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House of Lords

Wednesday, 27th September 2000.

Reassembling after the Summer Recess, the House met at half-past two of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers--Read by the Lord Bishop of Guildford.

The Lord Chancellor: Leave of Absence

The Lord Chancellor (Lord Irvine of Lairg): My Lords, before business begins, I take the opportunity to inform the House that I am to preside over the annual ceremonies marking the opening of the legal year on Friday, 29th September, when the House will sit. Accordingly, I trust that the House will grant me leave of absence.

Census Forms: Welsh Ethnicity

2.36 p.m.

Lord Hooson asked her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they approve of the decision of the Office for National Statistics to send out next year's census forms with provision for the Irish and Scots to indicate their ethnic origins but with no provision for the Welsh to do so.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, the content of the census in England and Wales and in Scotland is a matter for the respective Parliaments to decide. When the proposal was debated in the Commons and in this House, no Member raised concerns about the proposed form of the ethnicity question. The Office for National Statistics has consulted widely on the 2001 census in Wales, especially in Ceredigion and Gwynedd. It is possible to write in "Welsh" on the census form; if people say they are Welsh, they will be counted as Welsh.

Lord Hooson: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that reply. However, does he appreciate that this appears to be a form of racial discrimination? Bearing in mind that it is alleged in some quarters that there are now as many Welsh people, and almost as many Welsh speakers, in England as there are in Wales, would it not be wise for the Government to discover the true statistics by means of the census?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, the census form is available in Welsh as well as in English. That, too, has been tested in Ceredigion and in Gwynedd. That was the principal demand of those in Wales who

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sought to express views on the census in Wales, and it has been granted. The question of an additional "Welsh" tick-box was not raised. Its presence would not add significantly to the information gained from the census.

Lord Tebbit: My Lords, will the Minister tell the House what provisions there are for those who are English to proclaim the fact?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, the census form provides for "British" to be recorded. That point was discussed when the ethnicity question was debated both in this House and in the House of Commons.

Lord Roberts of Conwy: My Lords, would the Government bear in mind that the census form does of course allow a person resident in Wales to tick himself off as "British" or "Irish", "Asian or Asian British", "Black or Black British", "Chinese" or a variety of permutations of such ethnic groups. Should the Minister not address the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Hooson; namely, that it is discriminatory, if not insulting, to people living in Wales if they are not allowed to describe themselves simply as "Welsh"?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, I do not seek at all to dismiss that point of view. If the question is raised in relation to subsequent censuses, it will be considered sympathetically. My point is that the matter was never raised when ethnicity questions were discussed. Noble Lords on both the Conservative and the Liberal Democrat Front Benches expressed their approval of the questions proposed for the census.

Lord Elis-Thomas: My Lords, the noble Lord may rest assured that the Cross Benches did not express their approval. Therefore, I ask the Government to look again at what has become a matter of sensitivity and controversy. I appreciate that nationality and ethnicity are always issues of agreement and disagreement, but surely the nationalities of people within these islands, and the nationality of choice of those who wish to register themselves as Welsh, should be recognised.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, the Cross Benches did not express their opinions because they did not choose to do so. The matter was debated in this House. There was an opportunity for any Member to express a view and no Cross-Bencher intervened. As to whether this is now a matter of controversy, it is true that the Western Mail has been conducting a campaign in favour of a "Welsh" tick-box. I do not know how much support it has received. Only 1,200 items of correspondence and e-mails have been sent to the Office for National Statistics and not all of those were in favour of the change that the Western Mail seeks to promote.

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Benefit Fraud

2.40 p.m.

Lord Campbell of Croy asked her Majesty's Government:

    Whether their current estimate for fraud in the system of welfare benefits pertaining to social security and housing amounts to £4 billion per year.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, we estimate that roughly £2 billion is lost through fraud and about £2 billion through errors made by claimants and staff. We have started and are expanding a programme of measurement exercises to provide more precise figures, and we have set a challenging target to halve the rate of loss in income support and jobseeker's allowance by 2006.

Lord Campbell of Croy: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for his reply. If successful in its aim, it is encouraging. However, what progress has been made in reducing fraud in housing benefit, which is probably the worst area? The Minister indicated in response to my Question on 18th April that a new "verification framework" was being introduced. Is it true that two former members of MI5 and Customs and Excise have been appointed to head a new intelligence system concerning fraud?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for what he said in introducing his supplementary question. I should make it clear that the campaign against fraud has not been undertaken only by this Government. The previous government, under Mr Peter Lilley as Secretary of State, commenced the war against fraud, so strictly speaking it is a non-party matter. I do not think that I can say what progress has been made in dealing with housing benefit fraud. Since the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, answered the Question in April, no further statistics have been published.

As to the question of the assistance given to the department by those assigned to it from MI5 and Customs and Excise, the noble Lord is entirely right; and their contribution is very much appreciated.

Lord Morris of Manchester: My Lords, like my noble friend Lady Hollis has always done, my noble friend Lord McIntosh has demonstrated the Government's readiness to inform the House as fully as possible about fraud in the benefit system. Can he tell us now--or perhaps write to me to say--by how much disability benefits and the means-tested income support entitlements of frail elderly people went unclaimed at the latest date for which figures are available? What approximately were the total sums unclaimed?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, I am not sure whether it is possible now--or, indeed, in the future--to give accurate figures on under-claiming. Clearly the statistical exercise that is undertaken to

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check on over-claiming, whether fraudulent or not, can be carried out by a sampling exercise. However, under-claiming does not appear in the books of the Department of Social Security. Without sampling of the total population, which would be a very expensive exercise, it is not easy to make the kind of estimate that my noble friend seeks.

Lord Goodhart: My Lords, given the fact that the black economy involves both benefit fraud and, probably to a much larger extent, tax evasion, will the Government consider a joined-up attack on both kinds of fraud, linking both the DSS and the Inland Revenue?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, as the noble Lord will well know, my noble friend Lord Grabiner produced a report earlier this year for the Chancellor of the Exchequer on what he calls the "black economy"--we prefer to call it the "informal economy". That report covers both tax evasion and benefit fraud. The Chancellor of the Exchequer responded to that in his Budget Statement. I can assure the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, that he is pursuing the matter very actively.

Baroness Sharples: My Lords, does the Minister accept that this is possibly the time for us to have a national identity card system? Surely that would help to combat fraud in these areas.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, I believe that the noble Baroness is going somewhat wide of the Question on the Order Paper. However, there is a point behind what she says: the exchange of information between government departments that are concerned with different kinds of social security and housing benefit, as well as with the tax system, helps in combating fraud. The exchange of information that now takes place does so with the approval of the Data Protection Registrar.


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