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Malcolm Wicks): We are working with local authorities on many fronts to reduce fraud and error in housing benefit. Most significantly, in 1998 we introduced a framework for local authorities to make proper checks on claims. We have now made it easier for councils to adopt the framework; 77 per cent. of them are now operating it and that proportion will increase. So far, net savings from the verification framework are estimated at about £100 million.
Syd Rapson: I thank my hon. Friend for that very informative answer, but I am sure that he is aware that most of the problems with housing benefit fraud are caused by the administration of the scheme. What steps is he taking to ensure a higher standard of administration? How will he also ensure a spread of good practice across the country?
Malcolm Wicks: My hon. Friend takes a great deal of interest in this matter. He is right to emphasise the fact that better administration is the key to getting rid of fraud from the system. A performance standards framework, including standards to prevent, detect and punish fraud wherever it occurs, will be published in the spring. A help team is available to help local authorities with particular difficulties. The benefit fraud inspectorate has published the results of its inspections of 115 local authorities.I take this opportunity to thank Chris Bull, the head of the inspectorate, and his team for the important work that they are doing.
Malcolm Wicks: Local authority prosecutions and sanctions against fraud have more than doubled during the past two years. The hon. Gentleman asks about the number of cases. For the first time in many years, we are carrying out research to verify the amount of housing benefit fraud in the system, and we will publish the results when we can. We are not complacent about fraud. We have already saved the £100 million that I mentioned and we are working in many ways to get fraud out of the systeman objective that can be shared by the whole House.
Glenda Jackson (Hampstead and Highgate): Are not many people losing their homes because of the incompetence of private companies that administer housing benefit for and on behalf of local authorities? My local authority, Camden, has received two chartermarks for the efficacy of its housing benefit system. Is it not time for the Government to insist that those at Camden should assist their local authority colleagues, many of whose residents are losing their homes?
Malcolm Wicks: I pay tribute to the good system of housing benefit administration in my hon. Friend's borough of Camden, which I twice visited to listen and to learn. One of its key officials has been transferred to Hackney, which has had particular difficulties, and is doing good work in tackling housing benefit fraud. Standards in Camden are being maintained. A local
Mr. David Willetts (Havant): What does the Minister have to say to the couple I met in Birmingham on Thursday[Interruption.] Labour Members would benefit from doing the same. The couple had been to their local council office to say that they believed that their neighbours were working while fraudulently claiming housing benefit and income support. They were overheard giving their suspicions and the information got back to their neighbours. A gang came round, beat them up and sprayed CS gas at the guy. They were driven out of their house, taking as many possessions as they could manage to take in two taxis; what was left behind was subsequently stolen. They virtually became homeless as a result of telling their local council office that they suspected someone of welfare fraud.
Does the Minister believe that local authorities and the Government have an obligation to protect people who complain about welfare fraud? Does he acceptthat everyone involved manifestly failed in their responsibilities to protect that couple? Does he regret the fact that many of the advertisements used in the Government's advertising campaign on welfare fraud give no telephone number, so people cannot phone the confidential anti-fraud hotline?
The incident that the hon. Gentleman describes is very serious. I should like to talk to him about it to ensure that everything that should be done as regards rehousing and police action is being done. Much of it will be a matter for the police. There seems to have been a breakdown in confidentiality. We need good citizens to report benefit fraudthere should be no question about thatand those who do so have a right to confidentiality and, if in extremis things go wrong, a right to proper protection by the local authority and police service. The hon. Gentleman raises a very serious matter and I take it very seriously.
Mr. Andrew Love (Edmonton): Surely the problem lies in the complexity of the benefits system introduced by the Conservatives. What steps is my hon. Friend taking to simplify its administration and the complexity of its rules?
Malcolm Wicks: My hon. Friend is right to say that it is easy for the Opposition to huff and puff about fraud, as they now do, but it blows away no fraudsters. They did very little in government over 18 years; we are doing many things to detect and rid the system of fraud.
Malcolm Wicks: It is not worse. We are taking action, and we have already reduced housing benefit fraud by £100 million. We have a performance framework, the benefit fraud inspectorate is doing its work, and we are taking a number of steps. Are we winning the war against fraud? Yes, we are. Are we complacent? No; there is much more to be done.
