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Benefits Agency

Mr. Field: To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security if staff calculating benefit entitlement at the Benefits Agency will be able to electronically access information held by the Inland Revenue on each of the tax credits. [113623]

Angela Eagle: The administration of benefits is a matter for Peter Mathison, the Chief Executive of the Benefits Agency. He will write to my right hon Friend.

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Letter from Peter Mathison to Mr. Frank Field, dated 9 March 2000:



    Relevant information held by the Inland Revenue Tax Credit Office can be accessed electronically by Benefits Agency staff to enable them to accurately calculate benefit entitlement.


    There is a mechanism which allows one computer system to access the enquiry dialogues of another. This enables staff within the BA to access the enquiry dialogues of the Tax Credit system and vice versa.

Fraud

Mr. Field: To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security what plans he has to improve the medical expertise of the fraud investigators in each of his Department's agencies which execute counter-fraud work. [113815]

Mr. Rooker: This is a matter for Peter Mathison, the Chief Executive of the Benefits Agency. He will write to my right hon. Friend.

Letter from Peter Mathison to Mr. Frank Field, dated 9 March 2000:



    Department of Social Security fraud investigators are trained to a high standard, ensuring all aspects of investigation are carried out professionally.


    At present there is no specific training aimed at improving a fraud officer's medical expertise, neither are there any plans to provide any as fraud officers are not tasked with gathering medical information. Their role is to establish whether the customer's activities are consistent with the circumstances stated in their claim. If the claim involves medical decisions, the fraud officer's role is to establish whether the customer's current activities are consistent with the stated mobility, care needs or incapacity as documented in their claim. They do this by recording information gathered from observation of, and interviews with the customer. Photographic and video evidence is often gathered in these investigations.


    Fraud officers never take decisions on benefit entitlement. Their role is to gather evidence and pass it to the appropriate District Manager. They never make medical decisions and cannot influence the decision making process. The District Manager may choose to pass the case on to an independent "lay decision maker" who can seek medical evidence from a General Practitioner, consultant or hospital. They may also request examination by an Examining Medical Practitioner or seek advice from the provider of Medical Services to the Benefits Agency (Sema Group).


    I hope this is helpful.

Housing Benefit

Dr. Iddon: To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security how many representations he has received on implementation by local authorities of the Housing Benefit Verification Framework. [113651]

Angela Eagle: The Department receives inquiries and comments from a range of sources including individual local authorities, representative organisations, and individuals through correspondence, telephone calls, seminars, working groups and meetings. It is therefore not possible to place a number on the representations we have received about the Verification Framework (VF).

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We have monitored the live running of the VF from its launch and have already made several improvements to the VF in the light of operational experience. We will continue to monitor the VF and will consider further improvements when we have analysed information from the range of sources available, including any representations we may receive.

Dr. Iddon: To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security what assessment he has made of the impact of implementation of the Housing Benefit Verification Framework on the level of rent arrears for private sector landlords, voluntary housing organisations and housing associations which provide accommodation for the vulnerable and socially excluded. [113649]

Angela Eagle: The day-to-day administration of Housing Benefit and Council Tax Benefit is the responsibility of local authorities. We are already working towards driving forward improvements in the benefit services authorities provide to claimants and their landlords.

From experience gained through the live running of the Verification Framework (VF) we have made several improvements to it. For example, the changes we have made to identity requirements will help vulnerable groups, particularly hostel dwellers and providers. We are evaluating the VF and will continue to learn lessons from its operation.

The Best Value regime, which will be introduced from April, is a key part of the modernisation of local government and one of the main ways that we will be able to measure LA achievements and secure a programme of continuous improvement in the delivery of Housing Benefit (HB). Best Value performance indicators for HB administration will include the key areas of speed and accuracy so that all claims can be decided speedily and those claiming benefit get the right amount first time round.

Mr. Field: To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security what powers are available to him to require local authorities to participate in (a) the Area Benefit Review of Housing Benefit and (b) the Housing Benefit Review. [114004]

Angela Eagle: There is no explicit legislative power to require local authorities to participate in exercises to measure levels of fraud and error in Housing Benefit. Currently 195 Local Authorities participate in the measurement of fraud in Non-Standard Housing Benefit through the Benefits Agency's programme of Area Benefit Reviews.

Mr. Field: To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security if the Area Benefit Review of Housing Benefit will include a representative sample of claims for people who do not claim either (a) income support or (b) jobseekers' allowance. [113999]

Angela Eagle: The exercise to measure levels of fraud and error in Housing Benefit through the Benefits Agency's Area Benefit Review programme is currently

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restricted to the two thirds of Housing Benefit cases where benefit is paid with Income Support or Jobseeker's Allowance (Income Support).

Our aim is also to measure levels of fraud and error in the remaining third of the Housing Benefit caseload and work is proceeding on the design of a suitable mechanism.

Fraud and Error

Mr. Field: To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security if he will estimate the savings in fraud and error in (a) jobseeker's allowance and (b) income support if those area directorates with above average levels of fraud and error reduced fraud and error to the current average; and if the achievement of such a reduction by March 2002 would fulfil the relevant departmental public service agreement. [114000]

Mr. Rooker: Overpayments in Jobseeker's Allowance and Income Support would be reduced by £61 million and £75 million a year respectively, if Area Directorates with higher than average levels of overpayment were to reduce them to the present average level. Assuming that expenditure levels remained constant, this would meet our Public Service Agreement target of a 10 per cent. reduction in losses in these benefits.

It is in the nature of an average of a set of values that the set will contain some values above the average. Nevertheless, we are paying close attention to how those areas with higher than average losses are planning to reduce them.

Press Releases

Mr. Brady: To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security if he will list the (a) national, (b) regional and

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(c) local newspapers and media bodies to which his Department sent news releases during the period 2 May 1997 to 29 February 2000. [113991]

Mr. Rooker: All national, regional and local newspapers and media bodies to which the Department sent news releases between 2 May 1997 and 29 February 2000 are distributed by the Central Office of Information (COI) on behalf of the Department's Headquarters and Agencies. All addresses are listed in the COI New Distribution Service list. A copy of this has been placed in the House of Commons Library.

The list contains details of organisations to which news releases are faxed and those which are affected by electronic transfer.

Mr. Brady: To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security for the period 2 May 1997 to 29 February 2000 what was (a) the number of occasions on which couriers were used to distribute news releases from his Department and (b) the total cost of using couriers to distribute news releases. [113981]

Mr. Rooker: The Department's Headquarters and Agency Press Offices do not use couriers to distribute news releases.


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