The first refuge of the scoundrel: declare war on “benefit cheats”

It never takes long for an administration in difficulty to start kicking the cat. Thus Mr Osborne hopes to deflect some of the chorus of criticism coming his way on Wednesday by means of a little pre-emptive strike at that long-suffering folk villain, the benefit fraudster. In a kind of society-wide act of psychological transference, we are all encouraged to exorcise our own discontents in a collective orgy of finger-pointing. Benefit fraud is a wonderful opportunity for the politician bent on misdirection. Just as a conjurer gets us to avert our gaze onto the breast pocket of his jacket whilst he fiddles around with his coat sleeves, so we are invited to get worked up into righteous indignation about the mote of benefit cheats whilst ignoring the plank of mass unemployment and the tax shenanigans of the very rich.

Would that this were a fault only of this new coalition. Sadly they have been taught well, as much by their Labour predecessors as by their own antecedents of the Blessed Margaret and St K Joseph. The rhetoric of benefit fraud is balanced by that of “hard-working families”, and is usually spiced up with dark references to immigrants enjoying a spot of benefit tourism. Why stop at one folk villain if you can buy one and get one free? New Labour’s menacing advertising campaign warning us all that state surveillance will get us in the end if we work and claim at the same time was a perfect example of the genre.

I’m not suggesting that defrauding the benefits system is an acceptable activity, but the attention given to it is spectacularly disproportionate. In 2009/10, benefit fraud cost about £1bn. Not insignificant to be sure, but equal to the amount lost by benefit officers’ mistakes and mistakes (not frauds) by claimants. In the previous year, tax avoidance cost the exchequer a massive £25bn. The total reduction in government spending the Chancellor is seeking is about £155bn per annum in order to bring current year spending into balance with receipts. So faced with those figures, where might you be directing your most vigorous efforts?

As part of this latest phoney war on benefit cheats, the government is to employ an extra 200 staff to snoop into the affairs of people living in fraud “hotspots”. I don’t know how much of the total £1bn is accounted for by these concentrations of wickedness, but let’s make a very generous assumption that it’s 50%. So to chase up £500m we are going to invest at least £6m in staff salaries alone, and we have no idea how successful they might or might not be. What we know for sure is that their salaries will only be the start of the costs incurred. We are promised that they will be using “high-tech” methods and for high-tech read high-cost. These methods will also include data-sharing with credit reference agencies and other dubious intrusions into people’s financial and personal privacy. This was the government that would eschew their predecessors’ illiberal snooping, but it turns out that that was only the snooping on residents who wish to flout attempts at curbing waste and increasing recycling. Chips in bins are a disgraceful intrusion: breaching the Data Protection Act is merely an unfortunate bit of collateral damage.

It’s patently obvious that the war on benefit cheats is nothing to do with a considered, logical approach to helping the deficit reduction plans, nor one which is based on any proper cost-benefit assessment. But that is not its purpose. It never has been. Benefit cheats provide the same function in the UK as the Roma do in France. They are an escape valve for the anger and resentment that the “austerity” measures are building up. They are the government’s way of asking us to pick a card, any card. And they are no more effective than a card sharp’s tricks are magic.


14 thoughts on “The first refuge of the scoundrel: declare war on “benefit cheats”

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  2. Look how much benefit is being underpaid:

    [The estimated value of underpayments is £1.3bn in 2009/10; this is a rise from £1.2bn in 2008/09. Previous estimates for 2006/07 and 2007/08 were £1.0bn and £1.1bn respectively.]

    source: “Fraud and Error in the Benefit System: October 2008 to September 2009” from the Office of National Statistics.

    Astonishing that the media and government don’t make a very big fuss about that considering the lengths they will go to for approx £1 billion worth of fraud.

    I also object to the way MPs and the media lump all fraud and overpayment error together so that they have an even bigger, scarier number to bandy around.

  3. I’m fed up screaming every week at the QT panel about Vodafone’s £6bn unpaid tax bill – the clearly can’t hear me 😦

    We’ve never moved on from the 19th century model of demonising the poor in this country… we never will. We have a cheek claiming to be civilised.

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  6. Sorry, but I don’t understand what you are saying. On the one hand benefit fraud is bad but we shouldn’t go after the people who are fiddling the system?

    If someone is stealing money – and that’s what they are doing – then they should be stopped. Saying the problem is over-emphasised and dealt with disproportionately is missing the point as badly as the politicians who you say are demonising welfare cheats. (Demonising a demon. That’s a new one.) Theft is theft and is wrong; it doesn’t matter who it is that is doing it.

    MrsW: Who says that welfare cheats are poor? If they were poor they wouldn’t be cheating the system, because they would be claiming the benefits legitimately.

    • “Theft is theft and is wrong; it doesn’t matter who it is that is doing it.” If that rigorous approach was truly pursued across the entire spectrum of theft, then you might have a point. But it isn’t. Fiddling the tax system is also theft. And it happens to be a very much bigger problem (in terms of the sums involved) than benefit cheating. Why then do we disproportionately address benefit fraud, both in terms of the degree of attention it receives, and in terms of the way that attention is given?

      I agree that benefit fraud is wrong, and that it should be stopped, and that people shouldn’t do it. But I can’t support the deliberate attention deficit that we display towards bigger fiddling purely (as it seems to me) because that fiddling is done by rich people rather than poor people. And your rebuke to MrsW is entirely illogical. Are you saying that rich people defraud the benefits system? How? Most benefit fraud is committed by impoverished people who, for example, do some very low-paid work “on the black” whilst claiming benefits simply in an attempt to make ends meet. There may be some organised criminal gangs who use poor people as a front to enrich themselves. If so, I would happily string them from the nearest lamppost: it is not such people that I am defending.

  7. Who says we do disproportionately target benefit fraud? HMRC aren’t doing much to track tax fraud? I honestly don’t know how much effort is put into benefit fraud or tax evasion but I also don’t presume that more priority is given to one than the other.

    Anyway, what’s your point? They’re all thieves.

    Equally, how do you know that benefit fraud is mostly done by impoverished people? That assumes that poor people are more dishonest. Don’t think that’s what you really meant.

    In fact, who exactly are you defending?

    On the whole, it’s better to assume nothing, accuse nobody and defend no one.

    • And, presumably, say nothing! 🙂

      I do not assume that poor people are more dishonest; once again your logic lets you down. We are talking, by definition, of the subset of people who are dishonest (by your definition at least) by virtue of their being benefit fraudsters. I’m merely saying that most of that subset are poor people. That says absolutely nothing about my view of all the other poor people who are not in the fraudster subset, and who greatly outnumber those who are.

      I’m defending those people who are in desperate need from the attention deficit of a government that closes its eyes to the losses from tax avoidance and evasion.

  8. How do you KNOW that the government “closes its eyes to the losses from tax avoidance and evasion’?

    Where is your evidence?

    • On tax avoidance specifically, the evidence is simple: the failure to close lucrative loopholes. On tax avoidance and evasion together, it’s mostly for me an issue of relativity. To deal with some unspecified proportion of £1bn of benefit fraud the government is to employ 200 staff. They don’t employ, say, 10,000 staff to chase down the £25bn of tax that goes begging each year. On that basis, if their eyes aren’t exactly closed, they are at least squinting heavily.

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  10. I will say it once: benefit fraud sucks! People who commit benefit fraud are unscrupulous and dishonest lot who are doing an injustice to society. These sort of people are only good at stealing off tax coffers and making their country poorer with their dishonesty and unethical attitude.

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