It's time to bust some myths about benefit fraud and tax evasion

Get angry about people playing the system by all means, but start at the top and work your way down if you expect to be taken seriously

Share

The rich will only work if you give them money and the poor will only do so if you take it away. Those words might as well be emblazoned across the foreheads of every member of the government, for underneath the facade of compassionate conservatism this appears to be what many on the front bench genuinely believe

Imagine the reaction of the Conservative Party if someone committed benefit fraud on the scale of former Take That star Gary Barlow’s recently reported tax avoidance. Even Labour shadow ministers would be muttering under their breath about the benefits system being there only for those who ‘really need it’.

As it is, the worst Barlow can expect is a cold shoulder from the Prime Minister when the time comes to send out invitations for the Number 10 summer garden party. It’s a cliché to say that there is one rule for the rich and one for everyone else, but when punishment means little more than missing out on Downing Street canapés, how else do we explain this thundering double standard?

Indeed, despite tabloid headlines about a feckless underclass intent on milking the benefits system, tax evasion is a far bigger social scourge than fraudulent benefit claims. Just 0.7 per cent - or £1.2bn - of total benefit expenditure in 2012/13 was overpaid due to fraud. This compares with £5bn a year that the government loses through tax avoidance.

In other words, for every £1 swallowed up by benefit fraud, £4 disappears because of people like Gary Barlow. Get angry about people playing the system by all means, but start at the top and work your way down if you expect to be taken seriously.

Our double standard doesn’t only result in a financial burden for the taxpayer. Public misconceptions are also having serious social consequences: there are ominous signs we no longer even view those at the bottom of society as human beings at all. How else would it be thinkable for organisations and councils to deploy ‘spikes’ in doorways to deter homeless people from bedding down for the night? As one Twitter user put it, “the destitute are now considered vermin”.

And yet it isn’t only the homeless who are increasingly considered social outcasts - tolerated but essentially despicable. Benefit claimants have felt this way ever since Iain Duncan Smith got his feet under the table at the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) and introduced his pointless but cruel Work Programme, modelled on earlier reforms carried out in the United States under Bill Clinton.

American Welfare to Work reforms were supposed to dish out some much needed ‘tough love’ to recipients of state money. And yet despite the lofty claims of Clinton to have dragged the formerly unemployable into the middle classes, once they took effect there was a “huge spike in extreme poverty, defined as the number of households making under $2 a day”, according to the Washington Post.

In the UK, Jobcentres appear to have been instructed by the DWP that if someone says they are too ill to work, it is best to assume that they are lying. As a result, the stories of ruined lives are rapidly mounting up.

Take Annette Francis, a mother who suffered from severe mental illness and who died penniless after her benefits were stopped. And then there’s Mark Wood, an Aspergers sufferer from David Cameron’s constituency who starved to death after his benefits were cut. Or Brian McArdle, a partially blind and paralysed man who died the day after his disability benefits were stopped due to a fatal heart attack caused, his relatives say, by stress related to the decision.

Perhaps it really was technically the right decision to cut these people’s benefits; but what about the moral consideration? And why risk it at all if it isn’t even likely to work? Figures from IDS’ own department show that just 4 per cent of people on the Work Programme have found jobs afterwards.

An increasing number of people in Britain are living on the edge and that edge is getting narrower and more precarious. A million people used a food bank last year – the ‘tip of the iceberg’, according to the Trussell Trust. Rough sleeping, the scourge of the 1980s, is back with a vengeance, increasing by 60 per cent in London alone since 2011. Over 1 million people - 4 per cent of the workforce - are now on precarious zero-hour contracts, leading a hand to mouth existence and very often prevented by their employer from seeking alternative work due to a Dickensian rule called an ‘exclusivity clause’.

We accept all of this, and we accept too that if a person slips off the edge and finds themselves penniless in the seventh richest country in the world they should expect demeaning work assessments and hostile shards of metal in doorways, deployed to shoo off the human debris of our increasingly callous society.

In David Cameron’s Britain it would be untrue to say that only the homeless are treated like vermin. Anyone can qualify, just so long as they are unlucky enough.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Lead Application Developer

£80000 - £90000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: I am current...

Senior Networks Architect

£65000 per annum + 15% Pension, Health, Travel & Bonus: Progressive Recruitmen...

SAP BW/BO Consultant

£55000 - £65000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: SAP BW/BO CONSU...

Hydraulic Power Pack Design Engineer

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: I recruit for contract mechanical design...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

How silly of me to assume it was Israeli bombs causing all the damage in Gaza

Mark Steel
 

Careful, Mr Cameron. Don't flirt with us on tax

Chris Blackhurst
Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

In grandfather's footsteps

5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

Martha Stewart has flying robot

The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

A tale of two presidents

George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

The dining car makes a comeback

Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

Gallery rage

How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

Eye on the prize

Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

Women's rugby

Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup
Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

We will remember them

Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

Acting in video games gets a makeover

David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices