Letter: Spying, spite and social cohesion

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The Independent Online
Sir: Peter Lilley's encouragement for neighbours to inform on each other in the hope of reducing benefit fraud may achieve his objective but it will be at considerable cost, which he may not have fully understood ("Watching me, watching you", 6 August). I am concerned by the long-term consequences of undermining local social cohesion by encouraging spite, jealousy, hypocrisy, vindictiveness and smug self-righteousness.

After a decade of research on the informal economy in one locality, I would be the first to admit that fiddling takes place. However, I have been impressed by the innate decency and the sense of fair play among most of those who feel obliged to cheat in order to get a little extra money to kit their children out at school or not to lose face at a family function. When decent jobs offering fair rates of pay are available, the overwhelming majority of fiddlers are only too eager to stop their risky practices. There is now much other sociological research, mostly government funded, to support this.

There is, of course, a small minority of skilled criminals who systematically defraud the benefit system. It is in everyone's interest to apprehend such people. However, the price of the new measures is too high. There is a whole range of costs associated with a loss of social cohesion which reduces the solidarity on which much of our social and political life depends. People want decent jobs not indecent spying.

Professor RAY PAHL

University of Essex