Tough on fraud, tough on ...

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In the past year, a remarkable transformation has taken place in attitudes to benefit fraud. Previously, the Conservatives tended to claim there was a lot of it, but did nothing much about it. Labour and the Liberal Democrats tended to argue that there wasn't much, and that what there was did not greatly matter. Benefits, as Peter Lilley has observed, are not over-generous; if the jobless and helpless who stood little chance of a job were making a bit on the side, good luck to them.

Suddenly, all that has changed. Labour vies with the Conservatives to condemn it. When Mr Lilley recently announced a major anti-fraud drive, the response from Donald Dewar, Labour's social security spokesman, was not to warn of benefit snoopers harassing honest claimants, but to ask why it had taken the Conservatives 16 years to do something about it.

What has prompted these changes? First, there is now better evidence that social security fraud is not tiny. Peter Lilley linked his announcement to publication of research suggesting that one in 10 income support claims was fraudulent - and that fraud in income support and unemployment benefit alone is costing the taxpayer pounds 1.4bn a year.

Second, organised crime has moved into benefit fraud. A string of court cases has highlighted systematic abuse, from multiple claims for fictitious asylum-seekers to gangs printing forged benefit books.

Third, we have all become that much harder. An ancient and far-from-admirable British instinct has resurfaced. Many more people than in the immediate post-war years are prepared to attempt a distinction between the deserving and the undeserving poor.

Fourth, there is probably more benefit fraud now than there was. There are no figures to prove this, only instinct. But after 15 years during which unemployment has run permanently above 1.5 million and at times 3 million, dependence on benefit has become institutionalised for growing numbers of people. They rip off the system because it is what they know. Add to that the familiar contours of the growing divide between the haves and have nots, plus a culture of personal and corporate greed, and it is hardly surprising if some of the dispossessed use the entrepreneurial skills shunned by employers to work the system instead.

Only those with a cavalier attitude towards public finance will oppose tackling fraud wherever it can be found. But alongside this tough approach should go others: revamping the benefit system so that it works with the grain of human nature rather than against it; and supporting people in and into work, rather than simply paying them benefit on condition they stay out of it.