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.