Social Security: Field lays blame on Thatcher for DSS fraud

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The Independent Online
social security benefits fraud, now put at pounds 4bn a year, was given a damaging boost by Thatcherism, Frank Field, the Social Security Minister, said yesterday.

Writing in the latest edition of Tribune, the left-wing weekly, Mr Field said: "The legacy of Thatcherism has been doubly damaging. Not only have working-class communities themselves been under attack as jobs have been lost and opportunities diminished, but the individualistic morality inherent in the Thatcherite ethos has also undermined the necessary disapproval of dishonest, community-wrecking behaviour, such as benefit fraud."

Mr Field said that a "cultural shift" was needed to restore the sense that the money being defrauded from the system was not coming from some remote state machine, but was taken from the pockets and purses of everyone else through direct and indirect taxation.

Creating that change of attitude was "the key to a successful reduction in losses to fraud," Mr Field said, and that was a challenge for everyone, not just government.

But the minister, who has always been regarded with some suspicion by the Labour left, Tribune's traditional readership, also directly challenged the view that fraud crackdowns were directed at the most vulnerable people in society.

"Fraud undermines the notion of reciprocal duties which underpins the welfare state," Mr Field said. "It erodes the common decencies of honesty and thrift which are the cornerstones of a civilised society. That is why anyone on the political left should be concerned about it - as well as concerned about the rights of genuine claimants.

"It used to be politically incorrect in the Labour Party to be against benefit fraud, though never, I am certain, among our supporters in the country as a whole. It is a sign that we have come of age as a party that tackling benefit fraud is now a mainstream concern."

The March White Paper on welfare reform, he said, produced a long-term, cost-effective campaign plan based on improved detection, more effective deterrence, and better prevention methods, to curb the pounds 4bn fraud bill - "enough to give every family with children an extra pounds 10 a week".

But, Mr Field told Tribune,while new fraud teams, new methods, new penalties and new benefits were vital to reduce the social injustice of benefit fraud, there were limits to what government could do. "The most effective deterrent to benefit fraud is peer and community pressure," he said. That was not stated in the White Paper section on "more effective deterrence" of fraud.

He also said yesterday that while some benefit fraud was big business, with recent cases showing two families defrauding the system of pounds 2.3m, cumulative losses were greater from small-scale benefit fraud.

The low-level fiddles were mostly committed "by people who work while on benefit or cohabit while claiming as a single parent", Mr Field said. The message had to be clear: "Money taken by the dishonest is money lost by the honest."