There is something gratifying about the difficulty faced by authorities in getting people to grass someone up. It starts at school, when frustrated teachers march up and down in front of a class, growling: "Come on, someone must know who let a puma loose in the science lab."
But no one ever snitches. So what chance has the Government got with this peculiar advertising campaign encouraging us to shop people who are working and signing on? One of the TV adverts shows a bloke, who's claiming the dole, receiving cash for labouring on the side. Then he goes down the pub and, claiming he's skint, gets his mates to buy him a drink. Which would make sense if the voiceover went: "If you're fiddling the social, make sure that you buy your mates a drink. Remember buy your round and they're sure to stay sound. If you're fiddling the state, don't cheat on your mate."
Instead it seems to be implying that we should grass up dole cheats because they're the same people who never get a drink in. But swiping a few quid off the government and being mean in the pub are two separate issues that the advert has somehow fused together. They might as well show someone making a false benefit claim and then going home and throwing a hamster off the roof, while a caption says: "If you know someone stealing benefits, don't hesitate to ring the RSPCA."
To prove this isn't an isolated mistake, how about the other advert, in which a hairdresser returns to her salon 10 minutes late after illegally signing on, because she went to buy some shoes as well. What are they trying to say? Presumably that hairdressers claiming the dole should go from the job centre straight back to the salon. Shampoo those roots before buying your boots with that fraudulent loot.
Where this notion departs even further from reality is that it's virtually impossible to work such a fiddle now. Gone are the days when unemployment meant sinking into a lethargic trance, in which you got up later and later, so that your sleep spread through the day like gangrene and friends would tell your relatives sombrely: "He's lost all use of the hours before one o'clock, and he may soon lose the use of the whole of the afternoon."
Now there are Restart schemes and weekly interviews and work experience. To claim benefit you're interrogated with a series of rapid questions, and you only have to give one wrong answer to be disqualified. So it's like playing that game on the telly where you're not allowed to say yes or no. "Were you available for work last Tuesday?"
"All day Tuesday?"
"Are you sure?"
"Even when on the toilet?"
Gong! "Ah, you were on the toilet, so you can't have been available for work. No benefits for you then. And the next one please."
Stranger still is why the Government should run such a campaign at all, when its own figures suggest that fraudulent benefit claims amount only to 10 per cent of the sum lost in tax fraud.
Shouldn't there be an advert in which a businessmen arrives late for lunch, having spent the morning carrying expenses forward into the following tax year. And, when the bill arrives, says: "Could I have a sub, I appear to have lost my credit card?"
On top of this, businessmen have accountancy, an entire industry dedicated to finding legal loopholes so that even less tax can be paid. Imagine if there were offices in every high street boasting that they could drastically increase your benefits, where a chap in a suit opened your folder, pulled musty books from a shelf and beamed that you could claim an extra score a week if you registered an address in Guernsey and had your giro paid into a unit trust.
But the encouraging part is that propaganda rarely works. A few curtain-twitchers may get their hair permed every day until a hairdresser arrives 10 minutes late, then put them in an arm-lock and yell "Book her", but most people will continue to hold the grass in lower regard than the grassed. Just as, whenever that announcement is made on the Underground that no one should give money to beggars, several people who wouldn't have done otherwise, thrust their change at a tramp as a petty act of defiance.
For if the Government is sincere, where's the advert in which Cabinet members are implored to shop their colleagues if they find them slapping up wallpaper worth four hundred quid a roll? Or one in which an earnest and slightly sinister narrator says: "Last year domes cost this country hundreds of millions of pounds. That's why we all need to keep a look out. If you see a dome emerging in your area, don't hesitate to ring this number and be proud to perform your duty as a citizen."
The Mark Steel Lecture can be heard on Radio 4 on Tuesdays at 6.30 pmReuse content