Is there really anything more to David Cameron and George Osborne’s benefits clampdown than punishing the already punished?
The three major political parties have competed and are still competing to see who can more vociferously condemn benefits cheats. Successive governments – under both Labour and Conservative leadership – have actively campaigned against benefits cheats.
“It’s not if we catch you, it’s when”, and “benefits theft is a crime – NO IFS, NO BUTS” have been and still are the slogans. When current prime minister David Cameron ascended to power in 2010, one of the central pillars of his campaign was the promise to clamp down on benefits fraud.
Politicians aside, there is a lot of limelight put on benefits cheats by the UK media.
The Sun, which has the largest circulation of any newspaper in the UK, openly “declares war on Britain’s benefits culture”, while the Daily Mail, which has the second largest circulation of any newspaper in the UK, is prolific in its condemnation of benefit cheats (see pdf).
With all the attention that is placed on the issue, it comes as no surprise that 72% of those recently polled on the issue believe that the government should cut back on benefits.
However, the media spotlight and the political rhetoric are misleading. The most recent report published by the Department for Work and Pensions found fraud constitutes only 0.8% of total benefits payments; in absolute cash terms this equals roughly £1.2 billion (see pdf, page 1 and 13).
This is not in any way to condone benefits fraud – it is completely, absolutely and unarguably unjustifiable. But the problem has to be kept in perspective.
• The DWP’s ‘scrounger’ rhetoric is causing real harm 6 Feb 2012
• More Mail manipulation over benefit fraud 24 Aug 2010
• Cameron’s one-sided crusade on cheats 9 Aug 2010
Even if David Cameron were to eliminate all benefits fraud the savings would only be £1.2 bn. Interestingly, this figure – £1.2bn – is roughly the same as that HMRC estimates was generated by the recently disowned 50p tax rate (see pdf, page 46, bullet point 6.5).
Moreover, the £1.2bn lost on benefits fraud is completely overshadowed by the £15bn lost on tax fraud as Alex Hern pointed out on Left Foot Forward in February.
Despite its enormous cost, both the coalition and the mainstream media are reluctant to address tax fraud; incidentally, mainstream media bias on this subject is well known.
In “Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media”, Ed Herman and Noam Chomsky wrote (page 345, footnote 119):
Both British and American Analysts have noted the periodic intense focus on – and indignation over – “welfare chisellers” by the mass media, and the parallel de-emphasis of and benign attitudes towards the far more important fraud and tax abuses of business and the affluent.
Evidence shows that the 99%+ majority of claimants do not cheat the system. Furthermore, the media limelight compounds the enormous stigma already felt by claimants. Further still, there is no evidence that cutting benefits payments successfully reduces benefits fraud.
Is there really anything more to this benefits clampdown than punishing the already punished?