Benefit crooks to get amnesty

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The Independent Online

Public Policy Editor

Benefit fraudsters are to be offered a two-week amnesty from prosecution in a new attempt to cut the estimated pounds 2.5bn-a-year fraud bill.

The move was announced by Peter Lilley, Secretary of State for Social Security, as part of a series of month-long anti-fraud drives in big cities to be launched in coming months. The crackdowns will be preceded by two weeks of local publicity, he said yesterday in a Commons debate. The aim is "to give people who have just drifted into abusing the benefit system the chance to put their claim right and to catch those who choose not to do so".

A spokesman for his department said the plan did not involve an amnesty on back- payment of benefit if individuals were found to have been claiming fraudulently.

But an admission of fraudulent claims in the two-week period would be "taken into account" in deciding whether to prosecute.

The anti-fraud drives will include freephone hotlines for reporting suspected fraud; local data-matching exercises; increased visits to claimants; introduction of barcode scanners in post offices to detect stolen order books and unspecified "special drives" on employers and self-employed who, Mr Lilley said, are "likely to be involved in benefit fraud".

He also began to answer criticism from housing-benefit fraud-investigation officers that the present system is aimed at detecting rather than preventing fraud, to the point where councils are encouraged to allow some fraud in order to detect it and claim incentive payments.

Revised financial incentives will be introduced, Mr Lilley said, and a pilot scheme aimed at catching organised fraud of housing benefit is to be launched in London. A study aimed at improving the Benefits Agency's much-criticised liaison with local authorities is also to be undertaken, while 1,100 Employment Service staff are to transfer to the agency from 1 April before the new, tougher, Job Seekers Allowance, which replaces unemployment benefit this year.

Chris Smith, Labour's social-security spokesman, said Mr Lilley should end the "finders-keepers" rule which encourages the Benefits Agency and councils to compete with each other rather than co-operate in chasing the same fraudsters.