Figures for benefit fraud misleading: Government statistics contradicted

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The Independent Online
Government claims that figures from the Department of Employment showed the highest number of fraudulent unemployment benefit claims withdrawn 'in recent years' are misleading, inquiries have shown.

On Tuesday the department released statistics showing an increase in the number of investigations, prosecutions, claims withdrawn and money saved in the year 1992-93, compared with the previous year.

However, figures for every previous year going back to 1988 show the number of fraudulent claims detected and withdrawn have been steadily decreasing.

In 1988-89 the number of fraudulent claims withdrawn was 86,000; in 1989-90 it was 70,000; in 1990-91 it was 64,000; in 1991-92 it was 50,000; and in 1992-93 the number increased to 61,000. So the number of fraudulent claims withdrawn has declined by 25,000 since 1988.

At a briefing for journalists on Tuesday, officials from the department's fraud investigations unit also claimed the figures showed the highest figures for unemployment benefit fraud investigations and prosecutions 'in recent years'. But investigations and prosecutions have also decreased since 1989.

Graham Bambridge, head of the unit, also said that an estimated 8 per cent of all claims were fraudulent. In fact, an official present at the briefing admitted yesterday that the figure of 8 per cent was merely an estimate of fraud, across all social security benefits, made by Sir Derek Rayner, a government adviser, in 1981.

The official admitted there was no evidence to substantiate the 8 per cent estimate. 'The figures don't come anywhere near it. We use it when asked what proportion of unemployment benefit claims are fraudulent. It's in our standard brief and ministers use it but there is no evidence behind it. No one knows what the proportion is.'

The actual number of fraudulent claims exposed and withdrawn - 61,129 - represents only 1.3 per cent of the 4.7 million claims submitted in 1992-93.

In an interview on the BBC Radio Today programme on Tuesday morning Ann Widdecombe, Employment Minister, said: 'What is evident is that we are becoming more and more successful in combating fraud, that we are getting more prosecutions, that we are getting more cases and, perhaps, people withdrawing their claims to benefit. We are doing this with the same number of inspectors.' .

The Conservatives launched their attack on 'dole cheats' at their 1988 party conference when the then Secretary of State for Employment, Norman Fowler, announced the appointment of 100 extra inspectors. In 1990 ministers announced the appointment of a further 400 staff to process benefits claims.