Three major Free Churches say Chancellor George Osborne's inaccurate use of welfare fraud statistics in his Comprehensive Spending Review speech has stigmatised the poor.
The Methodist Church, the Baptist Union of Great Britain and the United Reformed Church have criticised the Chancellor for claiming that welfare fraud is responsible for cheating tax payers out of £5 billion a year.
A Department of Work and Pensions report published last week stated that welfare fraud accounts for £1 billion of money lost, with tax credit fraud accounting for an additional £0.6 billion, leading to £1.6 billion lost in total. Church leaders say the exaggerated £5 billion figure depicts the poorest and most vulnerable in society as thieves.
“Exaggerating benefit fraud points the finger of blame at the poor,” says the Rev Alison Tomlin, President of the Methodist Conference - who had urged the government to protect the poorest from harsh economic decisions, in a speech in the run-up to the 20 October 2010 CSR announcements.
“Let us be clear this recession was not caused by the poor, those on benefits, or even benefit cheats", she said today. "The poorest in society only got poorer during the boom years and it’s simply not fair to make them pay for the bust."
Ms Tolin continued: “Questions also need to be asked about the £7 billion of uncollected tax revenues that the Chancellor claims he is targeting. According to the HMRC, there is approximately £42 billion in uncollected revenues; why does Mr Osborne only speak of £7 billion?”
Meanwhile, the Rev Graham Sparkes, Head of Faith and Unity at the Baptist Union of Great Britain, declared: “There is already deep concern that the severe reductions in welfare provision will cause immense hardship to the most vulnerable. This misuse of figures to exaggerate the scale of benefit fraud only adds to the sense of injustice.”
Mr Simon Loveitt, Public Issues Spokesperson for the United Reformed Church, added: “The coalition government is very keen to talk about fairness and the false notion that ‘we are all in this together’, but the Chancellor’s exaggeration of fraud and last week’s Comprehensive Spending Review confirm the grim reality that it is those who are most vulnerable who will pay the price for that which is so clearly not their fault.”
* DWP report: http://www.dwp.gov.uk/docs/tackling-fraud-and-error.pdf 
* Chancellor’s spending Review Statement: http://www.hm-treasury.gov.uk/spend_sr2010_speech.htm 
* HMRC figures: http://www.hmrc.gov.uk/stats/measuring-tax-gaps-2010.htm.pdf