Record levels of benefits cheating and over-payment have apparently been uncovered by the Audit Commission.

Around £140m of fraud or over-payments have been detected in England by the biennial AC study, including £24m in housing benefit overpayment and fraud, a rise of 26% since the last report.

The Commission said some cases had been “blatant and shocking”, but councils insist they are cracking down on illegality.

The release of the study comes less than 24 hours after a former mayor of Pembroke was given a suspended jail term for claiming mobility and care allowances despite officiating in 67 football matches as either a referee or linesman.

The case of Keith McNiffe certainly adds weight to the findings of the study by the Commission, which has released other examples of blatant fraud.

The Government has launched a wide-ranging consultant on the future of welfare and benefits in the UK.

It will publish a Green Paper setting out a range of options to reduce welfare dependency and support more people into work, provide greater support and control for disabled people and strengthen parental responsibility. This paper will be open for a full public consultation, the results of which will feed into a Bill this autumn.

Undoubtedly, there is a continuing problem of fraud and over-payment and the system needs to be overhauled.

But all too often the focus remains on the blatant cheats and criminals making money from the system. Despite the fact that they represent a small number compared to those legitimately claiming benefits, too often everyone is lumped together to paint a picture of widespread fraud.

I find it worrying that the focus at present appears to be “getting those on benefits back into work”, with very little acknowledgement of how unrealistic that aim is for so many legitimate claimants.

Little wonder that campaigners such as Benefits and Work have reacted critically to this trend to demonise benefit claimants. Luckily it seems prepared to keep on fighting even if the Government treats its observations, suggestions and concerns with contempt.

As ever, my eyes have been opened to this issue thanks to personal experience. Having recently helped to complete an application for Disability Living Allowance I know the number of hoops you have to jump through in order to claim benefits.

So for every individual fraud detected, it would be interesting to know how many legitimate claims are won on appeal after initially being denied?

The far more telling statistic is the one that is possibly the hardest to calculate. For every cheating former mayor, how many people with genuine claims simply give up on the system and don’t even both to submit a claim because of the number of obstacles put in their way?

Getting the long-term sick into work is an admirable aim, within reason. But the gung-ho approach and sensationalist rhetoric is completely out of touch with the stark reality faced by tens of thousands of people for a wide variety of reasons.

One size never fits all. That is true for so many things in life and yet it seems that is the philosophy behind the Government’s plans to overhaul the system.

Highlighting the fraudsters is all very well, but those who are being cheated by the current system and the ill-considered proposals for change are those who can least afford it and who invariably don’t have a loud enough voice.

The politics of welfare has got increasingly nasty over the last 12 months with little (if any) thought given to those unwittingly and undeservedly caught in the middle.


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