Chasing Cheats


Osborne’s new policy plan, is outlined in the ‘News of the World’ today. Alas, the News of the World is behind a ‘paywall’ so I can’t either read the article directly nor link to it but helpfully, the BBC carries the main thrust

In an interview with the News of the World, Mr Osborne compared welfare cheats to muggers robbing taxpayers of their hard-earned money.

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Actually, this sentence and this presumption by the rather supercilious Osborne, angers me. There is no comparison with ‘muggers’. As a ‘hard-working taxpayer’ – actually, the sticks in the throat somewhat – I think Osborne is treading on very dangerous ground here.

It’s lazy politics by Osborne and the government. Find someone that all the constituent and empowered (middle class) voters can rail against and create a common enemy.

The problem is that the narratives of Osborne become blurred. One moment he is talking about ‘benefits lifestyle’ the next about ‘benefits cheats’. It isn’t a massive leap from one to the other, he says by implication and thus manages to tar a whole swathe of the population with the brush that allows other, more fortunate people, to heap scorn on those who may be wholly entitled to the benefits that they are claiming.

I’m of course, not defending ‘benefits cheats’ but for me the danger is in the blurring of the lines that Osborne is drawing.

The Guardian breaks down some of the figures

Of the £5.2bn lost each year, fraud accounts for just £1.5bn across benefits and tax credits. In addition, £1.1bn of losses occurs from official error, and a further £1.1bn from customer error.

Yes, £1.5bn is a lot of money but it’s almost half of what is lost through non-criminal errors both on the part of the tax office and customers (who are, remember, hard-working taxpayers).

It is the split between the ‘tax-payers’ and ‘scroungers’ to create social tension that I object to and one we should be very mindful of. This is a cruel government rhetoric that sets up some of the most vulnerable people as the ‘bogey man’ figure for those who are more fortunate to sneer at.

I feel we are meant to applaud Mr Osborne for ‘saving’ our money from fraudsters. It’s way too easy to make a comparison with tax evasion and the government barely sets a good example by appointing Philip Green to advise them, and Lord Ashcroft to bankroll their election campaign.

Osborne intends to appoint a ‘hit squads’ of 200 people to check and investigate all benefit claims in areas of high fraud.

The government will be sending ‘taskforces’ into areas of high claims and check every claim made.

The money will be saved, no doubt, but I expect it will be saved by people who are wholly entitled to benefits being too terrified to claim all that they might be entitled to for the general climate of hatred spewed out towards benefit claimants – people that the nation and yes, hard-working tax-payers should be supporting.

This is a circular argument but it is hard to move away from the debate and discourse created around the issue of those who need support from the state and there is no question that it is going to get nastier.

We need to look to the past and what has created this ‘benefits culture’ and it is a clear line drawn from the steps of a 10 Downing Street occupied by Margaret Thatcher that we see the trail. It was her government that pursued a policy of shifting the long term unemployed to incapacity benefit in the first place to artificially reduce the headline unemployment figures.

As Alastair Darling stated in Parliament back in 2001

The total case load of incapacity benefit is far too high, and to a large extent that is because a very large number of people went on to the then invalidity benefit in the 1980s. The problem was that those people were given no help or advice to return to work; the then Tory Government simply dumped them on that benefit to disguise unemployment.

Of course there was time to redraw the lines and the last government attempted to do that by introducing the ESA (Employment and Support Allowance) in lieu of Incapacity Benefit. Now, believe me, I have many issues with the ways the tests for ESA have been carried out, particularly as regards people with ‘invisible’ disabilities, most notably mental health difficulties but there is nothing wrong in principle in judging people by capabilities rather than disabilities, indeed, it is a good move.

But away from ESA/Incapacity Benefit and back to Osborne’s proposals – he offers a ‘name and shame’ initiative for those ‘caught’ as benefit cheats. To be honest, I thought that was happening when court cases are reported in local newspapers anyway. I don’t understand the purpose of this. It doesn’t seem to be about shame as I really don’t think shame will ever be a deterrent if people feel they can ‘get away with it’.

What I think it is, is an effort to make all those ‘hard-working taxpayers’ feel just a little bit better about ourselves knowing that the evil benefit cheaters are going to be caught. It smacks of plain and unadulterated spite.

And the government would do well to remember that even people who live on benefits pay taxes – especially worth noting as the VAT rate is due to rise and it is exactly those people who have the lowest incomes that will be most affected.

So bearing in mind that we are all tax-payers to some degree, is it the ‘hard-working’ that Osborne is appealing to? Who is to say that someone who doesn’t have a job isn’t ‘hard-working’? Ah, I think that would be Mr Osborne who seems to be floating through life with all the advantages of birth. Quite ironic then, but terrifyingly inevitable that he should be turning on those with none of his natural advantages gained merely through accident of birth and creating a national figure of distain.

For no doubt, this attack is not only on ‘benefit cheats’  but it links in with the general discourse which stigmatises all benefit claimants.

Peter Beresford wrote a piece in the Guardian earlier this week about the government’s current ‘divide and rule’ policy of creating gaps in the social fabric and increasingly making distinctions between ‘hard-working taxpayers’ and ‘benefits claimants’.

Divide and rule, us and them, haves and have-nots, honest and dishonest, good and bad. The dichotomies are being very carefully drawn. The government wants us, the employed, the middle classes to view benefits claimants as ‘the other’. Programmes like ‘Saints and Scroungers’ buy into this process.

The problem is that job cuts and a shrinking economy will push more of the ‘haves’ into the ‘have-nots’.

While this particular policy, although pernicious, isn’t one that can be challenged. Of course people who break the law should be pursued and caught – the constant chipping away of the dignity of those who do need assistance needs to be challenged and challenged frequently.

3 thoughts on “Chasing Cheats

  1. Looks like a straightforward policy of ‘divide and rule’ to me. This is the conservatives conserving their own privilege as they always have. I remember the oft-removed couplet from the anglican (traditional) hymn ‘All things bright & beautiful’:

    The rich man in his castle,
    the poor man at his gate.

    This is the ‘traditional’ value system that Osborne (the rich man) and his cronies seek to conserve. Peasants back in their place, unable to afford the education that will help them and their kids improve their lot and an electorate duped into scapegoating the most vulnerable so that they will continue to vote for the party that keeps all but the most privileged ‘in their place’.

    The truly surprising thing is that anyone expected anything different from the tory party.

  2. They did the same thing here in Canada and there were no notable gains other than in added stigma and anxiety for those who are vulnerable. They took it further here in BC and in Ontario forcing people off welfare with time limits and workfare – and where did they go? A few found job/s (multiple low-wage, part-time) and many more found the street. Good to see so many taking to the streets to fight back in the UK. Hardly a murmur here when it happened.

  3. It just frustrates me so much .. I think there is a momentum of opposition though which will probably be building up over the next few months. I expect strike action – and if it were called, I’d join it.

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