Benefit Fraud – the greatest swindle of all (part one)

Benefit Fraud. A huge problem that has bankrupted the country, carried out by nasty, cunning criminals living large on our tax payments having 5 holidays in the Bahamas per year while we the great and good work ourselves to an early grave paying for it all. Right? Wrong! Oh, there has been a swindle alright. A huge swindle of epic proportions. And it is this. We have been lied to. Successive governments have repeatedly and unrelentingly lied to us, through implication, omission and outright falsehood. They told us about a problem that does not exist. And while they lied, they stole our welfare state, convincing us it was all for our own good, to solve this big, non-existent ‘problem’.

How has this happened? Well, first of all, if you tell a lie often enough, people come to believe it. Secondly, if you include numbers, it makes it all sound much more ‘valid’ and ‘factual’ so people accept it as fact, without really thinking what those numbers actually mean. Most numbers are truly only useful in comparison. And almost any person without a degree in maths is particularly poor at understanding either very big numbers, or very small numbers. An average person has no difficulty understanding the value of 10 or 100 or even 1000 because these are figures that we can attach real understanding to. Ten pounds will buy me a cinema ticket and a bottle of coke to drink in the cinema. Or top up my phone. 100 pounds will pay my electricity bill. 1000 pounds will pay my rent. But a million pounds? I don’t know what I’d do with a million pounds, because it is far outside my experience, and a figure I find it hard to imagine for real. How about a billion? Intellectually, in one way I know that a billion is one thousand millions, but still I find it challenging to actually think about that much. In fact, almost all humans are incredibly bad at thinking about really big numbers or amounts. If the telly tells us each evening that something cost a million, or a billion, or a trillion, it really doesn’t matter which, because we are going to sit there and think ‘wow, that’s a lot of money’. Governments know this perfectly well, and use this against us, as just one of their many tools they have in their arsenal to brainwash us into compliance.

So now, lets actually look at just how much benefit fraud really costs, and then, to make the figures valid, compare that with other costs in the same region.

  • Benefit fraud
  • Theft of copper wire from train tracks
  • missed NHS appointments
  • absence from work due to employment related stress and bullying

and one thing that costs the same as those four things put together:

  • Absenteeism during the world cup

Benefit Fraud

Benefit fraud, according to the governments own figures, costs 1.1 billion pounds each year. Benefit fraud and error, taken together, equate to 3.5 billion. In other words, 1.1 billion goes to people who claim something they shouldn’t have claimed, but the overall figure for mistakes for which the DWP are responsible for is more than three times, that, and very significantly, underpayments significantly outstrip overpayments.

More money is not paid to people who have claimed for it and been wrongly turned down than is lost through people wrongly claiming money to which they are not entitled.

We can then turn to look at  people who do not even attempt to claim, but would be eligible if they were to put in an application. Here, we find figures that truly become staggering. 2.8 billion in pension credit goes unclaimed every year. So, if there was no fraud whatsoever, and full take up of just ONE of many benefits, pension credit, the DWP purse would be down by 1.7 billion. It is indeed a sad sign of a broken system when those struggling on the breadline or below feel unable or unwilling to claim back that for which they paid their tax all their working lives.

Far more useful that a floating, uncontextualized gross number such as ‘1.1 billion’ is to consider the percentage of fraud to the overall welfare budget – and here we find that the DWPs own calculation for fraud and error is 2% – but we also know that therefore the true fraud figure will be less than 1% as there is significantly more error than fraud in the system.

And so, that benefit fraud. An issue that results in 24,100,000 hits on google for the term ‘benefit fraud UK’ , multiple press releases, ‘strategies’ to deal with it from every major party, and a constant onslaught of documentaries and news reports as well as endless web sites, facebook pages and on line interest. I won’t even begin to describe the nastiness, vitriol and disability hate I saw when I experimented to see if there was a hashtag #benefitfraud. And it is all about convincing us about a ‘Huge’ problem so we will be compliant while our welfare state is stolen. So now, lets compare it with other issues that cost the same

Theft of Copper wire from train tracks

Theft of copper wire from train tracks, as calculated by the government, costs the economy 1 billion. In 2011 there were 2,627 thefts of copper wire from railway tracks. Each one of these thefts leads to delayed and canceled trains, while rail staff struggle to rapidly replace the stolen wire. In parts of the north of England there have been weeks on end where copper wire was stolen from the same strip of railway track every single night leading to the necessity of having security guards patrolling track-sides all night long.

In response to this problem the government passed new regulations. Photo ID is now required of any person attempting to sell scrap metal, and cash payments are now against the law in this trade. These new regulations have coincided with a 50% reduction in the levels of theft, bringing the total lost down to the current 1 billion level.

And so, in terms of the financial hit, copper wire theft from train tracks equates closely with benefit fraud (if we choose to ignore benefit underpayments etc which actually more than cancel it out anyway) On the other hand, it has never been an election issue, no party has policies on the subject, while only one documentary has ever been produced on the subject on British TV. A twitter hashtag #coppertheft exists, but only security companies use it to advertise their security systems. One face-book group exists, with 16 ‘likes’. Not a lot of panic in society about this, although it costs the same.

Missed NHS appointments

Every year about one in ten booked appointments with the NHS are missed without cancellation. A rough estimation of the direct cost of these missed appointments is not the easiest figure to get, and different reports put it at anything from 500 million to 700 million. Guesstimates which include the cost of increased use of other NHS facilities, such as A&E as a consequence of skipped appointments brings us once more into the realm of a social behavior which costs 1 billion.

