Benefit Fraud: The Right-Wing Lie that Refuses to Die

For many right-wing politicians and their media allies, ‘welfare cheats’ is a line that bears endless repetition.

Right-Wing Watch

News broke this week that the Equalities and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) is investigating the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP)  over its treatment of disabled people, specifically whether the department failed to make reasonable adjustments for people with learning disabilities or long-term mental health conditions when carrying out benefit health assessments. 

“The DWP has been failing disabled people for decades now” and “full transparency and accountability is imperative,” said David Linden MP, the SNP’s Social Justice Spokesperson, in response to news of the investigation.

For years, successive Tory governments and the media ecosystems that support them, have demonised benefit claimants, presenting them as ‘scroungers,’ ‘frauds’ and ‘cheats.’ Who can forget the Sun’s ‘Beat the Cheat’ campaign in 2012, encouraging readers to be “patriotic” by reporting suspected benefit cheats to a benefit fraud hotline? In 2016, the then chancellor George Osborne refused to apologise for attempting to slice £4.4bn off benefits for people with disabilities, as he defended his controversial budget which led to the resignation of the work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith.

Today, very little has changed, except that the country is mired in a cost-of-living crisis that has fuelled the sharpest increase in absolute poverty in 30 years.

Time to raise benefits, not lower them, surely? Earlier this year, Labour was warned by an alliance of charities and think-tanks that poverty will soar if it comes to power and then fails to spend the money needed to reform welfare and help those struggling most with the cost of living. The report by IPPR and Changing Realities said that 4.4 million people in the UK are now in poverty, with the situation set to worsen without radical change.

But for many right-wing politicians and their media allies, ‘welfare cheats’ is a line that bears endless repetition.

In a bid to save £9bn in the next four years, the government is “scaling up the fight against those stealing from the taxpayer…” Mel Stride, work and pensions secretary, announced.

“With new legal powers, better data, and thousands of additional staff, our comprehensive plan ensures we have the necessary tools to tackle the scourge of benefit fraud,” Stride continued.

In a five-point plan for welfare reform delivered at the Iain Duncan-Smith founded Centre for Social Justice (CSJ), a right-wing think tank and, as such, a comfort zone for Sunak, the PM promised to end ‘sicknote culture.’ He announced plans for new cuts to personal independence payment (PIP), claiming the increase in successful PIP claims was “driving up the cost of the disability benefits bill at an unsustainable rate.”

Taking aim at claimants with mental health issues, the PM spoke of requiring a “more objective and rigorous approach that focuses support on those with the greatest needs and extra costs” and the need to make the system “fairer and harder to exploit.” He told the CSJ  how the number of people claiming PIP due to depression or anxiety, had doubled since 2019, suggesting that the system was “undermined by the way people are asked to make subjective and unverifiable claims about their capability.”

The speech was labelled “chilling, threatening, and stigmatising.” 

“The PM’s wording today just continues a trend that is stigmatising, harmful, and inaccurate. The problem is not disabled people on benefits, it is not the fault of those left disabled by the government’s appalling handling of Covid, it is not the fault of those broken by mental illness because of failed economic policy and the cost-of-living crisis, the problem is the system itself and its long-term prejudices, a system able to blame anyone but itself,” said Disability Rights UK.

The right-wing media meanwhile did not hold back in the monstering of ‘jobless’ benefit claimants.

‘Benefits Busts: New benefits fraud squads will arrest and fine even more welfare cheats, Rishi reveals in crackdown plan,’ splashed the Sun following the PM’s speech.

The Telegraph, accused previously of ‘legitimising’ hate speech towards disabled benefit claimants through discriminatory articles, went a step further, laying into the DWP.

‘Britain stuck with a record £30bn benefits bill, DWP’s own forecasts show,’ it headlined, in an article about payments to people who don’t have a job continuing to rise “despite stricter tests” and “Rishi Sunak’s welfare overhaul.”

While benefit fraud in Britain is a serious and costly issue, the vilification of claimants within political and media circles, conveniently ignores the different bodies of research that suggest claims of disability benefit fraud is exaggerated. Issues impacting the health and welfare of families with disability are also routinely overlooked or understated.

For example, nowhere in Sunak’s speech nor the lurid reports about it, cite figures released by the DWP earlier this year, which showed nearly half of all individuals in families with at least one disabled child and one disabled adult in Britain were living in poverty by 2021-22. The figures were consistent with projections by the Equality and Human Rights Commission in 2018, which warned that families with disabled children and where there are both disabled adults and children, would be worst hit by tax and welfare reform changes up until 21-22.

Ellen Clifford of Disabled People Against Cuts and author of The War on Disabled People, described the findings as “shocking” and a “terrible indictment of a country as rich as Britain, where, over the same two years that the new measures show very sharp increases in disability poverty, the number of billionaires in the UK rose by 20 percent.”

Disability benefit fraud a ‘non-issue’

Meanwhile, separate and more recent DWP figures show that there were almost no recorded losses to the taxpayer due to fraud in the disability benefits system in the financial year ending 2024.

