By Will Horwitz
It’s dispiriting to see the Conservatives today follow Labour’s lead in proposing even harsher sanctions for people accused of benefit fraud. As we’ve pointed out before, there are several problems with this increasingly punitive approach.
Firstly, from our experience giving advice to over 12,000 people each year in Newham, we know that almost all those defrauding the system do so out of need, not greed. They need a few hours work to tide them over – to pay a surprise bill, or replace the microwave. Declaring it to the Jobcentre would mean any earnings are deducted from benefits, leaving them with no extra money. Punishing these people is unfair, but also destructive – they need stepping stones to a job and higher income, not sanctions which push them further into poverty. The occasional extreme case of greed you read about in the papers does not reflect the lives of those coming through our doors.
Secondly, benefit fraud is not as big a problem as either party might have you believe. Less than one percent of benefit claimants commit fraud (56,000 out of 5.8m), and more money is wasted each year on error (around £2bn) than is given to people claiming fraudulently. Meanwhile, about £1.2bn is underpaid, meaning people desperately in need of benefits do not receive them. Advertising campaigns that flame the public perception that everyone on benefits cheats the system are actively stigmatising and harmful.
Thirdly, while both parties would argue that sanctions act as a deterrent, they don’t seem to have considered the fate of those they sanction. These, by definition, are not people with wealth to fall back on. Denying people benefits, for 13 weeks or 3 years, is going to force them further into debt and eventually destitution. It’s hard to see how this is addressing the causes of poverty.
In short, politicians might be surprised to discover how much fraud would go down if they sorted out the benefits system so it worked better for the people it’s meant to serve. In the meantime, don’t drive people further into poverty by imposing heavy-handed sanctions on people who, in the main, are just trying to get together enough money to get by.