The Minister of State, Home Office (Baroness Williams of Trafford) (Con)
My Lords, I add my thanks and congratulations to the noble Lord, Lord Sharkey, for securing this very important debate and for all the very valuable points he has raised. I of course agree that we should protect people from fraud, particularly vulnerable people who are often targeted by callous and ruthless criminals. As he said, fraud is now the most common crime type in the country, accounting for some 40% of offences in the year ending June 2021, according to the Crime Survey for England and Wales. It is estimated there were 3.9 million victims of fraud in the same period.
As the noble Lords, Lord Vaux and Lord Davies of Brixton, said, we are all vulnerable to it. I almost became a victim of it a couple of weeks ago. It was not obvious that I was being scammed at first glance, but it nearly happened to me. Of course, the impact extends beyond financial losses. As the noble Lords, Lord Rosser and Lord Sharkey, said, the emotional and long-lasting harm that people can suffer is horrendous. Fraudsters can be very sophisticated and will exploit any means they can to trick innocent people out of their hard-earned money.
The noble Lord, Lord Rosser, is absolutely right to point out the vulnerabilities during Covid, with so many people at home online, as opposed to out and about. For those who are very vulnerable, those impacts can be felt all the more, so we are focused on stopping unscrupulous fraudsters in their tracks and supporting victims so they can recover and protect themselves in future.
We are aiming to step up the whole-system response to fraud, which is the right way. While it is vital that we crack down on criminals behind scams, fixing the law enforcement response is just one part of the solution, as noble Lords have pointed out during today’s debate. To disrupt organised criminals and safeguard the most vulnerable, we need to prevent it from happening in the first place, as noble Lords have said. But we cannot, as government, do it alone. That is why the Home Office is working across government, law enforcement and the private sector—the private sector is really important in this—to better protect the public, reduce the impact on victims and ensure fraudsters are brought to justice.
To improve our collective response, we are leading work on the development of a comprehensive fraud action plan, which the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, knew I would mention, and we will it publish early next year. This will commit key partners in the public and private sectors to do more to tackle fraud. The plan will focus on public engagement to ensure that everyone, including those most at risk, understands the threat and therefore how best to protect themselves.
We know that those most vulnerable to fraud can become repeat victims—that is the horror of this. Despicably, they are placed on what is called a “suckers list” that is then sold on by ruthless fraudsters. It is essential that we improve victim support and make sure that everyone gets the information and help they need to protect themselves.
That is why we as the Home Office are working with the City of London Police to deliver a nationwide rollout of the National Economic Crime Victim Care Unit. It provides an important additional layer of support for people who report a fraud or cybercrime to Action Fraud—on which, more later—where their cases are not investigated by local police, and helps prevent repeat victimisation. The unit is currently supporting 20 forces, with a further rollout planned. As of October this year, it has helped support more than 160,000 victims, and since the start of this year has assisted in recovering almost £1.5 million that people had lost.
It is also very important that we bolster the local support available to vulnerable victims. To do that, the Home Office is supporting National Trading Standards in the rollout of fraud multiagency safeguarding hubs in England and Wales. These local hubs will improve the quality of care for fraud victims by bringing together multiple agencies that can work together to support them, making it easier for victims to navigate their way to getting the help they need. The national rollout follows a successful pilot in Lincolnshire and North Yorkshire during which more than £8 million was saved for individuals and society.
We continue to work extensively with the private sector effectively to “design out” fraud and stop vulnerable people being targeted in the first place. In October, we published three voluntary charters with the retail banking, telecommunications and accountancy sectors. These are partnership agreements to find innovative solutions that will drive down the level of fraud. New initiatives include: a pilot dynamic direct debit system that would introduce a banking authorisation step in applications for new telecommunications contracts, including mobile phone contracts, that have been applied for fraudulently or used for fraudulent purposes; a cross-sector plan to protect customers who have been subject to a data breach from becoming victims of fraud; and leveraging new technology to tackle the fraudulent practice of sending fake company text messages, known as “smishing”.
The progress of these charters will be closely monitored by the Joint Fraud Taskforce, mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Sharkey, which is chaired by the Security Minister and brings together senior partners from across the public and private sectors. We also intend to develop a suite of charters with other sectors that have a role to play in protecting vulnerable people from fraud, including tech and social media firms.
The noble Lord, Lord Sharkey, and others talked about the harms of the online world. The online safety Bill will provide further protection against fraud. Companies in scope will be required to take action to tackle fraud where it is facilitated through user-generated content. We expect this to have a particular impact on frauds such as romance scams, which cause significant psychological harm to victims.
