Monday, September 2, 2013

The Pernicious War on the Poor

"Ignorance is an evil weed, which dictators may cultivate among their dupes, but which no democracy can afford among its citizens" - William Beveridge

"Scratch a pessimist and you find often a defender of privilege" - William Beveridge

In an article worthy of inclusion in the Daily Mail, the UK's Guardian newspaper on Saturday informed its readership of a 'litany of bizarre and audacious' fraudulent benefit claims including tales of an 'evil twin' and a 'woman whose skin color changed'.

In the article, David Freud, minister for welfare reform, is quoted as saying:

"Hardworking taxpayers lost an outrageous £1.2bn in benefit fraud last year. Our investigators are stepping up and taking advantage of the latest technology so fraudsters can be identified, traced and caught. The minority of claimants attempting to siphon off benefit cash need to know our teams are cracking down on them and bare-faced lies are frankly transparent in the face of the evidence."

Highlights:

A claimant in West Lothian tried to explain her false claim by saying: "I needed the money to pay for [a] TV in each of the five bedrooms, as the kids have ADHT (sic) and I have to keep them in." She failed to mention that the children no longer lived with her.

In Liverpool, a claimant insisted that she did not have a relationship with a man who stayed at her home most nights of the week. When it was pointed out that they had three children together in a five-year period, she said: "We're all entitled to a one night stand aren't we?" When reminded that she had three children, she said: "Well a three-night stand then".


Liverpool, eh? Nice touch.

The relentless demonization of benefits claimants - smeared by association with the tiny minority who commit this kind of fraud - is pernicious in the extreme. Six of the UK's largest disability charities (Scope, Mencap, Leonard Cheshire Disability, the National Autistic Society, Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB), and Disability Alliance) report that they are regularly contacted by people who say they are taunted on the street about faking disabilities in order to receive payments and are concerned that this could lead to hate crimes and violence. They blame ministers and civil servants for endlessly highlighting abuse in the system, just as David Freud did. Such statements are dutifully reported in a biased and incendiary fashion throughout the UK's media, with dangerous consequences:

Scope's regular polling of people with disabilities shows that in September two-thirds said they had experienced recent hostility or taunts, up from 41% four months before. In the last poll almost half said attitudes towards them had deteriorated in the past year.

David Gillon from Chatham in Kent, said: "I think we've lost all the progress we made in the last 30 years in terms of acceptance." Gillon, whose chronic back condition forced him to give up a job with British Aerospace, recounts walking on crutches past a pub in the middle of the day and receiving shouts of: "We're going to report you to the DWP." He said: "When there's a bad article in the press, the next day you think, 'Do I really need to go out of the house?' We're being forced back into the attic, locked away from society."


A survey for the Royal Statistical Society and King's College London that serves as a damning indictment of the UK media shows that the British public is woefully misinformed on almost every society issue, particularly those which provide regular fodder for the tabloids: immigration, foreign aid, teen pregnancy and...of course...benefits:

The public think[s] that £24 of every £100 of benefits is fraudulently claimed. Official estimates are that just 70 pence in every £100 is fraudulent - so the public conception is out by a factor of 34.

Reality presents a very different picture, and it is this reality that exposes the agenda of the UK's media and coalition government to focus disproportionately on one tiny aspect of overall fraud. A glance at the contents of the National Fraud Authority's 'Annual Fraud Indicator'(pdf) shows dozens of types of fraud - take a deep breath: council tax fraud, electricity scams, grant fraud, housing tenancy fraud, insurance fraud, staged motor vehicle accidents, mass marketing fraud, mortgage fraud, motor finance fraud, National Savings and Investments fraud, online ticket fraud, patient charges fraud, payroll fraud, pension fraud, private rental property fraud, procurement fraud, recruitment fraud, retail banking fraud, check fraud, online banking fraud, plastic card fraud, telephone banking fraud, student finance fraud, tax credits fraud, tax fraud, telecommunications fraud, television license fee evasion, transport fare evasion and others.

How many of these types of fraud are mentioned daily throughout the UK mass media, often with in-depth exposes of extreme cases presented as mainstream?

Citizens Advice Scotland (CAS) provides a short but useful myth-busting page:

The UK government estimates that total fraud across the whole of the economy amounts to £73 billion a year. UK government figures for 2012 estimate benefits overpaid due to fraud is £1.2 billion and tax credit fraud is £380 million. So just under £1.6 billion in total; less than 1% of the overall benefits and tax credits expenditure and less than benefits underpaid and overpaid due to error.

