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25 April 2023

Why the trope of the benefit “scrounger” has returned

Welfare minister Tom Pursglove quotes Taken to try to sound tough on welfare “fraudsters”.

By Anoosh Chakelian

Everything is dark. A siren yelps, drums kick in, police in riot helmets march up a stairwell, and a man – his head out of shot – zips up a black stab vest marked “DWP”.

It’s Tom Pursglove, a Tory minister of the Matt Hancock aesthetic (Foxtons Tintin), tabard strapped over his suit, standing beside a tree. Brow furrowed, he quasi-quotes Liam Neeson’s ex-CIA maverick in the 2008 film Taken: “We will track you down. We will find you. And we will bring you to justice.”

More footage of headlessness ensues. The torsos of DWP and Met officers on a dawn raid, tracking down a benefit “cheat”; the suspect’s wrists in cuffs; the hands of an elderly couple (deserving benefits claimants, presumably) resting sorrowfully in their laps. Pursglove, the minister for disabled people, health and work, pops up again, with his face, to explain: “We are determined to crack down on benefit fraudsters.”

This is the Department for Work and Pensions’ latest campaign warning against welfare fraud. It was tweeted from the department’s account last Thursday morning, with a take-on-Taken caption: “At DWP we have a very particular set of skills that we use in conjunction with the police to tackle fraud.”

It was later deleted, and tweeted again two days later with a less aggressive message. (I’ve asked why the original was deleted, but haven’t had an answer.)

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The focus on benefit cheats is disproportionate to the reality. Fraud amounted to just 3 per cent of welfare payments in 2020-21, or £6.5bn. This looks even less significant when you compare it with tax fraud: the “tax gap” between what is owed and what is collected (of which fraud is a large part) is at 5.1 per cent, costing the government £42bn a year. Fraudulent Covid loans, meanwhile, cost the UK £17bn – most of which the government does not expect to recover.

Nevertheless, the government wants to draw attention to this small dishonest minority. Lee Anderson, the deputy Conservative Party chairman, has even accused Britons of “abusing” food banks, by treating them as “the weekly shop” then going to McDonald’s “two or three times a week”.

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Labour’s shadow ministers usually say very little about welfare these days (one figure with knowledge of the party’s work on economic policy accused it of having “no welfare policy” to me recently). Yet they too have recently focused on fraud: this month Jonathan Ashworth, the shadow work and pensions secretary, accused the government of failing to crack down on welfare fraud and error.

The myth of the benefit scrounger – and “strivers versus skivers” – feels quite retro. It reminds me of politics a decade or so ago: a time of tabloid obsession with “chavs” and “cheats”, and a snobby reality TV culture epitomised by Channel 4’s Benefits Street.

New Labour, preoccupied with “sick note Britain”, even considered sending mystery shoppers into GP surgeries to check whether absence slips were handed out too freely. In the coalition years George Osborne contrasted “the shift-worker, leaving home in the dark hours of the early morning” with “their next door neighbour sleeping off a life on benefits”.

Why is this vision of Britain returning to political discourse?

To be generous, “eliminating fraud” – whether it’s tax or welfare – is the go-to for any government or opposition without much money to spend. (I can’t count the number of things Ed Miliband said he’d fund by “cracking down on tax avoidance” when he led Labour.)

Then, there is the fact that benefit fraud has risen significantly lately. Last year, the Public Accounts Committee found that “levels of fraud and error in benefit expenditure are unacceptably high” – with overpayments via both fraud and error rising from 4.7 per cent in 2019-20 to 7.6 per cent in 2021-22. Wasteful government spending is a major part of Labour’s attacks – in the hope of holding Rishi Sunak, as chancellor in the Covid era, responsible.

But attacking benefit fraud is also a dogwhistle to voters that this is the party of “working people”. Pitting people on low incomes against one another (particularly when there is less to go round, and given the human tendency to resent those with marginally more than us) has worked electorally in the past. There is clearly a hope here that playing this same old tabloid tune will work again.

Voters do bring these prejudices up, still. But public sympathies have been shifting. Attitudes towards the unemployed had already become more liberal before the pandemic started and this shift continued throughout the crisis. Furlough was essentially a welfare scheme by another name, and over half a million new people began claiming universal credit during the pandemic.

The proportion who agreed that most unemployed people could find a job if they really wanted one had fallen from 69 per cent in 2005 to 51 per cent in 2019, according to British Social Attitudes surveys; in the latest survey it was at 42 per cent, its lowest point since 1996.

[See also: Why Jeremy Hunt’s Budget welfare reforms won’t work]

In 2007 just 7 per cent of people named benefits for the unemployed as one of their top two priorities for extra government spending. By 2018 this had risen to 15 per cent, while in the 2021 British Social Attitudes survey it was chosen by nearly a quarter of respondents (24 per cent).

Prior to the pandemic there had already been a sharp fall – from 77 per cent in 2011 to 50 per cent in 2019 – in the proportion who felt benefits for the unemployed were “too high”, and therefore discouraged people from working, rather than felt they were too low and caused hardship. By 2021, for the first time since 2000, the latter view was the most popular of the two attitudes towards welfare – with just 45 per cent saying benefits were too high and disincentivised finding a job.

The question will be whether government rhetoric – and shonky online DWP ads – can drag this shift the opposite way.

A DWP spokesperson said: “We make no apology for using our channels to both deter fraudsters and reassure the public that we are using every tool in our armoury to protect taxpayers’ money.”

[See also: The Tories’ privatisation of welfare is a catastrophe for the poorest]

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