The obsession with fraud is not new

A little bit of myth-making, this time about social security fraud.  Zoe Williams writes in today’s Guardian:

Even in the darkest days of me-first Thatcherism, the social security conversation hinged on whether or not the dole was enough to provide a decent life.  … the question of fraud rarely came up.

In fact, the obsession with fraud pre-dates Thatcherism.  Golding and Middleton’s book, Images of welfare, published in 1982, attributed the start of the moral panic about fraud to reporting of the Deevy case in 1976, but it started some time before that.  I’d date it from the publication of Robin Page’s exposé in the Spectator on 6 September 1969.  The article was syndicated in the News of the World (two weeks running) and questions were raised in Parliament.  In 1971, Keith Joseph set up the Fisher Committee on the abuse of benefits, which reported in 1973.   When the Thatcher government came into power, one of the first steps in this field, taken early in 1980, was massively to inflate the fraud figures.  (Reg Prentice explained to Parliament that higher figures were used by ‘large commercial organisations’ but said there was no reason to do any work to check that assumption.)

The obsession with fraud has been poisoning the system for decades, and there is no evidence that anti-fraud measures have done anything to improve the situation – the auditors haven’t fully approved the DWP accounts for years.  There is an alternative. The estimates for fraud and error in the State Pension suggest overpayments of 0.1%; the estimates for Pension Credit, a benefit which goes to more or less the same group of people, comes to 5.6% – more than fifty times as much.  If the government was serious about reducing fraud and error, they should look at systems which deliver benefits accurately and efficiently without it.

2 comments

  1. Glenn Middleton

    Fraud is a problem, but overblown. As you point out, if systems were in place to catch people, it wouldn’t be a problem.

    • Paul Spicker

      The problem is consistently exaggerated – the official figures lump error together with fraud, and fraud is much the lesser part. My point was not, however, that we should do more to catch people, a strategy that causes more problems than it solves, but that if we designed the systems differently we wouldn’t need to.

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