A report in yesterday’s Stirling Observer causes me some disquiet. It explains: “A benefit cheat who received more than £15,000 to which he was not entitled has been jailed … James Yuill (61) admitted receiving £15,360 in Income Support between June 2004 and November 2010 to which he was not entitled. Stirling Sheriff Court was told on Wednesday that he had stated on a benefits review form that he was not in paid employment. In fact he was working for 12 hours a week as a bakery delivery driver.”
Yuill had been told by his CAB that he could work while on benefits for up to 16 hours a week. That’s a common enough muddle; people often don’t realise that the rules which apply to one benefit don’t necessarily apply to another, that some benefits let people work and others don’t, or that actions that are permissible still need to be declared. Nor was there anything immoral about his behaviour; getting some part time work while on benefits is exactly the sort of thing that the government wants to encourage, and the DWP Pathfinders were marking it up as a success if only they could get someone to do what Mr Yuill was doing. There’s an issue here with mens rea. The decision to claim a benefit without being entitled cannot in itself be evidence of a guilty mind; if it was, any benefit application which someone failed to qualify for would be an offence. So the guilt must rest in either a misrepresentation, or the failure to declare the work, and that – not the amount of money – is what is being punished here.
My concern is not so much with the conviction – there was an offence in not declaring work, even if it does come from confusion – but with what happened next. High Court guidelines specify that cases of social security fraud should lead to imprisonment where people have claimed substantial amounts of benefits they were not entitled to. Mr Yuill was sent to prison for five months. There’s something deeply wrong here. A first time offender in his sixties, in poor health, makes an unwise claim and goes to prison for it. This can’t be in anyone’s interests. The fault lies in the High Court guidelines, and they should be changed.