UK Chancellor George Osborne has declared that welfare fraudsters are like street muggers robbing taxpayers, and that it is time to get "very, very tough". The crackdown is supposedly because "we can't afford to go on like this anymore". Yet the government’s supposed concern for ordinary taxpayers does not ring true.
The announcement was made a few days before a Spending Review involving drastic cuts to public services. Legal aid too may be slashed, leaving individuals and families (other than the rich) without access to justice. A few days earlier, the government had pledged to abolish Consumer Focus, a watchdog that cost the taxpayer just £5 million a year but succeeded in forcing energy companies to refund £70 million to customers who had been overcharged.
The benefit system is notoriously complicated, leaving both claimants and officials struggling. Errors by both, resulting in overpayments to some claimants and underpayments to others, are far higher in value than estimated fraud.
This in turn, is far less than the estimated £16 billion of unclaimed benefit every year. However, if disabled people, those who are out of work and badly-off pensioners can be seen as a drain on the public purse, reducing increasing numbers of them to extreme poverty can appear justifiable.
In this context, Chancellor Osborne’s threat that every wrongful claim for benefits – including avoidable errors made when filling out forms – will in future be punished by a £50 fine, and that those caught "cheating" three times will forfeit their right to benefits for up to three years, raises serious questions.
What protection will there be for those with no intent to defraud but who are illiterate, have learning disabilities or serious mental health problems?
He is apparently even recruiting two hundred new inspectors so that he can send a mobile task force into areas with high rates of ‘fraud’ to check every claim individually – a case of collective punishment against unemployed and disabled residents of the poorest neighbourhoods and their families.
The think-tank Demos recently estimated that disabled people would lose over £9 billion in the course of this Parliament as a result of changes to the benefit system, and described more effective ways to enable a higher number to be part of the workforce.
Age UK reckoned that, if the cuts followed predictions, the poorest over-75s would lose on average about a third of their household income. In addition, drastic cuts in social care could leave half a million of the frailest and most vulnerable older people without the support they need.
The government has had some success, through repeated statements about people who supposedly do not deserve to be on benefits, in creating a link in the minds of some people between the concepts of claiming benefits and deceit. In this, it builds on the rhetoric of the previous government.
But a recent electronic poll by Community Service Volunteers found that 63 per cent of those who responded believed that “it could easily be me” when asked about their attitude to people poorer than themselves. Only nine per cent felt that people were getting benefits for nothing whilst 39 per cent felt poor people needed more income, more education (44 per cent) and better access to services (52 per cent).
Faith groups, charities and anti-poverty campaigners will face a challenge in caring for those affected by the cuts. So will the friendship networks and extended families called on to show solidarity with those of their members who find themselves not only workless and short of money but also labelled as potential threats to society. But in the end, justice will prevail.
© Savitri Hensman works in the voluntary sector in community care and equalities in the UK, and is also a respected writer on Christianity and social justice. She is an Ekklesia associate and regular columnist.