Disability Living Allowance fraud was just 0.1 percent, rounded down to £0m. PIP cheating was found to be 0 percent in the same period, the data showed.

PIP overpayments represented 0.4 percent, equating to around £90m lost in a year, marking a significant decrease from the previous year, when such overpayments stood 1.1 percent (£200m). The overpayments were said to be mainly due to errors made by the department when allocating award levels at the assessment stage.

Responding to the figures, Mikey Erhardt, campaigner at Disability Rights UK described PIP fraud as a ‘non-issue.’

“New data shows what we, as disabled people, have known for years – PIP fraud is a non-issue. PIP fraud is now the lowest on record – despite the government placing fraud front and centre of their latest public announcements,” he said.

Erhardt added: “If the government is concerned about fraud, it would be serious about the £15.2bn that multinational companies hide from the UK via tax havens. Money which could fund public services that we all need and use. Instead, disabled people continue to be demonised.”

The total amount of unclaimed benefits is also routinely missing from the benefit ‘fraud’ clamour. Research by Policy in Practice found that 8.4m people could be missing out on an average of £2,700 per year in rights-based benefits.

‘The failure to deliver support to people who are entitled to it directly affects education, health outcomes and social participation for millions of people,” said Deven Ghelani, Policy in Practice director.

Sunak’s wealth

Amid the panic about ‘welfare cheats,’ and adding to the insult, were the reports this week involving the Prime Minister’s personal wealth. As millions of people struggle to make ends meet and rely on welfare payments just to survive, the Prime Minister and his wife have seen their wealth increase from a net worth of £529m in 2023 to £651m. The increase of £120 million in the couple’s fortunes is linked to Murty’s shareholding in Infosys, an IT company co-founded by her father and based in Bangalore, India, which has seen a sharp increase in its share value.

Sunak faced criticism after a summary of his tax affairs showed he paid an effective tax rate of 23 percent on a £2.2m income in 2023, after making a £1.8m profit on his holding in a US investment fund. The rate was much lower than the top rate of 45 percent because some income was taxed at source in the US and the rate of capital gains tax is lower at 20 percent.

Robert Palmer, the executive director at Tax Justice UK, referred to the tax system as “broken.” “People will be shocked to learn the prime minister has such a low tax rate despite bringing in millions. But this is a feature of our broken tax system,” said Palmer.

His ties to the US have been a delicate issue for the Prime Minister. He was criticised in April 2022 after it was revealed he held a US green card, meaning he declared himself as a permanent US resident for tax purposes, whilst he was chancellor and for six years as an MP. His wife Murty was also criticised after her non-dom status was revealed.

Labour has long called to abolish the special non-domiciled (non-dom) rule that allows people to live in the UK but have their home overseas for tax reasons, and not pay any UK tax on money they make elsewhere. Labour says they would spend the money saved on the NHS and schools.

In this year’s Spring Budget, the Chancellor Jeremy Hunt announced the government would abolish non-dom tax breaks, telling MPs there would be “transitional arrangements” for those benefiting from the current tax arrangements.

In a swipe at the prime minister’s wife, Keir Starmer asked why it had taken the Conservatives so long to “stand up to their friends, their funders and their families.”

Tax Havens

In recent years, HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) has faced scrutiny over offshore tax avoidance and evasion. Figures disclosed to the independent think-tank Tax Policy Associates by HMRC in September 2021 showed that UK taxpayers held nearly £570bn in tax havens, including offshore funds.

As millions living a bare existence on benefits get vilified as ‘fraudsters’ and ‘cheats,’ the number of investigations being carried out by (HMRC) fraud team looking into offshore, corporate, and wealthy taxpayers has fallen by more than half in five years.

Figures obtained by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism released in February, show that civil investigations opened by the offshore, corporate, and wealthy unit fell from 1,417 in 2018-19 to 627 in 2022-23.

“Even when [HMRC is] opening civil cases, they appear to be going after the easier, lower-value targets,” said Fiona Fernie, a partner at tax adviser Blick Rothenberg.

Just weeks after Rishi Sunak’s ‘full-on assault on disabled people’, as James Taylor, director of strategy at the disability equality charity Scope, described the speech, Unite published a report into profiteering by UK corporations.

Analysing the profit margins of 17,000 companies, it found that corporate profit margins have increased by a massive 30 percent since 2018/19. Gas and electricity companies were found to be the worst culprits, with an increased profit margin of 363 percent. 

As corporations make obscene profits, household budgets continue to be squeezed, and those of benefits, many of which can’t afford the essentials like food and heating, get labelled ‘scroungers.’

No doubt, with the general election now just weeks away, the most vulnerable in society will face more vitriol as the government seeks more cheap electioneering headlines to divert attention from their own mishandling of the economy, welfare policy, immigration, to name a few.

Right-Wing Media Watch – Tory newspapers back Sunak, with some utterly absurd claims

It had to be one of the least auspicious starts to a general election ever. A beleaguered Prime Minister trailing the opposition by 20 points in the polls, announcing a summer election while drowned out, not only by the pouring rain, but by the lyrics of Things Can Only Get Better, the anthem of Tony Blair’s victorious 1997 campaign.

