Social Security Fraud Bill [Lords]

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Mr. Rooker: I shall deal with this matter briefly. In a nutshell, the sanction is an alternative to prosecution. In other words, a sanction will be offered—someone of much greater authority than a fraud investigator would decide—where there is sufficient evidence to bring a prosecution. The hon. Lady asked whether there will be a prosecution and a sanction. No, there will not be both. The sanction is an alternative to prosecution for the collusive employer. The decision whether to offer a sanction will depend on the scale of the alleged offence and the amount of money involved, which must be factors. I assume that that is so even now, because we can offer sanctions to people under the Social Security Administration (Fraud) Act 1997, which was enacted by the Conservative Government.

We offer sanctions to around 10,000 people a year and we prosecute 10,000 people a year. The ability to offer sanctions is a useful additional tool in the armoury to enable us to deal with fraud in the system. We want to be able to offer sanctions to an employer just as we would to an individual citizen. We want consistency in the process. The amendment would introduce a degree of inconsistency.

Taking a case to the point where a sanction can be offered means undergoing the process of facilitating a prosecution, therefore following all the procedures under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984. The sanction is not offered on a whim. It is not an alternative to doing the work necessary to bring the case to the point of prosecution. The basic homework must still be done. It is true that it saves the time and effort of going to court, and it also spares the individual a conviction, but the sanction is not light. The money that has been stolen must be paid back plus 30 per cent. on top. That is the ballpark figure.

In summary, we want consistency. We want to be able deal with colluding employers as we have been able to deal with individual benefit claimants following the 1997 legislation, which made sanctions available to the Department the first time.

Mrs. Lait: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. I think that he has made the position clear; doubtless when we read the record, we will see that it is. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 15 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 16 to 19 ordered to stand part of the Bill..

Clause 20


Mrs. Lait: I beg to move amendment No. 57, in page 23, line 17, at end insert—

    `(4) The provisions of this Act shall lapse in its entirety three years after the date on which it receives Royal Assent.'.

The amendment is a further opportunity for us to tease out from the Government how they will measure the effectiveness of the Bill, when enacted. We have proposed that it lapses after three years. Some of us think that there is much common sense in a lot of legislation lapsing after three years.

The Government have enacted several initiatives to curb fraud, and the Bill is about the 43rd. There is conflicting evidence about how effective such measures have been, and we want to ensure that there is a mechanism that concentrates minds and measures the Bill's effectiveness. Suggesting that such powers are likely to lapse within three years could concentrate minds powerfully on ensuring that the measures that we support under the Bill are implemented effectively. An audit would be taken of their effectiveness and there would be a drive towards ensuring that, by the end of the third year, the work related to bringing an end to fraud was of such a scale that there was a need to continue with the Department's powers under the Bill. The Government would therefore have to return in three years' time and ask for the Act to continue.

Will the Under-Secretary explain how the Government are planning to measure the effectiveness of the Bill, when enacted? We will then consider whether to withdraw the amendment and whether three years is sufficient for common sense to prevail.

Angela Eagle: I hope that I can persuade the hon. Lady that her draconian option of liquidating the entire Act after three years is over the top and unnecessary. Clearly, we shall continue making our measurements of fraud more sophisticated. Area benefit reviews are now being undertaken into particular benefits that will give us much more accurate information about what is fraud and what is overpayment, and more information about those matters that we discuss constantly while contemplating the amount of money that leaks out of the system and that is defrauded from it. We shall also be monitoring the effects of the extra powers under the Bill.

The hon. Lady is asking us to provide information about a deterrent effect—in other words, how much fraud had been prevented. Clearly, it is impossible always to measure such matters. We can detect fraud that has been prosecuted successfully, but much of the Bill is about deterring it, too. I agree with my right hon. Friend the Minister that part of the ``two strikes'' sanction is an attempt to change the culture and the public attitude in which, at present, there is an all too ready acceptance that benefit fraud is not as bad as other forms of criminality. We say that it is. In fact, given that such fraud is stealing benefit from some of the poorest people in the country, who rely on it, it is even worse than other forms of behaviour that are less tolerated by society.

The intention behind the Bill is partly to change those attitudes and partly to deter people from contemplating benefit fraud in the first place. That part of the Bill's effect will never be able to be measured. However, we will be able to measure—in fact, we are under strict injunctions to measure—our success in reducing the fraud already committed in the system. We have announced tough public service targets to detect and reduce fraud in the system, which will be constantly measured. The Bill will give us new and important powers to detect, prosecute and deter some of that fraud.

The hon. Lady suggests that the powers in the Bill should fall three years after it comes into force. When I first read the amendment, I thought that a mistake had been made and that it referred to the data powers alone. However, now it appears that she wants the amendment to affect the whole Bill. That would mean that the Bill would dissolve automatically after three years—a subject about which she takes an interesting view. Such a policy would make us much busier as a Parliament. We need to refine the powers that we have, as fraud and tax evasion evolve, for example, and change some of our powers to catch those things, but it would not be sensible to do that by wiping the powers from the statute.

We should remember, too, that the power to sanction the ``two strikes and you're out'' provision would be severely compromised by such an amendment, because that power is based on two benefit offences within three years of each other. We will not be able to implement the ``two strikes'' policy immediately, as the administration of such measures takes some time to process. The hon. Lady's proposal would remove the statute before some of it had had a chance to bite, and make it harder to assess the deterrent effect of the ``two strikes'' sanction, which she supports.

Parliament has ways of bringing the Government to account. There are already mechanisms for parliamentary and public scrutiny of legislation. The hon. Lady knows what those mechanisms are: the Social Security Committee, the Public Accounts Committee, the independent watchdogs, the National Audit Office and the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration can all investigate and assess departmental activities in these areas. The courts may rule against any misuse of the powers that we are taking.

The proposed sunset provision would render some of the powers in the Bill seriously ineffective and cause Parliament to revisit that which it had already considered. The hon. Lady should remember that we have consulted widely on those powers; we have listened to comments made in the other place and changed the Bill after consultation. We have tried to create proportionate and reasonable powers that keep up with some of the new forms of fraud that we know are in the system. That process has left us with a platform from which to fight benefit fraud rather than something that needs to be removed altogether at a certain time.

I hope that the hon. Lady agrees that the sunset provision is a drastic way in which to achieve parliamentary scrutiny. I would welcome her observation of how the measures are working; we will be open about the way in which we assess their effect. Given those reassurances, I hope that she will withdraw her amendment.

Mrs. Lait: I said in my introductory remarks that the measure was fairly draconian, although I may not have said that in those precise words. Therefore, I accept the Minister's point in relation to the ``two strikes and you're out'' provision. However, it is important that public measurements are made of the outcomes of the effectiveness of the Bill. The Minister thought that it would be difficult to measure outcomes—

Angela Eagle: Some.

Mrs. Lait: Some outcomes. I am not entirely convinced that it is difficult to measure outcomes. The thought that springs immediately to mind is that a reduction in the number of applications that turned out to be fraudulent would be measurable. That is a separate issue from the reduction in the estimates of known fraud, because the nature of fraud is that the total is unknown. As we know, estimates have risen from £2 billion to £7 billion. The hon. Lady said that she expects that there will be measures of outcomes. It would be useful to debate measurements of outcomes, perhaps when we debate the regulations. On that basis, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 20 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

6.15 pm

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