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Lord Mishcon: My Lords, before my noble friend sits down, I wonder whether she will excuse my ignorance, if ignorance it be, but are the documents that a person is required to sign before benefit is granted, giving details of their assets, their income and other vital information, made subject to a declaration under the Statutory Declarations Act 1835? If they are, a charge of perjury is also relevant. That would also be a deterrent for people who may be wobbling on the edge of doing something fraudulent and may persuade them that the penalties are much too serious.
Lord Goodhart: My Lords, following on from that, would not the statutory declaration have to be made in front of a solicitor? That is inconceivable for most applications. We are talking about fraud, but not perjury.
Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, that may well be the case, but at the moment an applicant has to sign the documents stating that the information given is correct. In that sense they can be said to have given false information if it is not correct. One of our difficulties is that when people do so, we have no definable offence with which to charge them.
Lord Higgins: My Lords, in 1997, the Labour Party manifesto promised tough action to combat benefit fraud. In 1998, those objectives were repeated in a Green Paper on welfare. In 1999, the Government launched a formal strategy for tackling the problem and in July 2000 more consultative documents were issued. In all, more than 40 statements have been made on the subject since the Government came to office. In the meantime, a large and important problem that the Government should tackle has remained.
As the Minister has pointed out, it is difficult to estimate the size of the problem. The Government's estimated cost to the taxpayer of £2 billion a year is probably the minimum. The figure may be as high as £7 billion. It is clearly a major problem.
With their repeated statements but little action, the Government have failed to make effective use of the considerable powers that they already have. One has only to look at the report of the Public Accounts Committee on housing benefit fraud to see that. One official from the Department of Social Security said that only 700 out of 200,000 detected cases were successfully prosecuted. I understand that the housing benefit form used by local authorities has never been standardised. There must be one version that would be best for all. Many issues have not been effectively pursued. I shall come to a much more important example in a moment.
We are anxious that effective action should be taken. The timing of the Bill may be unfortunate in two respects. It is true that the consultative exercise was on the measures that the Bill now contains, but the wording of the Bill was published only on 18th December and we are debating it on the second day back after the Recess. It has been difficult for outside organisations to respond on the details. I am still receiving representations and no doubt will continue to do so for some days to come.
There is also a timing problem because of the speculation that there is likely to be a general election in April or May. Even if the election is on a longer time-scale, we shall be up against time pressures. That puts a heavy responsibility on your Lordships. If Parliament is curtailed, there may be very little time for another place to consider the matter, in which case the Government may then use their massive majority to force the Bill through on a guillotine. We have a difficult task ahead of us to consider the details of the Bill.
While we understand and support the objective of the Bill, we share the considerable reservations that some outside bodies have expressed on a number of important aspects relating to human rights, the effect on the Data Protection Acts, the burden on business, the costs and efficiency of the operation and the sanctions and penalties to which the Minister referred at the end of her speech. We shall need to examine all those issues in great detail in Committee and at subsequent stages.
We have been helped by two important reports. The Scampion report was set up by the Government and published in February 2000. The other report was produced by the noble Lord, Lord Grabiner, whom I am glad to see in his place. The Minister referred to the noble Lord's report, but not to the Scampion report. The only comment that I can find on the Government's attitude to its recommendations is a response by Mr Rooker in another place to a parliamentary Question by Mr Willetts. The Answer says that the Government will strengthen the central organised fraud investigation service. Am I right in thinking that that means that the Government are setting up a single benefits investigation agency combining the present Benefits Agency security investigative service and the benefits fraud investigative service? It would also be helpful to know whether any of the other proposals in the Scampion report that the Government propose to accept require legislation. If so, it would be convenient to incorporate them in the Bill rather than wait for another occasion.
The report by the noble Lord, Lord Grabiner, was very cogent and, in some ways, easy to read, given the subject matter. If I may presume to say so, it was a very elegant report. That is not to say that I agree with everything in it. Personally, I am a little less dismissive of the idea of an amnesty, which he considered and dismissed. The Government have resorted to amnesties in various ways in Northern Ireland and there was also a national amnesty for firearms. As the noble Lord's report says, we need to get people out of the informal, illegal economy and into the legitimate economy. An amnesty may be one way of securing a rapid improvement among people who have drifted into fraud one way or another, perhaps by continuing to draw the same benefit after they start living with someone else. As I say, it is a personal view, but I believe that we should perhaps give the matter a little more consideration.
Leaving the law on one side and turning to economics, it is a well established principle that if one wants to maximise one's returns, one carries out an activity until the margin of cost is equal to the margin of revenue. Apart from the provisions in this Bill, clearly that is not happening. The Government are simply not making available the resources which, as we understand it, will lead to a net gain to the Exchequer. Before we examine the further measures in the Bill, I believe that we need to consider most carefully the noble Lord's suggestion that the Government should concentrate on big business rather than the minor frauds with which the Bill deals primarily. As I said, we have misgivings and I believe that outside bodies have also expressed misgivings about the proposals.
The Government placed in the Library a summary of the responses to their consultative document on these issues, which reflected the noble Lord's report. Perhaps I may say that it is a very "summary" summary. It would have been--and still will be--extremely helpful for us to know the exact responses of those bodies, not least when we reach Committee stage, which I understand is to take place shortly. The noble Baroness raises her eyebrows. We shall leave it to the usual channels.
However, the point that I make is that the whole of the reports should be placed in the Library without delay. That will provide the basis for considering in Committee the considerable misgivings which have been expressed by a large number of outside bodies. Obviously, on this occasion I do not have time to go into great detail about the various representations which have been and, indeed, are being made. However, we need to know not the summary of the responses but the precise misgivings which outside bodies may have, particularly those affected by the various organisations mentioned in Clause 1.
Considerable concerns exist in relation to the human rights aspect of the matter and, indeed, in relation to the more narrow question of the way in which the Government effectively are knocking a large hole in the existing protections so far as concerns data protection. Effectively, the Government are providing cover for the various bodies set out in Clause 1, if I may express it that way, for revealing information, which, under existing law, they would not be entitled to do.
I believe that in particular concern has been expressed by the British Bankers' Association and others about the scope which the Bill now gives for fishing expeditions. Rather than genuinely believing that a particular individual or group of people is committing fraud, information will simply be obtained
Perhaps I may refer to one or two representations which have been received so far. I received one only this morning from the local authorities organisation. That body is concerned that the cost of operating the provisions of the Bill will fall on local authorities, whereas the benefit of stopping the fraud will go directly to the Exchequer. No doubt that is a point that we shall need to consider. I believe that the whole relationship between central government and local authorities in tackling this problem requires most careful review.
Perhaps I may also pick up on a point made by the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux. That organisation is concerned about confidentiality and has noted with pleasure the fact that it is not covered by the Bill. However, it is worried that that may become the case by statutory instrument subsequently. I believe that a clear assurance needs to be made on that point.
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