Ad Fontes

Politics, Theology and Christian Humanism

We are being cheated about benefit cheats

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Clamping down of benefit cheats, those who fraudulently claim government benefits, has been a oft-repeated mantra of the political right in Britain. By ‘right’, I include the neoliberal New Labour project. Much of the mainstream media, not just the usual hard-right press, have merrily chimed in without needing too much encouragement. The usual news item focuses on some benefit claimant who is holidaying on a luxury yacht, or some other eye-catching headline. This follows the usual methodology of the populist right, use an individual story, even hearsay, to illustrate your point.

There have been various government strategies to encourage us to ‘shop the scroungers’, and now the ConDem government will be entrusting the credit-rating agency Experian with tracking down benefit cheats — all performance and profit led.

However, David Osler has posted on the statistics show that benefit fraud amounts to less than 1% of all benefit payments. So, the greater fraud is that perpetrated by politicians and journalists who have vastly exaggerated the problem. In absolute terms, that 1% translates into £1 billion, but even then, as Dave points out, the bank bailout was £850 billion.

While benefit fraud is wrong, in so far as it demonstrably inhabits deceit and theft, it is perpetrated by the hard-up to get a little extra to make life not so bad. In this light, the intense opprobrium directed at benefit cheats is so totally out of order when compared to the far greater amount lost in corporate tax evasion, bankers’ bonuses, the number of millionaires who as members of Cabinet are presiding over psychopathic cuts in public spending, or the personal expenses of a minor royal, Andrew Windsor, who claims more than the prime minister gets in salary.

Another perspective on benefits is that given by the Citizens’ Advice Bureau which estimates that around £16 billion in benefits go unclaimed each year. Their press release highlights

  • as many as four out of five low paid workers without children (1.2 million households) miss out on tax credits worth at least £38 per week — a total of £1.9 billion
  • as many as half of all working households entitled to housing benefit (worth an average £37.60 per week) do not claim it — that’s up to half a million households.

Other benefits showing signs of significant under-claiming include council tax benefit and pension credit. Up to three million households are missing out on an average £13 a week in council tax benefit, while as many as 1.7 million pensioners are missing out on an average of £31 a week in pension credit.

Seeing as non-claimants account for sixteen times fraudulent claimants, it would seem that, rather than a nation of ‘lazy scroungers’, Brits are reluctant to resort to benefits unless we really need them. If we add to this the estimated £17 billion in income and corporate tax evasion, one begins to wonder why there is so much attention given to £1 billion of benefit fraud. It can be nothing more than an ideological attack on the poorest and weakest in our society.

Author: Gareth Hughes

A priest of the Church of England, who is Chaplain of Hertford College, Oxford, and doing Syriac research at Oxford University.

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