But as the memes flooded social media, and images of a bedraggled Prime Minister stood outside No 10. dominated the front pages the next day, the Conservative press stayed as loyal to the PM as they could, making some pretty desperate claims. 

Backing Sunak all the way, the Daily Express claimed that Britain has “bounced back” under his leadership, while Keir Starmer “desires power for its own sake.” Its lead story headlined ‘PM: I Am Fighting For Our Nation’s Future,” read: “Just as he made the right decisions as Chancellor during the pandemic, Mr Sunak has held his nerve as Prime Minister, ended disarray at Westminster and led us out of an economic crisis.

“Today, he is still the right person to safeguard Britain’s recovery and ensure we grasp the enormous opportunities available to us,” the editorial continued.

In a separate article, the newspaper attempted to frame Steve Bray, the well-known anti-Brexit activist responsible for music that accompanied Sunak’s speech, as the one who was humiliated.

“Brexit hater humiliated as speakers blow while he sabotages Rishi Sunak’s election speech,” it splashed. Others of course, saw it differently, with Bray labelled a ‘genius’ for his latest antics.

Several newspapers focused on Sunak’s gamble of calling an election when the Tories are lagging Labour so definitively in the polls, when he could have waited until the autumn.

The Times took such a view, arguing that the announcement was “perhaps the last possible moment for this government to head to the country on something like the front foot.”

The Telegraph took a similar line declaring Sunak saw “a window of opportunity.” Taking aim at the opposition, its editorial stated that “a Labour government might well bring change, but it will not be of the good kind.”

“Labour would tax more, regulate more, be weaker in defence of the national interest and be far more relaxed about mass migration and the excesses of green ideologues.”

The Daily Mail also focused on the timing, claiming Sunak has “seized the initiative,” and calling the decision “nothing if not bold.”

Murdoch’s Sun meanwhile expressed its frustration over the election coinciding with the Euros, Taylor Swift, and Wimbledon. ‘Oh ballots’ was the headline of the report which admitted the PM had leapt on news of tumbling inflation to “take a massive gamble.” The story also cited Michael Gove, who reportedly led the Cabinet in support of the early date, saying: “Who dares wins… and you have dared, Prime Minister, and will win.”

Optimistic talk from the levelling up secretary, who just days later announced he will not be standing for re-election as an MP ahead of the general election.

Smear of the Week: Right’s witch-hunt against Civil Service drags on

Lazy, unproductive, working from home, too generous pensions, the ‘blob.’ The poor Civil Service has been forced to endure some unpleasant insults in recent years, as successive Conservative governments have seemingly blamed them for their own failings.

Jacob Rees-Mogg, for example, was accused of chasing ‘cheap headlines,’ with his push for civil servants to return to the office, having previously supported hybrid working to minimise the need for office space.

The latest smear campaign against the half-a-million-plus apparently work-shy grifters involved their choice of lanyards.

Rishi Sunak’s minister for ‘common sense’, Esther McVey, earned herself some headlines, announcing in a speech at, you guessed it, the Centre for Policy Studies, a package of changes to the way equality, diversity, and inclusion are handled in government. She stated that EDI roles equate to around 400 full-time positions, which is actually just 0.1 percent of civil servants.

She took particular aim at ‘non-standard’ lanyards worn by staff, arguing they “shouldn’t be a “random pick and mix” and that government employees should leave their personal political views “at the building entrance.” Making them wear a “standard” lanyard design was a “visible” way of showing that, McVey suggested.

At last week’s PMQs, Keir Starmer seized on the Tory minister’s comments to ridicule Sunak, mocking the minister for common sense’s “vital crackdown on the gravest of threats.”

But despite the ridicule of the Tories’ latest lame culture war assault, the right-wing press has been keen to keep it alive.

In his column in the Daily Mail, Daniel Hannan, or Lord Hannan of Kingsclere, who was a Conservative MEP from 1999 to 2020, and is now President of the Institute for Free Trade (yet another Eurosceptic think-tank that advocates “the moral case for open commerce”) attempted to equate civil servants’ choice of lanyards as proof of “obsessive wokery” that “makes them worse at their jobs.”

Recycling the same well-worn argument, on May 18, the Express spoke of a ‘woke crackdown’ beginning as ‘hundreds of ‘diversity’ civil service jobs to be axed.’ The report excitedly informed of staff being promised protection from bullying if they refuse to “sign up to woke ideas, for example by failing to include their pronouns on email signatures.”

No doubt there are elderly Tories and newspaper editors with long memories who, in the event of a Labour victory on July 4, will be dusting down headlines from the Thatcherite ‘80s berating ‘loony left’ councils for their support for progressive policies. This time it will be Whitehall civil servants in the firing line. In the strange world of right-wing culture wars, the old tunes are always the best.

Gabrielle Pickard-Whitehead is author of Right-Wing Watch

Comments are closed.