The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr. Alistair Darling): Approximately 200,000 households receive income from pension annuities and are entitled to the minimum income guarantee, housing benefit or council tax benefit. Nearly all those households will, of course, gain from the pension credit, which is designed to reward their saving.
Mr. Jack: I am grateful to the Secretary of State for his answer, but nobody wants anyone with an annuity to have to fall back on income-related benefits. Does the right hon. Gentleman not realise that the review of annuities that the Government recently carried out only scratched the surface of the problem? At a time when final salary pension schemes are going down like ninepins, there is real fear abroad that hard-saving people will not get enough money from their current annuity to enable them to maintain a decent standard of living in their retirement. Will the Secretary of State work with my right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon(Mr. Curry) on the Bill he has introduced, and will he try to be more constructive in addressing the problem?
Mr. Darling: The Bill proposed by the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon would do nothing to improve the incomes of the vast majority of people in this country. It is designed to help a minority of people who have retired; the vast majority would not benefit from its provisions.
The right hon. Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack) raised two matters. On the first, the Government are consulting on the annuities consultation paper, the period for which still has some time to run. On his second point, he is quite right: we need to ensure that more people save more towards their retirement. One of the reasons that we are introducing annual pension statements is that people will be able clearly to focus on how much they are likely to have to retire on. One of the reasons that we introduced new measures such as stakeholder pensions is that they are designed to ensure that more people can accumulate greater savings for their retirement. The right hon. Member for Fylde is quite right; our objective should be to make sure that as many people as possible retire on good incomes. The proposals to which he refers in his right hon. Friend's Bill would not address the problem at all.
Mr. John McFall (Dumbarton): I congratulate the Secretary of State on the consultation paper, which will, I hope, promote wider debate on flexibility and choice in annuities. Does he agree that the issue is how to convert pension savings into retirement incomes? Will not the CAT standards introduced in April 1999reasonable charges, easy access and decent termsbe as important for the new annuities as they are for ISAs and mortgages?
Mr. Darling: My hon. Friend is right. One of the objectives of our policy has been to ensure that as much money as possible that people have saved goes into their pension. We found in the past that too many pension contributions were being eroded by high charges, which
I am determined that we should do even more to reduce regulatory costscompliance costsin the pensions industry. I believe that we can do much to reduce the complexity of the present system, which was introduced for the best of reasons by successive Governments. The time has now come to reduce that complexity so that more money goes into pensions, which is why I asked Alan Pickering of the National Association of Pension Funds to look at this matter last year.
Mr. Steve Webb (Northavon): Given that annuities are becoming more important, with the closure of final salary pension schemes and what the Government hope will be the growth in stakeholder pensions, will there not be a problem for women because annuity rates are lower for them than for men? Will it not put women at a disadvantage if the Government rely more on private provision? What are the Government going to do for women, specifically with regard to private provision?
Mr. Darling: The hon. Gentleman, being a professor and a clever man, will know that one of the reasons why annuity rates for women are different from those for men is that women live longer, and annuity rates are calculated, among other things, by reference to the likely age to which someone will live. The state second pension, which will be introduced from April, will benefit a further 18 million people, many of whom will be women. Indeed, half the beneficiaries of the pension credit, when it is introduced, will be women, too. The pension credit benefits people who have annuities, precisely because it is designed to reward saving. I should have thought that, when he has thought a little further on these matters, he will welcome the pension credit and the state second pension, which probably do more than any other reform of the pension system for many years to help women.
Mr. James Plaskitt (Warwick and Leamington): May I, too, welcome the consultation document on reforming annuities, which is a useful contribution to the debate? Does my right hon. Friend agree that, when considering changes to the rules and increasing flexibility, we should do nothing to undermine the tax terms under which contributions are made, and nothing to undermine fairness to other taxpayers?
