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Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. I have reminded the hon. Gentleman once--this is the second time--that he must confine his remarks to social security fraud. He has given the example of tobacco fraud. He must now restrict his comments to social security fraud.
The Government talk about joined-up government. We are debating the Bill on Second Reading. It is not a Third Reading debate and we are not considering the Bill on Report. We are discussing the Government's priorities, and the Government are putting enormous emphasis on the Bill. They are putting too much emphasis on it while neglecting other issues.
Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. I have already asked the hon. Gentleman to restrict his comments to the content of the Bill. We are, indeed, considering it on Second Reading, but it is about social security fraud.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden touched on infringements of civil liberties. The Bill contains amazing and draconian powers to deal with supposed social security fraudsters. I fear that the Bill, as with so much other Government legislation, will have unintended consequences. I suspect that many more people will rely on cash transactions, avoiding anything going through the bank so that they cannot be the subject of a record that social security investigators can require to be produced.
The House will be pleased to know that we are law-abiding in Christchurch, but that does not mean that there are not instances of social security and other fraud. However, those instances pale into insignificance when compared with the number of cases of maladministration. I should like the Government to put much more emphasis on ensuring that their administrative procedures for social security are in order before seeking more powers to require the private sector to provide information. If the Government had concentrated on improving the administration of their existing benefits system, they would have won much more support than the present Bill will guarantee them.
I have a doctor in my constituency who retired and applied for a pension. When it was not paid, he complained and has now been told that his application was never received, although he has had correspondence suggesting that it must have been. That is just one example; I raised that matter in the House before Christmas, and still have not received a satisfactory response. There are many instances in which, we know, people have not yet been paid the money to which they are entitled under the Government's measures on winter fuel payments. The administration of such matters is just not working.
Conservative ideas about having one simple system are the answer to the problem, and I welcome the proposal to set up a single benefits investigation squad. One national body would have responsibility for investigating all forms of welfare fraud, and would be administered by the Benefits Agency. When the Conservative Government take over, I hope that they will put a lot more emphasis on improving the quality of administration. The social security system should protect the innocent and look after those who have fallen on hard times through no fault of their own. Too often, those people fall foul of the system
The powers in the Bill do not give the impression that they will be well targeted. If there are going to be 900,000 inquiries in a year, that suggests a scatter-gun approach. If we concentrated those extra draconian powers on identifying the top 1,000 fraudsters, we might get somewhere. I fear that the Government have got their priorities wrong. Considering that they have been advised to get a grip on national insurance numbers, I was surprised to learn of evidence that they do not seem to have done so yet. My right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden made the point that there is a long-standing discrepancy between the number of national insurance numbers and the number of people living and working in this country. However, that does not mean that there should not be a system whereby all new national insurance numbers issued coincide with the number of people coming into the workplace. There is plenty of evidence that people can pick up extra national insurance numbers and identities without too many problems.
When the Minister of State makes his winding-up speech, I hope that he will tell us why a national identity card is not the answer. If everybody had such a card, there would be no need for multiple identities and it would be much easier to deal with fraud systematically. The Bill sounds tough and draconian, but I fear that it will deal only with the fringes. It will probably result in some people who are caught up in the lower levels of fraud being brought before the courts and suffering benefit penalties, but I fear that it will not deal with the substantial issue. That is why, although I will not oppose it, I find it rather a disappointing measure.
Mrs. Teresa Gorman (Billericay): When one hears the sums involved in social security fraud--£7 billion has been mentioned--and realises how many people may need some form of financial assistance, one could easily get the impression that just about half the households in the country are involved in benefit fraud. It is a massive problem, as everyone acknowledges.
Ever since I can remember, people in my circle would say that if one takes care of the pennies, the pounds will take care of themselves. When the Minister sums up, will he tell us what he is doing to encourage people at local level who know that fraud is going on to participate in bringing the problem under control? I want him to take note of two anecdotes from my constituency.
A member of the Conservative party who happened to work in the local pharmacy knew of a number of young women who came in regularly to claim prescriptions for which they did not have to pay, because they were on social security benefits. That young woman lives in the neighbourhood and brought to my attention the number of households in the neighbourhood that were apparently headed by single individuals. When we checked on the electoral roll at election time, we found that to be true.