Unlike copper wire theft, which is unambiguously criminal behaviour, missing an appointment with a doctor, nurse, physio etc without cancelling could be for a range of very legitimate reason. Like this poor man, you might be too ill to get up off the floor and get to the surgery. I know, I’ve been there, allbeit with less tragic consequences. But I also have a bad habit of missing dentists appointments because, no matter how many notes I put to myself around the house, or how big I write the appointment in my diary, on the day I just forget. I hate the dentist so much, its like I don’t want to go so much, I genuinely forget, until its an hour too late, and I find myself once more phoning up and apologising profusely and begging for a new appointment, because my tooth really does hurt. We are funny things, we humans.

There are also actions and strategies that can hep with this problem, and individual hospitals and practices have reduced the problem significantly. Texts and emails reminding the patient on the morning of the appointment dramatically alter this one in ten figure, at a fraction of the cost.

Given that this is a behaviour that directly responds to state and institutional action, how much response does this issue get? 337,000 hits on google. there is no hashtag specifically for missed NHS appointments. No specific government strategies have been proposed, and this despite the vile attack on the NHS ongoing. One would think they would look for any opportunity to suggest an inefficiency. But then again, the problem is just as prevalent in private medical practice so it couldn’t really be used for an anti-NHS agenda.

Absenteeism due to workplace stress and bullying

Every year, the economy looses many, many billions due to both workplace absenteeism (taking sick days) and workplace presenteeism (turning up when you are too unwell to work). In fact, presenteeism costs the economy one and a half times what absenteeism costs. Looking at absenteeism figures, we find that approximately one quarter of all sick days are taken for mental health reasons. People can suffer stress and depression for a wide variety of reasons, but one main reason no employer should ignore, is where a persons stress, anxiety or depression are directly caused by their conditions of work.  Specific work place stress and mental health difficulties directly caused by workplace bullying  cost the economy an estimated one billion pounds back in 2008 in lost productivity, a figure that has been rising ever since.

Separately, lost days due to back problems for completely avoidable reasons such as poor quality office chairs cost almost as much.

This isn’t just a huge hit to the economy, it is completely avoidable. No one needs to be bullied at work. No one needs to be mistreated at work. Workers rights, a supportive environment for trade unions, and good legislation can also dramatically impact the rates of these problems.

Four things that all cost the economy one billion pounds a year. So, what might cost the same as those four things put together, and happen occur once every four years?

The World Cup

Another absenteeism issue, this time the world cup. Every four years some lads who should be big enough to know better dress in shorts and tea-shirts like little boys kick a football about and roll around in the mud, and for some bizzare reason ( I will never fully understand humanity) everyone stops to watch them! Sounds unbelievable, but take my word for it, it’s true.  And when this is going on, lots and lots of these people who stop to watch them phone in sick to work, so that they can stay at home and keep on watching them. And every time, once every four years, this costs the economy FOUR billion pounds in lost productivity, as work stops and people get paid to sit and watch some grown up kick an inflated pig’s bladder around a field.

In fact, the average man who actively supports a soccer team misses more days off work over the course of his working life than an average woman who has 2 children including all her maternity leave and carers leave. The difference is, the mother will take off blocks of leave, allowing her employer to organise cover and keep productivity up. The Monday /Friday  pattern of absenteeism which closely relates to patterns of alcohol consumption and the football season, has a profoundly greater impact on the economy while receiving a fraction of the attention of either disability or maternity in the popular mindset. Incidentally, employees with registered disabilities, while they may be slightly more prone to needing to take blocks of leave, are the least likely of all categories of workers to follow this most damaging Monday/Friday pattern of absenteeism, which has the greatest impact on the economy.

Disproportionate response

So, that’s four issues, each of which costs 1 billion, and another that costs 4 billion every four years. If concern with welfare fraud was actually about cost to the economy, then each of these five issues would receive equal treatment. However, that is far from the case.

For those who like visual information and tables, there  is a table below. What is shows is this. Each of these issues costs the economy  the same amount. One of those issues gets 10 times the internet response to the next most popular issue – that of workplace stress and bullying leading to absenteeism. its also worth pointing out that while benefit fraud is a victimless crime – the exchecker is hit by an infantismly small amount, no human being is hurt by it. Workplace bullying and stress however, destroy lives, destroy families and lead to terrible distress with long term consequences on both the mental and physical health of those who experience it. It is NOT a victimless crime. Real people suffer real tragedy as a result, so even if the economic impact were neutral (which it is not) it would still be reasonable to expect to find websites, facebook pages, hashtags etc dedicated to the issue. And yet, there are only a minute fraction of the amount that there are for benefit fraud. In other words, the internet gives benefit fraud 10 times the attention it deserves from that comparison alone. Meanwhile, if we look at the BBC web site, and search for each of these issues, looking specifically for ‘TV and Radio programmes’ on the topic, we find that, as of this date, BBC have 87 programmes available categorised as being about ‘benefit fraud’ and none on any of the other issues. (Previously, one documentary has been screened about copper wire theft, and others have popped up from time to time, but none can be searched for currently).


Election issue


Google hits

BBC TV and Radio programmes

Benefit fraud





Copper theft





Missed appointments





Workplace stress absenteeism





World Cup absenteeism





In summary: the attention being paid to benefit fraud is nothing to do with the economic cost of the issue. The attention it is being paid is wildly disproportionate. The swindle is not the tiny issue of benefit fraud, but rather the whipping up of an entire population into a moral panic over nothing.

But at least two significant questions remain. What is the human side of all these figures. What kind of people are actually prosecuted for benefit fraud, and what impact is the moral panic having on the rest of us? To be answered in parts two and three

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