Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Benefit Cheats or Witch Hunts?

ISLANDERS are being encouraged to shop benefit cheats through a new confidential phone line and website.
In a bid to crack down on benefit fraudsters, the Social Security Department has this morning launched a  multimedia campaign to tackle the problem. Three full-time staff have been employed in the department's fraud team and will start visiting claimant's houses to check on their existing claims and circumstances. The department hopes to claw back at least £400,000 through the campaign, which will be used to fund the new staff members. 'Benefit cheats will not be tolerated,' Social Security Minister Ian Gorst said. 'By introducing these new measures, the department is sending out a clear message that it will ensure value for money for hard-working taxpayers.' (1)

I've looked at the online forms for reporting benefit thieves, and they fill me with a degree of disquiet, basically because of the mechanisms, or rather the failure of mechanisms in place to detect false accusations.

"If you think someone is committing benefit theft you can report them online"

What is really of most concern is the section on "Your details", which says:

The information you have provided is strictly confidential. You do not need to tell us who you are, but if you would like our investigators to be able to contact you for more information, please tell us (2)

Now why this causes me disquiet is that history is full of examples of neighbours settling scores with people whom they have grudges against by spreading malicious gossip. One has only to look at the McCarthy Communist Hunt of America, or the Witch Trials across Europe and in Jersey. As Edward Bever noted about the Witch Trials:

"Recent investigations have emphasized that the women most likely to be accused of witchcraft tended not to be poor, marginal outsiders, but integral members of their communities: married, not single; part of the broad middling peasantry, not the poorest of the poor. Certainly some witch accusations stemmed from conflicts between poor old widows and their better off neighbours, but others involved well-to-do women accused by poorer villagers, and still others, probably the majority, involved people of roughly equal station. The conflicts were often economic, but they could arise from a wide variety of interpersonal conflicts. Indeed nearly every human relationship which went wrong might lead to a charge of witchcraft. "

Replace "accused of witchcraft" with "accused of benefit fraud", and you can see the dangerous effects that accusations, especially anonymous accusations, can have when people are jealous or have grudges against other people - they "must" be benefit thieves because they are "better off neighbours" than we are! I know of at least one individual who was false accused - not of benefit fraud - but of vandalising flower beds in a States Housing Estate. They were completely innocent, but once accusations start being made, and a whispering campaign gets going, it picks up a momentum all of its own.

A small Island community, like Jersey, is especially prone to such a "grapevine", and once that gets onto an official form - and with the benefit of secrecy for the person making the accusation - it will cause trouble.

And of course, the UK is littered with examples of this - here is a typical example:

I'm a single mum, I've been a single mum for a year now , lived with my parents for the first 6 months then got my own place from the council. This morning I had a knock at my door, hello I'm from the DWP can I come on so we can have a word about your claim ??? They had an anonymous tip off that my ex was living with me, they were told in October he'd already been living here for 3-4 months  I know who did it too > the thing is though, its totally unfounded, he doesn't live here, yes he visits and sometimes stays for tea but that's because we've kept it amicable for the sake of the children. My word is not enough though and they are now about to start more investigations, what I want to know is what will they look at and what are my rights under the the human rights act? (3)

The strains of the welfare system in the UK have been well documented by David Vincent who gives an example of Ernie Benson (from the autobiography by Benson, "To Struggle is to Live: A Working Class Autobiography"):

Yet just as gossip was a means of both resolving and generating conflict amongst hard-pressed families, so the new welfare system both consolidated and fractured the unity of the poor locality. Whilst households struggled to conceal their secrets, their neighbours secretly attempted to expose them. Ernie Benson recounted a particular interrogation about his spare-time activities:

'Well I have a letter here which says you do quite a fair amount of boot repairing for other people,' and he held up an envelope with a letter inside. 'That's interesting. Can I have a look at it?.' 'No, you can't.' 'Who is the writer?' 'I won't tell you that.' 'Is it an anonymous letter?' 'Yes' he admitted. 'Well, in that case chuck it in there' I said, indicating the waste paper basket. 'I can't do that, I must place it before the committee. (4)

Vincent notes that this is nothing new - anonymous letters had been a stock in trade for making false accusations for centuries, but at times of high unemployment, the welfare system brought out a new social strain between what was seen as "the deserving and undeserving poor":

The unsigned letter to those in authority, which a century earlier had been a device for collectively threatening the well-being of the privileged, was now a means of individually endangering the last resources of the deprived. In essence, the National Insurance system was a means of redistributing resources within the working class. Those in work made an enforced and rising contribution to those out of work, placing an inevitable strain on structures of mutual sympathy and trust. The common currency of gossip--who had found what new job, who was sharing whose bed, who had purchased which new commodity-suddenly became charged with an official significance. Too indignant to let an unjustified advantage pass, but too ashamed to make an open report, someone along the street wrote anonymously to the inspectors. (4)

One notable example of anonymous accusations, of course, stands out in Jersey. During the German Occupation, anonymous letters were sent to the Germans denouncing people for having radio sets, or hiding slave-workers etc. The presentation of an opportunity to settle old scores may be too good for people to miss, especially as there is no need to declare who you are:

Some locals settled old scores by sending anonymous letters to German officials about their neighbours. Jersey Post Office workers did their best to intercept these letters, but a few got through, leading to terrible consequences. (5)

During the middle of the year (1942) there were several cases of homes being searched by the Gendarmerie for radio sets. These searches had been prompted by the receipt of anonymous letters...

