A guest post by Paul, originally posted here
In my earlier “rant”, I attempted to put my perspective – as a previous practitioner – on the recent history of welfare benefit changes, and the misconceptions that are associated with the process. I also alluded to overly simplistic concepts of “disability”.
First, let me ask “What is a Benefit, or Welfare, Cheat?” – the simple answer, I suppose, is someone who claims money from the system that they are not entitled to receive. Is it ever as simple as that? – answer; “Yes”. In an extremely small number of cases (when compared to the total amount paid) some criminals (for this is what they are) make knowingly, fraudulent claims – sometimes using false names, false addresses, stolen NINo’s, and invented ailments and/or illnesses – sometimes in their own name but with dishonest intent.
Allow me to be very clear about these people. It is wrong; it is a criminal act; it should be punished. This is not a blog about punishment and the Justice system, so that is where I will leave it.
However, the terminology is loosely used to cover much more than those specific instances. It is sprayed around, with the precision of an agricultural muck spreader, by ill-informed, opportunistic people – usually politicians, and across the partisan divide – to justify the latest “cure-all” for what is suggested as a system out of control. I take issue with much of that.
I am constantly being told that this country – the UK – is the fourth or fifth richest in the world. Surely a measure of a nations’ success is how it treats and supports its own population? Unfortunately, many politicians seem to think that the term “population” means those who actively participate in elections and therefore have a vote I am interested in securing. Many of the poorest, the physically or mentally ill and/or disabled do not vote; they do not feel involved. Result: they are ignored.
I make no claim to be an economist. One of the few things I remember from my Economics Teacher was him saying that, “If you laid all the worlds economists end to end they probably would fail to reach a conclusion” – in short, it is a lot of guess-work and not a precise science. Bit like Politics then. . . However, I am informed that the current deficit was largely brought about by urgent bail outs of the Financial Institutions, who had speculated and failed. Again, in short, “we” are paying the man who popped into the bookies, backed the wrong horse, lost the rent money and then claimed it was due to forces beyond his control.
As I advised in a previous rant; I was, for a number of years, a Welfare Rights specialist – in Local Government, in the “not-for-profit sector” and with charitable bodies. I openly admit that the system was imperfect, was complicated and suffered from a small degree of abuse. I also assert that ANY system will always be subject to abuse. Crime doesn’t go away just because Parliament legislates against it – even parliament itself has seen “criminals” within their own ranks abuse their own systems of benefits . . .
I had the good fortune to represent and assist a substantial number of decent, law-abiding, but also seriously ill, disabled and vulnerable people in my 20+ years in that field. I have no doubts, whatsoever, that I probably also represented a tiny number of cheats too – never knowingly, but it is a statistical inevitability. How, in all fairness, can I – or anyone else – guarantee that the degree of pain or discomfort suffered is less than claimed? Assessing a benefit claim is, to a degree, an imprecise science – a bit like politics and economics.
Theoretically, the receipt of any money not declared whilst in receipt of a means-tested benefit is a form of fraud. Yes, there are certain disregards, there was therapeutic earnings allowances, etc., etc. (I want to minimise the technical stuff, because that is part of the problem of the debate) but, in essence, if you did something that incurred a reward or received cash, you are supposed to declare it. Allow me to tell you a story of a former client, now deceased sadly, so I feel no breach of his confidentiality – but he will remain nameless:
This individual lived in the Glamorgan Valleys. He had worked in the South Wales Mines for a few years prior to the mass closures, never in any skillful capacity, usually in Labouring jobs. By his own admission he was a “bit of a lump”, good at manual effort but none to bright.
His family background was not exceptional, but poverty had featured continuously – he was the eldest of seven, and his biological father had died from a respiratory illness when he was a teenager. His mother had remarried, and the step-father saw him especially, as the eldest and as a large individual, as a threat to the new relationship, so he was kicked out of the family home at age 16.
He was no great shakes at school, so the local pit seemed an obvious place. Whilst he had a job, he was OK. He didn’t do anything earth-shattering, but he paid his taxes and lived an uneventful life. Work, a dingy bed sit and the Miners welfare club, with the occasional trip down the valley for the football.
With unemployment, which effected ’000′s granted, came the sad slide into boredom, petty crime and eventually prosecution and conviction. He didn’t go to prison, even his “criminality” was unimpressive. he was on probation and that is where I first met him.
My initial assessment was of a person of immense sadness. Few friends, fewer “skills”; no family life (he saw little of his mother and siblings) and minimal prospects. In co-operation with the local Dept. of Employment (pre-JobCentre+ days!) we got him on numerous courses, but whilst he attended religiously and conscientiously, we all knew he was not a prime candidate for meaningful employment. At that time, there were graduates unemployed, let alone someone who struggled to read and write and with a criminal record now too.
His sole income was Unemployment Benefit, which was then – and is now in its latest guise – supposed to cover fuel and utility bills, household domestic costs, travel and transport, food, leisure, etc. He also received (or his landlord did) Housing benefit, so he did not have to find the rent for his one room dwelling with shared bathroom. His kitchen was a primer stove; he had no fridge.
His one treat in the week was a trip to the “chippy” on a Friday evening. Amazingly, he was befriended by an Asian family who ran it, and – as they were small in frame and he was very large - he used to willingly volunteer to shift large sacks of potatoes for them when delivered to the shop. Over months, this developed into odd jobs (in truth, largely invented by the family to help him) and eventually, he started peeling spuds occasionally – maybe once or twice a week for an hour or so.
His “reward” for his efforts – usually a very large fish supper, and a couple of quid for a pint. As I said, I personally think this was more an act of kindness by the family than an exploitation of an unemployed person. This went on for a couple of years, until – sadly – the father of the Asian family died from natural causes, and the business ceased.
My “client” never failed to make himself available for work. He attended any and every course suggested, but he was never even offered an interview, let alone a job, until he too – sadly – died at an alarmingly early age in his early 40′s, from a sudden illness.
In the strictest sense of the words “benefit cheat”, he was one. He never declared this small additional income – sometimes £5- a week, at a time when Unemployment Benefit would have been @ £40. It was as much a social benefit as a financial one, but – yes – he was a Benefit Cheat.
Think of him and then think of the Murdoch’s, and the Ashcroft’s, and the plethora of big business who avoid their tax liability and ask yourself which is worse. I know who I think is.