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Benefit cheats will face sentences of up to 10 years, director of public prosecutions Keir Starmer QC has threatened. While punishing fraud by claimants – and frightening people who are honest but fear being targeted – will be popular with parts of the public, the lack of a sense of proportion is worrying.
In future, suspects in England and Wales may be charged under the Fraud Act rather than social security laws, where the maximum sentence was seven years. Cases involving less than £20,000 will no longer automatically be tried in magistrates' courts, with a maximum sentence of up to 12 months’ imprisonment. Where there are aggravating features such as multiple offences or substantial loss to public funds, suspects will be prosecuted more vigorously.
It is time for a "tough stance" on benefit and tax credit fraud, he said, and the £1.9 billion annual cost of the crime to the nation should always be at the "forefront of lawyers' minds". Yet according to the May 2013 Department for Work and Pensions document Fraud and Error in the Benefit System: Preliminary 2012/13 Estimates (Great Britain):
· 0.7 per cent, or £1.2 billion, of total benefit expenditure is overpaid due to fraud;
· 0.9 per cent, or £1.6 billion, of total benefit expenditure is overpaid due to claimant error;
· 0.4 per cent, or £0.7 billion, of total benefit expenditure is overpaid due to official error.
· 0.6 per cent, or £0.9 billion, of total benefit expenditure is underpaid due to claimant error;
· 0.3 per cent, or £0.5 billion, of total benefit expenditure is underpaid due to official error.
The field of social security is so complicated that even government departments come up with very different figures, and many ordinary claimants are confused. No estimate is given of the amount out of which some of the poorest and most vulnerable have been cheated as a result of official measures. There are also many who have been put off claiming ‘welfare’ to which they are entitled for fear of stigma or getting into trouble, and this number is likely to rise.
Few people would defend the actions of professional fraudsters. But someone unable to get a job and failing to declare occasional earnings so that she can feed her children is in a different moral category. Blurring the distinction between those committing large-scale bank fraud and others struggling for survival as a result of illness, accident or an economic downturn they did not cause is not helpful.
Ten years is the maximum sentence for causing a child to watch a sexual act, and double the sentence for wounding or inflicting grievous bodily harm. It is damaging not only to claimants but also to society as a whole when benefit fraud becomes such a high priority for an already overstretched police and court service.
(c) Savitri Hensman is a regular Christian commentator on politics, economics, society, welfare and religion. She is an Ekklesia associate and works in the equality and care sector.Tweet