The combination of information from that young woman who worked in the local pharmacy and of our canvassing returns gave us a comprehensive view of what was going on in those neighbourhoods. The young woman, who thought that it was her public duty, with a little encouragement, to produce quite a lot of evidence to back up her story, submitted it first through one of those telephone lines, and subsequently in writing to the Department, to be investigated. She got--I have seen the letter--the standard reply thanking her and so on.
All that took place just after the last general election. She is still waiting for something to be done. There she was, a responsible citizen doing what she thought was the right thing to do. Now she is demoralised and thinks that the whole thing is a joke, and that it is not worth while sticking her head above the parapet. After all, if those people knew that she had made such comments to the Department, her life could be made very difficult for her. It is difficult to do what she did and, effectively, shop people. The small savings that we could make would have a profound effect on the morale of the people in such neighbourhoods who are working for a living and are often getting along on not very much money, yet they see those situations being allowed to continue.
I shall give the Minister another example. A nurse came to see me about a situation that she had discovered from a patient who was in hospital for some minor injury. He had confided to her that he had been on holiday in Cyprus and had gone paragliding. The nurse had reason to know that the man was on social security benefits, and she came to me to ask what she should do about the matter. I said that she should report it, which she did. Again, we are waiting for the follow-up. I can quote chapter and verse.
As it happened, the very same man came to my surgery on two crutches. He staggered through the door, which his wife opened for him, and sat down and told me a sad story about the curtailment of his benefits. I asked him in all innocence why that was happening. It was clear that he remained on some form of benefit, but he told me that some dreadful nurse--he knew who she was and would get her one day--had reported him to the authorities. He had been on holiday in Cyprus--of course, his son had paid for the holiday, as he could not afford it--and had happened to admit to the nurse that his son had taken him paragliding as a birthday treat. His injuries and health problems were apparently so serious that he had previously been on full benefits, which included one of those wonderful yellow car stickers that allow one to park here, there and everywhere without having to pay fines or even fees.
Hon. Members are told many similar anecdotes in their surgeries and we encourage people to take action on them, but I would love to know from the Minister of State how such matters are followed up. Many people in the same neighbourhoods buy things from catalogue houses, but do not always pay their bills. The private sector employs an
Indeed, the insurance industry uses such a system. If one makes an insurance claim, the company does not merely hand over the money; it sends somebody round to inspect what the claim is about and to double check--this is especially important for injuries claims--that the person in question is not merely faking his or her misfortune. We read in the newspapers occasionally about people who have been photographed when they are engaged in activities that run contrary to the claims that they are making.
In my constituency, a case arose in which a man who was claiming invalidity benefits turned out to be running his wife's carpet cleaning business on the side. His work--he was, incidentally, a policeman--involved moving very large carpet cleaning machines. He was caught because he had made insurance claims, but had been monitored. Somebody had obtained the correct information by double checking.
I realise that an awful lot of people would need to be employed to double check on all benefit claims. However, in a neighbourhood where such activities occur on a grand scale, a little checking and inspection would make a huge impression on the morale of people who are trying to do their best to assist the community at large in preventing benefit fraud. As the Bill proceeds through the House, I hope that the Government will tell us how they will make use of the checking system. It is all very well setting up a new department within the Department and appointing a tsar who will invent more schemes, but I put it to the Minister that he will achieve a great deal more at ground level if he takes more note of what citizens are doing to assist in dealing with benefit fraud.
Of course, benefit fraud is universal. The Conservative Government had to deal with it when we were in power, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley) made a tremendous effort to do something about it. It is not an easy problem, but we could make serious in-roads if only we could persuade the Government to insist that the Department follows up discrepancies when honest citizens make complaints through the normal channels, as they are requested to do. If they do so, the Minister will also have to tell us what will happen to such people when they are not on benefits and find that they must manage, like other people, by finding jobs and going out to work. They currently have no incentive to do that. Of course, there is also the problem of how to pin down people who are living openly with working partners--their partners might also be misrepresenting their position--and claiming falsely. The Minister must tackle those problems if he wants to improve people's morale in relation to benefit fraud.