The noble Lord, Lord Vaux, might stop shaking his head when I say to him and the noble Baroness, Lady Kramer, that we are also considering whether to impose tougher regulation on online advertising, because that may well be the gap that he talked about. We have heard the strength of feeling in the House and in the public domain. The Joint Committee on the Bill will report shortly, and we will examine its recommendations on this issue extremely carefully. The Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport—the DCMS—will also consult shortly on a range of proposals to tackle harms associated with advertising. It may have been the noble Lord, Lord Sharkey, or the noble Lord, Lord Vaux, who commented on Google versus Facebook/Meta. I commend Google for what it has achieved. As for discussions with Facebook, I have lost count of the number of discussions that I have had. One thing that we said way back in the day was, “Look, if you don’t sort some of these problems out, we’re going to legislate to sort them out”—and this is where we are now.
On scam calls, as part of our response to fraud the Government are working with the telecommunications industry to tackle telephone-enabled fraud and break the business model of the criminals behind it. Through our joint telecommunications sector charter, providers have agreed a nine-point action plan to tackle fraud through scam calls. This includes commitments to identify and implement techniques to block scam calls and smishing texts. To protect those most vulnerable to telephone scams, DCMS provided £1 million over three years to National Trading Standards to fund the rollout of call-blocking devices to people across the UK. These help those most in need and provide 99% protection from nuisance and scam calls.
On phishing and smishing, we have been working to reduce the threat of phishing emails that can reach the most vulnerable. Last year the National Cyber Security Centre launched its suspicious email reporting service, which of course I encourage the public to use via firstname.lastname@example.org.
The noble Lords, Lord Sharkey and Lord Vaux, both mentioned APP scams, authorised push-payment fraud, where victims are tricked into handing over their money. This targets the most vulnerable with increasingly sophisticated scams that can have such a devastating impact on their lives. The Government are clear that the public should not be left out of pocket through no fault of their own. We have been working with the financial services industry to help tackle APP fraud, including through the implementation of initiatives such as Confirmation of Payee and the creation of the contingent reimbursement model code. Most high-street banks have now signed up to this voluntary code, which was designed to offer increased protection to the most vulnerable. Victims who use these banks will be entitled to reimbursement when they have taken the required steps to protect themselves, or if it is not reasonable to expect them to do so.
We really welcome the work that the industry has undertaken to date, including through this code, but it has clear limitations, including disparity in how different banks are interpreting their obligations and the fact that it does not cover all providers. As such, the Government are now engaging with the Payment Systems Regulator, the PSR, and industry on what more can be done to better protect customers. We welcome the PSR’s recent consultation on APP scams, which set out potential measures to reduce their impact, including mandatory reimbursement of victims. We now intend to legislate to address any barriers to mandatory reimbursement when parliamentary time allows.
Faster Payments, the UK’s real-time low-value interbank payments system, has been a great UK success story. In 2008 the UK was one of the first countries to launch a 24/7 real-time payments system, which now processes more than 3 billion payments a year. However, despite the speed and resilience it offers, banks already intervene in a variety of ways when they suspect fraud, including delaying the processing of payments and contacting customers. At this point I must give a shout-out to my bank, Lloyds, which has done that to me before.
On law enforcement and action fraud, we continue to work closely with law enforcement in line with recommendations from Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services. This includes working with City of London Police on a refresh and upgrade of the current action fraud service to improve victim experience and the law enforcement response.
To the question from the noble Lord, Lord Sharkey, on the contract, as I said, we are working on plans to refresh and upgrade the current action fraud service, and the competition to find a new commercial partner to deliver that service was launched in July this year. We expect the service to be improved in both usability and effectiveness, which noble Lords have pointed to. Also since last year, City of London Police have increased the number of staff in their call centre, and recent performance data has been quite encouraging, suggesting that between 94% and 98% of victims were satisfied with their service.
The noble Baroness, Lady Kramer, made a point about the FCA. HM Treasury continues to work closely with the FCA to ensure that its duties and powers are sufficient to meet the threats in the financial sector. When I thought about this debate and saw the noble Baroness’s name, I thought, “She’s going to ask about whistleblowing—but in what capacity?” This year, the FCA launched its In Confidence, With Confidence campaign to encourage individuals working in financial services to report potential wrongdoing to the FCA, reminding them of the confidentiality that is in place. I totally agree with her on her point about non-disclosure agreements; that is one that we have discussed before.
Finally, on pension fraud, it is totally unacceptable and devastating that anyone should be cheated out of their savings and their plans for retirement. The Government are absolutely committed to protecting people from pension scams and pursuing those who perpetuate them. In the last two years, we have introduced a ban on pensions cold-calling and changes to the pension scheme registration process to stop fraudsters exploiting pensioners. The inclusion on fraud in the scope of the online safety Bill will also have a strong impact on preventing investment frauds.
I think that I have responded to all the points; if I have not, I shall write to noble Lords. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Sharkey, once more for securing this important debate, and thank the not too many noble Lords who have taken part, because I think that has made it an effective discussion.