Mr. Darling: My hon. Friend is right that one of the problems with the Bill proposed by the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry) is that it is primarily designed to help those who have very large pension savings. It would do nothing to help the vast majority of people. I am concerned that if that measure were to be passed, it might have an adverse effect on annuity rates for most people, which would not be desirable. We have therefore made it clear that, in our reforms, we want to make sure that we do the best that we can to improve annuity rates, to prevent abuse of the systemwhich
Mr. David Curry (Skipton and Ripon): First, is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the criticism that a Bill might help minorities is relevant to most of the legislation that the House passes? Secondly, is he aware that the Government have approved a scheme for which the entry fee is £250,000 and which is based offshore in Gibraltar? Will he therefore not persist in saying that there is something wrong with helping only people who are rich, as that will be precisely the effect of the Government's proposals? Furthermore, will he agree that the minority to whom he refers will get bigger as companies cease to provide pension schemes and people have to make private provision? A much larger number of people will therefore be funnelled into the straitjacket of annuities. Does it therefore make sense not only to improve the existing rules but to look for a way of breaking out of the straitjacket of annuities and amending the structures more imaginatively?
Mr. Darling: I agree that the annuity rules need to be improved, and the Government are consulting on precisely that. However, I am glad that the right hon. Gentleman admits that his proposals are designed to look after the interests of a minority of people. The main thrust of this Government's policy has been to make sure that all pensioners gain, that we tackle pensioner poverty and that the vast majority of pensioners, who have modest means and savings, are helped. The pension credit enables us to achieve that.
It is worth reminding the House again that the average amount of money used to buy an annuity in this country is not £250,000 but £25,000. The House will therefore appreciate that the measures on which we ought to concentrate are those that are designed to ensure that the vast majority of people in this country have a decent retirement income, whether they are in a final salary schemewhich we want to supportor a money purchase scheme through stakeholder pensions or other measures. Across the piece, our efforts should be directed towards helping the majority of people, as they must surely be the first call on our resources.
Mr. David Willetts (Havant): Reform of annuities is an important measure to encourage people to contribute more to their pensions, and we need reliable figures on how much people are contributing to their pensions in total. Does the Secretary of State endorse the figures given to the House by the Minister for Pensions last week when he claimed that contributions to non-state pensions had gone up by £19 billionfrom £50 billion to £69 billion a year? Does the Secretary of State accept those figures, or does he think that they should be reviewed by the Office for National Statistics alongside the reviews of its appalling mistakes on the assets of pension funds?
Mr. Darling: My right hon. Friend gave the latest figures that the Government have, which was the right thing to do. The hon. Gentleman acknowledges that savings have increased since 1997. It is also worth bearing in mind the fact that pension sales increased by about50 per cent. last year. Almost 700,000 stakeholder pensions have now been sold, which represents £1 billion
Mr. Willetts: I have to tell the Secretary of State that I do not believe that the figure for the supposed increase from £50 billion to £69 billion is any more reliable than the figures he quoted on the value of pension fund assets that got him into such trouble the other week. I suggest that he is so complacent about the state of our funded pensions because he believes his propaganda that pension contributions have increased from £50 billion to£69 billion, when they have not. The figures are wrong, the Government's policies are wrong and the first thing he needs to do is to review the figures so that he has an accurate sense of the scale of the crisis facing our funded pensions industry.
Mr. Darling: It was not me who used those figures in the debate two or three weeks ago: the hon. Gentleman issued a press release, but the figures on which it was based turned out to be utterly wrong, so he had to shift his ground. It is no wonder that he spoke in the debate for only about seven minutes, as his entire argument had been shot away.
On the funded sector, the hon. Gentleman will knowI assume he watched the programme yesterday on which he and I appeared, even though it was recorded at different timesthat I have made it clear that the Government need to do more on final salary schemes and to build on our reforms. Once we have the recommendations from Alan Pickering and Ron Sandler, which we hope to receive in June, the Government will publish proposals that will encourage more people to save, reduce the regulatory burden, simplify some of the complexity in the present system, and help companies to support people who save towards their pensions. We must ensure that we are doing the right things in the right way to get more people to save.
We are taking action. The problem for final salary schemes has been building up over the years: they have been in decline since the 1960s. We saw the problem arising, which is why we took action and why we shall continue to do everything we can to ensure that we have a pension system that encourages and rewards saving. That never happened in the 18 years in which the Tories were in power.