A just punishment?

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.

Golden oldies

I’m delighted to see that P J Proby has been acquitted of social security fraud. I’m reminded irresistibly of a series of decisions in the 70s and 80s about the replacement of trousers, especially focusing on what was “normal wear and tear.” Examples include a parliamentary debate or the Commissioners’ decision in R(SB) 33/85, when the hapless claimant needing new trousers complained “I felt as if I was on trial for some criminal offence”.

The seam connecting these points will probably only be visible to those over 50. There’s a place for us.

New fraud figures

A new government report explains that fraud costs the public sector £21.2bn a year. It claims that “The majority of the fraud loss is due to fraud against the tax and benefits systems”. That presumably is why Panorama recently mis-reported benefit fraud as being £22 billion. What the report’s introduction does not explain – and what the statement disguises – is that the benefits systems does not belong with the larger figure at all. Tax fraud is estimated at £15 billion; the next largest loss is through procurement fraud, at £2.4 billion; and benefit and tax credit fraud together come to £1.5 billion. Annex 1 has the estimates.

Mis-reporting fraud

The BBC has been making some seriously misleading statements about fraud. A recent Panorama programme took people parking in “disabled” spaces and failing to occupy social housing as evidence of fraud. One claimant was filmed cycling; one was playing golf; another was gardening. People who claim incapacity benefit can indeed be found on occasion to take physical exercise. That is not evidence that their claim is fraudulent. People with mental illness, for example, may be fully able to use their bodies. People with restricted mobility may well be encouraged by their doctors to take exercise. The benefits are about the ability to work, not to walk. And people might have some personal wealth; some of the benefits are not means tested.

The bullying, censorious tone is made worse by mispresentation – for example the claim that fraud is costing £22 billion, when the DWP estimate for fraud is £1.2 billlion. The figures are reviewed by Ben Baumberg in a lucid posting at this address. For a more detailed consideration, view the sample chapter from How Social Security Works.