The Deputy is doing fine. I propose nothing fundamentally new here. The present situation, which was the case under my predecessors, is that if there is fraud, the Department can go back as far as is necessary to collect the information. That has always been the case and I will not change it. I am simply stating that, at present, when the Department knows of an offence, it can take six months to get its act together, get papers in order and have the prosecution served etc. I seek to extend the six month period to 18 months because of the enormous volume of cases with which we are dealing and because of the need to ensure fraud does not slip out of our control.
The Chairman knows how quickly the law moves in these areas. A period of six months is very tight in a legal situation. It could take months to get an answer from a solicitor in some cases — though clearly not from the solicitors the Chairman knows. A lot of to-ing and fro-ing is involved. The beneficiaries of the period not being extended to six months would be the people who would string us out with letter after letter, appeal after appeal and so on.
In the case noted by Deputy Dan Wallace, that person would not be affected. Before a prosecution can be successfully brought to court, three elements are necessary. A false declaration has to be made. That is different to merely telling about something one overlooked. One would have to make a false declaration, a very serious thing to do. Second, one must do it knowingly. If it is accidental or if one is unaware, that is different. One must knowingly sign a false statement. That is a hugely deliberate act which one does not do by mistake. If one can show that one was not aware, that one could not have been aware, that it was genuine, then one will not be prosecuted. Third, the statement has to be made for the purpose of obtaining or continuing to obtain a payment to which a person is not entitled.
There is, therefore, a triple lock on prosecutions before one can be taken. To reiterate, the Deputy is asking for changes in the area, but I am not asking for any changes in the current practice other than to move us from six months to 18 months so that we get time to chase down the serious cases rather than cut off the period after six months. The extra year is hugely valuable to the Department in getting the documentation organised and getting the prosecution taken. We do not prosecute people unless there is almost an open and shut case of fraud being involved.
I confirm to Deputy Stanton that the Statute of Limitations does not apply when one is talking of fraud. There is no question of it going forward indefinitely. I am proposing 18 months. That gives us time to sort the file and no more than that. We find that a six month period is extraordinarily tight and we can be held up with all kinds of legal queries which means we end up not being able to bring the prosecution, which is not fair with regard to the staff pressure under which we work.
In what I am suggesting, there is no change in substance. I am simply suggesting that for a very successful campaign against fraud we get an extra 12 months to prepare the documentation in cases where we decide to take a prosecution. I believe that is very reasonable.
We are up against sophisticated people. We are not talking of the people who come to constituency clinics. The people involved in fraud do not come near those clinics. In some cases we are talking of organised crime. We are talking of serious criminal elements in some cases, of very hardened individuals who deliberately make false declarations. I am determined that the extra 12 months we need will be useful to us in preparing documentation. It does not interfere in any way with genuine customers, nor could it be used to interfere with them. Negotiations take place in the bulk of cases and prosecution is resorted to annually in only about 500 cases, which is very much at the margin.