It’s in the government’s interests to keep promoting the very myths that keep the benefit fraud hotline ringing – and distract us from real social problems
I can’t decide what is most disturbing: that more than 85% of allegations of benefit fraud put forward by the public over the past five years have been false, or that this is about almost 900,000 out of more than a million cases.
That isn’t a handful of mistaken or malicious individuals. It’s a widespread anti-benefit mindset that – over five years of austerity – has rooted itself in British culture: through Benefits Street type-television, the rhetoric of politicians, and the pages of national newspapers.
In this climate, a “benefit cheat” and a person on benefits is one and the same. It has not only become quite natural to be suspicious of your disabled neighbour when he drives by your house in a new car – but to report him to the authorities for it.
“It’s a hate crime of the worst type,” said one woman – who has Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, fibromyalgia, and mental health problems – who spoke to me from Wiltshire about being falsely reported as fraudulently claiming disability benefits. She described the accusation as “the equivalent of saying I was working as a trapeze artist by night and in the SAS by day”. The 49 year-old – who, like every victim of false allegations I’ve spoken to, didn’t want to be named – told me that the subsequent investigation made her really ill. The “constant fear of being watched” by her neighbours meant she gave up her new social housing flat.
Another, a 23-year-old with ME from London who receives out of work sickness benefit, told me she was reported to the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) after someone saw two photos on Facebook taken before she became ill: one of her playing Twister and one of her skiing. At the time she was reported, she was mostly bedbound and had been for two years.
This new brand of vigilantism can’t survive without help. The DWP tells the public – through multiple advertising campaigns – it has a role in identifying benefit cheats. By the time the coalition rolled out its first stage of welfare reform in 2012, The Sun had set up its own national benefit fraud hotline, calling on “patriotic Brits” to “name and shame fiddling scroungers” in their area. Iain Duncan Smith urged readers to “help us” by “taking a note of the hotline number”.
he government’s statistics show fraudulent benefit claims account for just 0.7% of total benefit expenditure. Funnily enough, you don’t hear ministers say this.
It’s worth remembering the next line after George Osborne’s infamous speech about the “next-door neighbour who has the blinds down and is living a life on benefits as you get up early for work” was that the Conservatives would “tackle that as part of tackling this country’s economic problems”.
The phantom benefit cheat is the perfect patsy for austerity. If there are hordes of disabled, mentally ill, or unemployed people who are draining the public purse, there is justification for sweeping cuts to social security. It doesn’t actually matter if this horde is lying to claim benefits or not. By nature of receiving “taxpayers’” money, they are still said to be cheating “hardworking families”.