There continued a steady stream of arrests for radio and other offences. One person was said to have been found with three sets, cameras, revolver, ammunition and photographs of gun emplacements, etc. As usual, the search was the sequence of an anonymous letter from some "Britisher"! (6)

Now some of the accusations on benefit fraud, although anonymous, may be true, just as some people did keep wireless sets. But presumably they must all be investigated, especially as the site does not say words to the effect that "we need your name but it will be treated with complete confidentially" which would at least deter some of the more specious accusations. And all of the investigations take time and money, and this may well end up with a lot of time spent going down blind alleys because of the acceptance of anonymous tip-offs.

There is also a shift, noted in the BBC Radio 4 programme analysis, to rethink the idea of welfare, and who deserves it, and how much. As the presenter, Chris Bowlby notes:

Recession has sharpened the debate: unemployment rises, but so do welfare payment bills. Those who say the system's  unsustainable seem dominant. (7)

Mark Harrison, Professor of Economics, Warwick University, noted that:

I think of what people call the squeezed middle. There's millions of working families on middle incomes who feel that at present they're not getting what they deserve. They look at the upper ends of the income spectrum and they feel very resentful of bankers' bonuses and MPs' expenses and so on, but they also look at the lower end and they see many people with entitlements that seem to exceed their contributions. (7)

It is here, I think, that the same kind of debate is being played out in Jersey, especially with lurid attention grabbing headlines in the JEP saying that "income support is unsustainable".

Against this kind of thinking, Rowan Williams takes a different note, and warns against making snap moral judgments' about the "lazy poor":

People often are in this starting place not because they're wicked or stupid or lazy, but because circumstances have been against  them, and to drive that spiral deeper does seem a great problem. (7)

I can understand why an honest person who thinks there is serious benefit fraud would not want to have a neighbour whom they are accusing knowing about it, because there could be unrest (and even possibly physical danger) for them in the community in which they live, but I do think they should have to give their name - to be treated in confidence - before any accusation is accepted, as a deterrent against malicious and unfounded accusations. Fling enough mud, and it has an unfortunate habit of sticking, as George Orwell reminds us in "Burmese Days":

'Well, Kin Kin,' he said, 'you see how it has all gone according to plan! Eighteen anonymous letters already, and every one of them a masterpiece. I would repeat some of them to you if I thought you were capable of appreciating them.'

'But supposing the Europeans take no notice of your anonymous letters? What then?'

'Take no notice? Aha, no fear of that! I think I know something about the European mentality. Let me tell you, Kin Kin, that if there is one thing I CAN do, it is to write an anonymous letter.'

This was true. U Po Kyin's letters had already taken effect, and especially on their chief target, Mr Macgregor.

The merest breath of suspicion against his loyalty can ruin an Oriental official. Mr Macgregor had too just a nature to condemn even an Oriental out of hand. He had puzzled as late as midnight over a whole pile of confidential papers, including the five anonymous letters he had received, besides two others that had been forwarded to him by Westfield, pinned together with a cactus thorn.

George Orwell, Burmese Days

(1) http://www.thisisjersey.com/2011/03/14/new-team-targets-the-benefit-cheats/
(2) http://www.gov.je/Benefits/BenefitFraud/Pages/ReportBenefitThiefForm.aspx
(3) http://forums.moneysavingexpert.com/showthread.php?p=9252329
(4) The Culture of Secrecy: Britain, 1832-1998,  David Vincent, 1998
(5) http://jersey.com/English/discoverjersey/exhibitions/resistance/Pages/default.aspx
(6) http://www.tonylesauteur.com/swas28.htm
(7) http://news.bbc.co.uk/nol/shared/spl/hi/programmes/analysis/transcripts/15_11_10.txt

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The witch hunt and call for denunciations is all part of the Right's assault of the welfare state in general. They start by isolating those on benefits from the sympathy of the rest of society. It is purely ideological. Senator Ben Shenton's comments on CTV about the "dole" and "benefits culture" reflect the posturing of a poltician seeking reelection knowing well that his target voters share these prejudices against the poor. This is pure Daily Mail.

Gorst kicked off with the policy of chasing benefit thieves, Shenton echoed the sentiment and adds his own prejudices and now Senator McClean gets one in against unemployed youth. This all orchestrated by the JEP to frighten the poor and divide society.

Welfare is an essential manifestation of solidarity across society. We must fight back against these assults on the working class. Do I hear any politicians speaking out in defence of the poor? So called progressives?