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Baroness Ludford: My Lords, another topic covered in Mr. Field's interview was benefits integrity in relation to, among other things, disability living allowance. Can the Minister confirm that in the Benefits Integrity Project, not a single case of fraud was found in relation to disability living allowance? Can she also give an assurance that the Government's action and rhetoric regarding benefits fraud will be matched by similar zeal in regard to tax fraud so that the poor do not feel that they are pursued while the rich are let off?
Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, the noble Baroness is broadly right about the BIP. The Benefits Integrity Project is designed to ensure that the right benefit goes to the right people. We know that with disability, fortunately, people sometimes get better and, unfortunately, sometimes get worse. The benefit therefore needs to be checked. We found that around 20 per cent. of all awards were incorrect; in other words, people got better and got worse.
The noble Baroness is right to say that virtually no deliberate fraud was found. Only 40 cases out of 95,000 were referred for consideration for possible prosecution. However, disability is not an either/or benefit; that is why we need continually to check entitlement. In relation to tax law, I share the view expressed by the noble Baroness that it is unreasonable for the state not to pursue those who evade, avoid or in any sense behave illegally towards their tax responsibilities while at the same time the state properly takes an interest in those who avoid, or improperly draw, social security benefits.
Lord Skelmersdale: My Lords, perhaps I may turn to pensions. At the moment there is the opportunity for the poorer pensioner to top up a pension income by bringing it up to income support levels, but few people do that. Now that the level for pensioners is to be increased, has the department made any estimate of what the take-up is likely to be?
Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, yes. Around 2.5 million pensioners are entitled to income support. The noble Lord is correct in that only 1.5 million take that up and 1 million--just over 40 per cent.--fail to claim the money that they should. As a result, on average they go without £17 a week. We know from our pilot scheme that we cannot wait for pensioners to initiate a take-up campaign; we must take the money to them. We are doing that primarily through data matching--for example, piggy-backing on the fact that they are often claiming housing or council tax benefit--and through personal advisers and the work of voluntary agencies. At the moment there is around 60 per cent. cash compliance. We hope to achieve 85 to 90 per cent. and that will be a reasonable success measure. Of course, if we can achieve higher than that, we shall be delighted.
The Earl of Longford: My Lords, I understand that an important Statement is to be made tomorrow. In advance of that I can only say that, if some increase is projected, everyone who cares about the rehabilitation of prisoners will sing a song of joy for the sinner who repenteth. When this all-important Statement is made tomorrow will there be some repudiation of the Government's policy of cutting the Prison Service, including the education and probation services? At a time when the prison population is increasing greatly will that policy be totally repudiated?
Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, my noble friend is correct that it would not be proper for me to attempt to anticipate anything that is to be announced by my right honourable friend Mr. Straw within the next few days. We are looking to improvements; for instance, we shall be looking to increase the hours per week spent in purposeful activity from 22.5 to 24. Targets have been set. Plainly, the situation is not satisfactory at present. The noble Lord is also correct in that on Friday, 17th July, we saw our highest ever prison population, standing at 66,102.
Lord Quirk: My Lords, does the Minister agree with Sir David Ramsbotham in his latest annual report on the vital importance of education for the prison population if we are to have any hope of rehabilitating prisoners? Does he further agree that, in view of the very welcome £19 billion extra money for education announced last week and given the desperately low levels of education among prisoners--two-thirds are sub-literate and sub-numerate--it would be nice if a due proportion of the new money could be ring-fenced for education in the prison population?
Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, again, perhaps I should not anticipate the precise terms of what may be stated. I entirely agree with the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Quirk, that low levels of education lead to low levels of self-esteem and therefore low levels of opportunity or prospect of work on release. It is not simply academic education at which we need to look; we need to look at, for instance, the useful pilot scheme on welfare to work, which properly lays stress on
Lord Dholakia: My Lords, does the Minister agree that non-custodial alternatives are better forms of sentencing disposal? Does he also agree that we remand too many people in custody; that mentally ill offenders should not be in prison; and that there are better ways of dealing with people for non-payment of fines than sentencing them to a term in custody? Are not those the categories of people that should be seriously looked at so that, to an extent, we can reduce the extremely high prison population?
Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, I gave the precise figures of the prison population, as I always do on these occasions, despite the fact that they make gloomy reading. Undoubtedly, non-custodial alternatives are extremely important provided that they are constructive and have public support. Public confidence in the judicial system is absolutely vital. It is commonplace to observe that there are too many people in prison. Sometimes the difficulty is in knowing which people in prison ought not to be there, which is a serious and fundamental question.
Baroness Anelay of St Johns: My Lords, will the Minister confirm the evidence in the latest Prison Service business plan that, in terms of running costs, privately-managed prisons are up to 15 per cent. cheaper to run than those in the public sector--to the same standards, of course? What plans have the Government to develop private sector-run prisons, or do they intend to stand by the Home Secretary's promise made to prison staff before the general election that privately-managed prisons will be taken back into the Prison Service as soon as contractually possible?
Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, undoubtedly, in some circumstances, privately managed prisons may offer a cheaper regime. It is not a perfect equation because, for instance, one wants to look at the higher cost of high security prisons which will, in the nature of things, be extremely expensive to run. Two DCMF competitions were launched in 1997-98; the first is at Agecroft and the second at Pucklechurch. Both prisons are planned to open in 1999. The second competition is for two 600-place prisons, one at Marchington in Staffordshire and one at Onley near Rugby. Those prisons are planned to open in the year 2000.
Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, does my noble friend agree that one call on any extra resources for the Prison Service would be funding the transfer of the prison medical service to the National Health Service, thereby improving the standard of medical care?
Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, that alternative has certainly been put forward in your Lordships' House on a number of prior occasions. There is some virtue in it. Equally, some well-informed minds
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