Last night’s documentary, On the Fiddle, featured benefit fraud investigators and benefits compliance officers up and down the country whose job it is to uncover those who make fraudulent claims for state benefits. And uncover them they did in one case which I’ll go into more detail about shortly, but for now, suffice to say there was a huge operation to uncover and apprehend the suspect. Fine, ok, and rightly so; he was costing the taxpayer thousands annually and deserved to be caught.
However, the reason this show angered me is because as many revelations about MPs claims for expenses continue to flood the press – which have been proven to be unjustified and often falsely claimed – why aren’t we seeing police and several civil servants kicking in the doors of their homes at 4am in a bid to prove culpability in stealing public money?
How is it that MPs claiming taxpayer’s money for things they aren’t entitled to any different from a member of the public claiming taxpayer’s money that they’re not entitled to?
As far as I’m aware, there have been no police investigations into any of the potentially fraudulent claims from MPs regarding expenses but if you’re a single mother and choose to let a boyfriend stay over without telling the DSS about it, you may well face criminal charges.
How is that right or fair??
One family featured last night were the Murray’s whose daughter Naomi has cerebral palsy, epilepsy and learning difficulties, yet because of the way ‘the system’ works, they have to reclaim every three years. Does the Department for Work and Pensions think cerebral palsy will go away? Do they think people like Naomi may miraculously recover from it? It’s completely ludicrous to put families such as the Murray’s – who are clearly going to need help with Naomi for the rest of her life – through filling out forms the size of a novel every few years.
One of the things that angers me about ‘the system’ – which it appears no human operates and it’s always ‘the system’ that’s blamed when glaringly stupid errors are made – is that kind of thing; naturally, in people with curable illnesses or problems that may get better – such as depression, back problems and so on – there is clearly a need to review claims regularly but for people like the Murray’s, it’s not only ludicrous to make these struggling middle-aged carers go through the endless form filling and medical examinations required to get Disability Living Allowance for their daughter every few years, it’s also cruel.
It might be useful for someone from the DSS to go and spend a day with this family – rather than sitting in a van watching a single mother in case they have a male visitor – and see how much time they might get free to fill out endless forms and lodge appeals. The Murray’s are clearly and obviously not falsely claiming and Naomi will always need care as long as she lives, but of course there are those who do falsely claim, and it’s those people who make it that much harder for genuine claimants.
Now, at this point I would like to be clear on this; I am not defending anyone who falsely claims benefits they aren’t entitled to but to put genuinely deserving cases through that rigmarole is immoral and all the while, someone somewhere is blithely signing cheques to MPs for their guttering to be repaired on a second cousin’s ex-girlfriends dog’s kennel or something equally ridiculous with absolutely no questions asked it would seem.
However, we heard last night that there are of course thousands of people falsely claiming benefits and it’s a huge drain on the taxpayer. Over £12 billion is paid in benefits annually so I’m not disputing that there has to be a system in place to discover who is claiming falsely.
In last night’s programme, we saw the very in depth investigations that take place such as surveillance of a suspect’s home and many officers following them for many days and several officers sitting in vans and cars watching and waiting to accumulate evidence. Again, obviously this is sometimes a necessary part of catching false claimants, but that said, in this particular case, the surveillance of the suspect was in order to catch him in the act of using an ATM to withdraw money which would therefore suggest he was the UK link to an organised benefit fraud. His actually being seen to be using an ATM was pivotal to proving his guilt.
My question about that is, why couldn’t the benefit fraud investigators have simply obtained CCTV from banks where it was known this man obtained cash rather than trailing him around for days, using several investigators and costing several thousands of pounds? It’s a rare day nowadays when ATMs aren’t covered by CCTV and the investigating team were even able to obtain this man’s bank account details and statements, so why spend days following him around when a simple correlation of times of withdrawals and the accompanying CCTV would have given them what they needed – namely, photographs or moving images of this man withdrawing cash?
The story behind this particular man was that he and various members of his family had been claiming benefits for themselves but also for their father, but the father had been dead for seven years. However, investigators believed the majority of the family were living in Sicily which meant they were not entitled to UK benefits and obviously, they weren’t entitled to benefits for a long deceased father.
It turned out that the investigators were right; one member of the family, Francesco, lived in Britain and collected, then distributed, all his and his family’s benefits – including those of his dead father – and was apprehended after surveillance for several days from the benefit fraud squad.
Clearly, this had been an intentional and well organised fraud and it is this type of false claiming that means that many thousands of people who are genuinely in need of benefits and state assistance are treated like criminals.
We also saw ‘Compliance officer’ Chris visiting primarily single mothers to investigate whether or not they had partners they hadn’t declared as living with them. One woman said her boyfriend stayed over four nights a week, another said that she and her boyfriend were currently discussing the prospect of living together and if they did, she would no longer be entitled to benefits.
Again, just to illustrate my annoyance over this programme, a headline in today’s Telegraph reads like this: “Bill Cash, a senior Conservative MP, claimed more than £15,000 in taxpayer-funded expenses to pay his daughter rent for her London flat – even though he owned a home closer to Westminster.”
Is Mr Cash currently under arrest for falsely claiming public money? No, he is not.
Other headlines revealing MPs false/fraudulent claims have been MPs claiming for homes they no longer live in, for work carried out that never happened, for relatives who were supposedly working for them but were not. You can see the Telegraph’s coverage of just who claimed what here.
In the case of the Italian family who were falsely claiming, the investigators from the benefit fraud office carried out several raids on several homes simultaneously, with a police presence at each address, and found all the proof they needed that Francesco and his family were falsely claiming. Let me stress again, I have no quibble with the fact this man and his siblings deserved to be caught and prosecuted, but what I do have argument with is that MPs are not being treated in the same way, even though they are committing the same crime.
Benefit fraud and false expenses claims all come out of the taxpayer’s pocket, but it seems if you’re an MP, it’s ok to simply apologise and acknowledge the error of your ways and stop attending cocktail parties for a while until it’s all died down. If you’re a benefit cheat, you face a prison sentence.
How can that possibly be fair, right and justifiable? We’d be interested to hear your thoughts on these subjects too, please.