Who's really the fraudster?

There may be lies, damned lies and statistics but one of the most alarming that I have heard recently concerned benefit fraud.

Not, as you may imagine, was I alarmed by the amount of benefit claimed fraudulently but by a report in ‘the Observer’ (28/2/16) that stated that out of over 1 million reports of fraud made by the public over the past 5 years, more than 850,000 were closed with no action being taken. In simple terms in 8 cases out of 10 there was no basis for action, or no fraud had been identified, usually because none had taken place.

What the story did not explore was how many cases progressed to a full investigation before being dropped and how many were dropped before the claimant would have known about it. To be suspected of benefit fraud and have your entire livelihood dependent on a DWP decision maker is stressful enough, to have that triggered by a mistaken or malicious report from a neighbour is far, far worse.

Alongside that is the cost, again not mentioned in the article. A cursory dismissal of an obviously baseless allegation will cost the tax payer very little, but a full blown (or even part blown) fraud investigation involves significant amounts of staff time and thus cost. If it is being wasted in 85% of cases that is scandalous.

While no sensible people would condone benefit fraud it is clear that the actions of this and the two previous governments have deliberately done much to create a climate of suspicion and thinking the worst of one’s neighbours, especially where there is the merest sniff of benefits. Demonising claimants by characterising them as feckless skivers feeds this climate of suspicion and intolerance, which in turn creates this bizarre situation.

Entitlement to benefit is complex. The rules are complicated and appearances are often misleading. As with any area of law it is about the application of regulations to individual circumstances, which is rarely entirely straightforward. Terms such as ‘unable or virtually unable to walk’ (a test for the old mobility component of Disability Living Allowance), for example, is clearly open to various interpretations

To add insult to injury this is actually all about the gap between perception and reality. As the Observer reminded us in 2013 an Ipsos MORI poll found that people believed that 24% of benefit spending was on fraudulent claims. According to the DWP’s own figures 0.7% is down to fraud and 0.9% to claimant error.

Clearly in the gap between the two lie the 850,000 baseless allegations. Maybe it would be better and cheaper all round if we stopped being so suspicious and left determining benefit fraud to those who have been properly trained to do it.

This entry was posted on March 1, 2016

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