It's a lot of money, and it’s never right, but unfortunately fraud happens in many walks of life. Sometimes it helps to compare the figures with other fraud or error. More than this amount was overpaid in benefits due to claimant and official error. That was £2.2 billion in 2011/12 and is recovered by the UK Government. Equally claimant and official error led to £1.3 billion benefits being underpaid.

So to get some perspective, benefit fraud represents 2% of the estimated total annual fraud in the UK. Public sector fraud, which includes benefit fraud, is £20.3 billion a year, so within this category it accounts for just under 8%. The majority of this £20 billion is tax fraud which costs the economy £14 billion annually, or 69%. So we can see that both in absolute and percentage terms tax fraud is a much bigger issue than benefit fraud. In fact, out of all the categories of fraud calculated by the UK Government, benefit fraud is the second lowest. Only identity fraud which costs individuals £1.4 billion a year comes below it.


As CAS points out, more than the amount obtained by fraud is actually overpaid due to error on the part of both officials and claimants, while the same mistakes led to £1.3 billion in benefits being underpaid.

How often are these facts relentlessly hammered into the average news consumer's brain?

In a 2011 piece for the Observer, Ian Birrell wrote a thoughtful piece on the issue that expands on some of the consequences of this government and media irresponsibility. More emphasis, however must be put on why this demonization is so useful to the financial and political elites. For instance, by smearing those on benefits as 'scroungers' by association with the small percentage of those who commit fraud, the poor become a useful scapegoat for the deficit and other serious problems with the economy when issues like too-big-to-fail bank bailouts and tax avoidance by the wealthy are in fact culpable:

From an earlier article on this blog:

The reality is that the government could save a great deal more by dealing with tax evasion and avoidance. In this very informative article, we can see that the tax gap, namely the amount of tax evaded, avoided and not collected, is estimated to be over 120 billion pounds.

Tax avoidance is overwhelmingly carried out by the wealthy, aided by clever and very well-paid accountants who take advantage of loopholes in the law.


More:

It is not only the tax gap that can be worked on; huge sums of money are wasted on private consultants in the armed services or in education and multiple other areas, fields that could be easily staffed by the armies of unemployed with proper training.

Even more money is thrown into the totally unnecessary Trident program, not to mention the bottomless hole also known as the Afghanistan War, and let's not forget our proud military adventures in Libya, where we saw costs like 183,000 pounds for a Brimstone missile and 50,000 pounds per Paveway guided bomb (see article for the full scandalous list).


[Note: the previous article on this blog discussed the issue of costs of war or 'intervention' in depth.]

If there really were no agenda in the media to demonize the poor, it would follow that since the size of the tax gap is a hundred times that of benefits fraud, there should be many more articles condemning this intentional subterfuge of the wealthy. That we rarely see such articles, while every other day seems to bring new 'immigrants-living-in-2-million-pound-mansion' stories is smoking-gun proof of a cynical smear campaign against those exercising their legal right to benefit payments.

The pattern of media dialogue is clear: demonization and conflict in every possible arena. Politician A attacks politician B; football manager A has a grudge against football manager B; the establishment condemns 'immoral' celebrity behavior (while simultaneously exploiting it); Jews against Muslims; Republicans versus Democrats; the list is endless - phony conflicts which serve to keep outrage levels high, drive sales and advertizing, and - most importantly - divert the unruly passions of the masses away from banks, corporations and corrupt officials - the entities outrage actually should be directed at.

Wars: the war on the poor along with the 'official' ones - the war on terror and the war on drugs - serve as a smokescreen for a far larger conflict, the only one that matters: that of profit over human well-being. The amoral, unsustainable machine known as consumer capitalism knows no altruism, working only for profit and more profit in order to attract yet more investment and to please shareholders. Until the world comes to regain awareness of this fact and puts people before capital without exception, as it attempted to briefly in the years after World War II with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and - in the UK - the welfare state, inequality, injustice and lawlessness will continue to proliferate, exponentially escalating existential threats like global warming and nuclear war.

The recent victory of the people in the UK against the warmongering establishment with regard to Syria was a promising sign. Social media has made civil organization as well as the dissemination of information feasible on an enormous scale, while more and more high-profile celebrities are beginning to speak up on human rights and corporate criminality, spreading awareness to vast numbers of previously unreachable people - many of whom will begin to investigate these claims for themselves. The real war - the battle for awareness - is well underway.

Written by Simon Wood

@simonwood11

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