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UK Prime Minister David Cameron is threatening to seize computers and cars from people supposedly guilty of benefit fraud, according to media reports. This could reduce their chances of getting work and access to everyday activities, harming families and communities.
“Benefit cheats will be subject to credit checks to see if they have any high-value assets, in a bid to clamp-down on fraud, ministers have said,” according to the BBC. “The Department for Work and Pensions says the aim is also to recoup more of the £1.2 billion the government loses to benefit fraud every year.”
It added, “Prime Minister David Cameron believes calling in bailiffs to confiscate and sell expensive items like cars and computers from cheats will be a strong deterrent to fraudsters.”
There has been huge media coverage of a few high-profile cases of people who cheat on a major scale and are rightly prosecuted. However 'benefit fraud' could also apply to someone unable to get a steady job because of the economic crisis who did a few hours 'cash-in-hand' work to help pay for his children’s clothes and toys.
Even if he were apparently paying off sizeable debts on household items, this could be due to a backstreet loan or the generosity of the extended family. Parents in Britain often help out their adult children and grandchildren, according to research by Standard Life: “Nearly half (46 per cent) of grandparents have given money to their children in the last year, giving £1,222 to each child on average.”
If someone in this situation used a computer for job-searches and a car to get to interviews and job centre appointments, taking these away would hardly help his chances of finding work. Indeed, without easy access to the internet, he might be sanctioned for not doing enough to find a job.
Worse still, people are often falsely accused of benefit fraud. However blameless your life, it is easy to find yourself on the receiving end of the government’s relentless attempts to portray people receiving social security as ‘scroungers’.
In one case in 2013, 63-year-old lorry driver Robert Punter was hauled before a court and accused of being a benefit cheat. His left leg had been amputated, but the DWP apparently got confused because he also had problems in his right toe from which he recovered.
“I suffered a very serious injury to my left leg in a shotgun accident when I was 12. At one stage it was touch and go whether I would survive,” he later said. "I never used it as an excuse not to work. I started in the old Leathercraft factory in Newton Abbot when I was 15 and then drove dumpers and tippers on building sites until I passed my HGV and became a lorry driver.”
He “did that for 40 years until I suffered arthritis in my right foot which led eventually to me having an operation to fuse my toe.” He then reportedly found out that he was entitled to disability living allowance even if he was planning to go back to work, but he was falsely accused of claiming fraudulently.
“After I was called in for interview and told I would be prosecuted my wife took photos of my left leg and sent them to the DWP but it made no difference.” However when he got to court, the DWP apparently offered no evidence – it was obvious he only had one leg – and he was quickly cleared.
Others prove their innocence on appeal, but this is not always easy, especially for people who are less articulate or cannot get access to specialist advice. Fearing that one's more valuable family possessions may be seized, if these are not regarded as household essentials, can make a bad situation worse.
UK government figures for 2012 indicate that fraud across the whole economy amounts to £72 billion a year, including £14 billion tax fraud. Other estimates suggest that the cost of tax evasion and avoidance is far higher. It seems likely that unclaimed benefit amounts to over ten times as much as 'welfare fraud'.
Politicians’ promises to make life more unpleasant for "benefit cheats" are not primarily about saving money, and are damaging and divisive, promoting suspicion of those in need.
© Savitri Hensman is a regular Christian commentator on politics, economics, society, welfare, sexuality, theology and religion. She is an Ekklesia associate and works in the equality and care sector.Tweet