Belfast Telegraph

Real swindlers are those hyping benefit fraud lies

By Eamonn McCann

The indomitable honesty of people on benefits is an example to the rest of society. People living in comfortable circumstances can only wonder at the way claimants strive to manage on meagre payments rather than scheme to squeeze more from the system.

The moral argument isn't straightforward. Take a single parent with two children receiving £222, including child benefit, a week? How is she or he expected to heat the home, clothe the children, feed the family, handle incidentals, provide for the unexpected?

Would a parent in such circumstances be doing wrong to tell a fib for a few more quid? Some would say it's her duty to put the welfare of her children above the restrictions of the rules.

In the event, the cost of fraud is very small. The Department for Social Development puts the figure at £16.1m a year – just over a third of 1% of expenditure. Is there any other monetary transaction of this magnitude with less leakage than this?

Hullaballoo about benefit fraud testifies to the success of propaganda hammering it home that "welfare scroungers" are ripping the public finances off to the serious detriment of all.

Polls suggest that the average person in the UK reckons that 30% of spending on disability is fraudulent. Even some benefit recipients can be prompted to denounce "scroungers", having been persuaded that honest claimants like themselves are being made mugs of by rogues and villains playing the system.

But the reason some families find themselves in desperate straits has nothing to do with fraud. It has to do with the precipitate fall in the level of benefits since the 1970s.

Then, the benefits due to a single person were set at around 60% of the median wage. Today, the figure is around 30%.

And yet, on Monday, the front page of a local paper announced at the top of its voice 'Benefit cheats tip-offs soaring'. The message, amplified in a two-page spread inside, was that "Benefit fraudsters are increasingly being investigated for cheating the welfare system because friends and neighbours are tipping off the authorities."

Neighbours, maybe. But friends?

In 2010, there were 5,768 calls to the SSA alleging benefit fraud. The figure rose to 7,334 in 2012, then fell off slightly in 2013, but is set to break records in 2014: there were 3,415 complaints between January and May this year.

The Social Security Agency estimates that fraud has come down from £60.9m in 2001 to £16.9m in 2012 and £16.1m last year.

So: there is far less benefit fraud than is commonly supposed, its impact on public finances is so miniscule you'd need a microscope to see it, and it is shrinking. But it manages to loom ever larger in the mind of much of the media and is increasingly seen by the public as a major problem.

There's a purpose to all this. It's one element in an ideological offensive accompanying the attempted break-up of the welfare state.

You don't hear that phrase so often these days – the welfare state. But you do hear "culture of entitlement".

We can pinpoint the day the culture of entitlement reached its apotheosis – July, 5, 1948. That's the day universal healthcare became a reality across Britain. With the advent of the NHS, access to adequate medical treatment was no longer to be based on ability to pay or on previous national insurance contributions. It became the right of every citizen, from the cradle to the grave. An entitlement.

On the same day – it should be a holiday – the National Insurance Act brought in a system whereby, in return for flat rate contributions, a range of new or increased benefits was made available to all – unemployment and sickness pay, maternity grants, retirement pensions, a death grant.

A year earlier, the Education Act had opened up secondary schools to all. A year before that, family allowance and child benefit had been introduced.

People now felt entitled to healthcare, to a good education for their children, to a basic standard of living, in or out of work. We developed a culture of entitlement.

The financial strategy of the Government at Westminster requires extirpation of this idea.

One of the ways this is done is to exaggerate the level of fraud out of all proportion, to scream about "benefit cheats" on the front pages, to blame that section of the poor deemed undeserving for the ills of everybody else.

If we let them away with it, we'll all be the losers.

Belfast Telegraph


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