertise and integrity to this post, which will help build public confidence in the ICRIR.

Sir Declan will begin work from early next month to identify other commissioners and to design how the new commission will carry out its role. In particular, the Chief Commissioner will lead the process to recruit the commissioner for investigations and provide a recommended candidate to me. The broadest possible field of experienced candidates is sought to fill this important role. The role is currently advertised and is subject to fair and open competition, with appointment on merit.

In light of the announcement of the Chief Commissioner, the deadline will be extended until 1 June to allow him to lead the appointment process and form a panel.

The Government are committed to delivering the legislative framework to address the legacy of the Northern Ireland troubles and promote reconciliation, and to ensuring that, subject to parliamentary process, it is implemented swiftly, and in the best possible ways, so that it can serve the people of Northern Ireland.

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Work and Pensions

Fraud and Error National Statistics

The annual statistics for fraud and error in the benefit system for the financial year ending 2023 were published on Thursday 11 May 2023, at 9.30 am.

Today’s figures confirm that fraud and error in 2022-23 fell to 3.6% of welfare expenditure. This includes a reduced rate of both fraudulent overpayments at 2.7% (£6.4 billion) and claimant error at 0.6% (£1.4 billion). The rate of official error has remained the same at 0.3% (£0.6 billion), whilst the rate of underpayments has increased by 0.2 percentage points to 1.4% (£3.3 billion).

This fall in the value of fraud and error shows that our plan for fighting fraud in the welfare system is working. This is a positive step in the right direction after an increase in fraud and error during the pandemic, but there is more to do.

Prior to the pandemic, fraud and error rates across the welfare system were falling. This was driven by our action to prevent fraud from entering the system and to detect and recover it when it does. At the outset of the pandemic, we took the right and necessary decisions to protect millions of people who suddenly required our support. This meant we eased some of our control measures to manage the surge in universal credit claims and pay people in need on time. While this allowed the Department to process millions of universal credit (UC) claims in the first weeks of the pandemic, unfortunately this was exploited by some.

Our fraud plan, “Fighting Fraud in the Welfare System”, which we published last year and is backed by £900 million of funding, sets out how we are stepping up our approach to drive out fraud and error from the welfare system.

We have already revisited and reinstated our normal checks and assurances that were eased over the pandemic. The return of our defences has had a positive impact in preventing fraudulent claims, and this is now starting to be reflected in the fraud and error statistics, as published today. We also continuously improve our systems to keep pace with fast-evolving criminal tactics. From our findings we are implementing policy and technological solutions, including enhanced verification and improved customer communications.

We have continued to build on our effective counter-fraud function. This focuses on individual and organised crime threats meaning we can disrupt attacks on the system by both individuals and organised gangs, stopping criminals taking from those who need this support.

As part of our plan, we will review millions of UC claims over the next five years by way of targeted case reviews. This will see the DWP review cases that are at risk of being incorrect, clearing the stock of fraud and error that entered during the height of the pandemic and addressing any overpayments or underpayments, ensuring claimants receive the right amount.

Finally, as our fraud plan set but, when parliamentary time allows, we plan to introduce a new range of powers to strengthen our ability to tackle fraud and error in the benefits system. This includes: strengthening our penalty regime by introducing a new civil penalty for cases of fraud, which will help act as a deterrent; a requirement for organisations such as banks to share data securely on an increased scale to help us check levels of savings and whether claimants are living abroad; and to support us to tackle serious and organised crime, increase DWP officers’ powers to conduct searches, seize evidence and make arrests, giving fraudsters no place to hide.

Fraud is a major issue, but we are also taking further steps to minimise errors, ensuring the right people are paid the right amount at the right time. For personal independence payment, we ask all claimants in our key communications with them to inform us if their condition has changed for better or worse. We would encourage anyone who thinks their condition has changed to get in touch so that we can review their case and ensure we pay them the right amount. Details on how to get in touch are available at Personal Independence Payment (PIP): Change of circumstances - gov.uk (www.gov.uk).

For the state pension, our legal entitlements administrative practice (LEAP) exercise continues to identify and reimburse those people affected by historic underpayments. We also continue to work closely with HMRC, to understand more about the scale, potential causes, and options to correct historical errors relating to home responsibilities protection.

We will report more on both overpayments and underpayments by way of our annual report and accounts, which are due to be published early in July 2023.

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