In my previous post I took a macro view of the topic of ‘Benefit Fraud’. Today I am zooming in the lens, and taking a closer, micro view of the human experience. Who commits benefit fraud? What can we learn by stopping and examining cases of benefit fraud? Who is at risk of an accusation of benefit fraud? From two days of reading endless reports of cases, three themes jump out at me starkly.
People vulnerable to accusations of benefit fraud are those who:
- Have family structures that vary from idealised conceptions of what ‘The Family’ is and fail to conform to ridged categories of ‘married couple’, ‘single parent’ etc.
- Have disabilities, impairments or chronic illnesses that fail to conform to ridged categories of what a ‘disability’ is, and are variable.
- Have emotional and/or intellectual vulnerabilities, struggle to understand the system, or the system just has no category for their specific vulnerability.
In other words, accusations and prosecutions for Benefit Fraud push us all into narrow boxes of conformity and normalisation. Our families, our bodies, our minds MUST sit within clear boxes, because if there is any lack of clarity about where we sit, we could be awarded a benefit one day, and accused of having made a fraudulent claim, and prosecuted, the next. Being outside ‘the category’ leaves us vulnerable to prosecution.
Having read endless online stories I have decided to present some ‘composite cases’. In each case, I could provide a few stories which together make the same points, with links, but something about that seems slightly wrong to do. Each real human is open to criticism, and real names are used in every media report.
When is a single parent not a single parent?
‘Jane’ lives with her baby in a 2 bed, private rented flat. She claims child tax credit and housing benefit and has a small part time job. Some time after the birth Jane met ‘Peter’ and they began a tumultuous on-again, off again relationship. Peter lives with his parents, and also has a casual relationship with another woman with whom he has a child. Peter financially supports his child, and does not contribute in any way to the finances of Jane’s household.
Following a tip-off that Jane is in fact cohabiting made by a disgruntled neighbour, the DWP begin a surveillance operation. They record over a week, and find that Peter stayed overnight with Jane on four occasions. This is more than half the week, so technically Jane is cohabiting.
Jane is prosecuted, and at first is adamant that Peter is not living with her, he just stays over a lot, and does not contribute to her finances. Her lawyer explains that does not matter. It is only the number of nights he slept there that count in law. On advice from her solicitor, Jane pleads guilty to benefit fraud. She is given a non-custodial sentence and ordered to pay back the full amount of benefit that she ‘wrongly’ claimed.
Real families are complex, messy, and diverse.
The legal system assumes we fit into narrow boxes. The reality of peoples lives are that we often exist outside these narrow boxes, our families shift, alter, relationships form and dissolve. It’s all part of the joys and pains of life.
Gender plays a huge role in those specific cases. Why was Jane prosecuted, and not Peter? Because the claim was in her name, so she was the only one who ‘broke the law’. Peter was staying over very regularly, but not contributing towards even the additional costs Jane incurred by having him there.
30 years ago, Ann Oakley published studies of family life in the UK, looking at the gender divisions. One of the characteristics she found that truly marked gender differences was a pervasive attitude that men owned their own money, and from this they may support their families. Women on the other hand, were financially dependent on their families. Even where they had income of their own, this was seen, psychologically and culturally, as ‘family money’.
Studies I carried out on families based on cohabitation in our times found that cohabitation intensified these differences. Every penny of a woman’s income was still conceptualised as belonging to ‘the family’, but the percentage of wages ‘handed up’ by cohabiting men had dropped dramatically, sometimes down to zero. Prior to the prosecution, it probably never occurred to either Jane, or Peter, that she should be financially dependent on him. However, the state takes a different view, forcing a normalisation of family patterns on everyone, but policing this by targeting only the ‘deviant’ women who dare make claims for benefits/financial independence and not the men who retain their own earnings and do not contribute to their costs of living.
Other typical cases that emerged here, all with the identical pattern of prosecution of the woman only, also occur where, following a divorce, a couple continue to reside at the same address. ‘Ann’ and ‘Barry’ got divorced several years ago. Following a year of living apart and fighting endlessly about the sale of their house, they reached a point of greater amicability. With the kids grown and moved out, their nice big 3 bed house could actually make 2 pleasant little flats if Ann took the downstairs and Barry took the upstairs. A bit of construction work later, and they were good to go. Until Ann, but not Barry, was prosecuted for benefit fraud for not declaring that she was once again cohabiting with her husband. It’s the exact same pattern. And so, Ann, a loving mother and doting granny, is publicly humiliated across all the tabloids, her neighbors who were once friends now shun her, and she is driven from her lifetime home which must be sold, to pay back money owing to the DWP.
Men have some tiny leeway, but women MUST conform to set family patterns, or pay the price.
When is a disability not a disability?
‘Mary’ became quite unwell a few years go, and the doctors never fully got to the bottom of what was wrong. She goes through periods where just getting out of bed causes her terrible pain and fatigue, During the ‘bad bouts’ which last weeks or months she is almost completely housebound, and can barely hobble about with a stick, or even shower or feed herself. Forced to give up her career she had worked for years on, Mary nonetheless determinedly sets up her own small consultancy business, and earns a considerably more modest living by taking in the amount of business she is capable of handling on her good days and good hours. She claims DLA and Access to Work to help make a contribution to the raised costs she experiences due to her illness.
Not even sure what is wrong, the doctors main advice to Mary is basic lifestyle advice. ‘Eat well, exercise more’. It’s tough, but Mary is determined, and does what she can. The last flare has died down and no new flare is threatening yet. Mary is given a puppy who really helps with her mental health in particular as she is incredibly fond of the little rascal. Seeing as she is going through a good phase, she even manages to bring it for a walk every day at about midday when she first manages to get herself up and dressed. Walking over to the park every day and throwing a ball for this little bit of fluff is doing her the power of good, and for the first time in several years she begins to feel like she might even be getting properly better, although she still has a long way to go, and these daily stints out of the house do exhaust her deeply.
The DWP surveillance van records her walking her dog daily without the use of walking aids, and she is prosecuted for benefit fraud. At first, Mary hotly denies any wrong doing, but on legal advice concedes that her condition had improved, and she should have informed the DWP. She pleads guilty to benefit fraud, and is given a short suspended sentence, as well as an order to repay the mis-claimed benefit (calculated since the start of her last claim, not when her last flare up ended). Her case is splashed all over the tabloids, she is humiliated by her neighbours, and looses most of her meager business now she must carry the added burden of being a convicted ‘benefits fraudster’.
Real disabilities and illnesses are often variable, complex, messy and hard to name
Governments police bodies, and the performance of our bodies, far more than we know. At risk of veering into a Foucauldian rant here, I will restrain myself and say that our very bodies can often be battlegrounds of power and control, with power and extensive ‘normalisation’ wielded by governments and the medical professions. But real bodies are not cardboard cut-outs of what they should be, and real illnesses often fail to conform to pre-set expectations of what a ‘disability’ should look like. For starters, ‘Mary’ was more ill than disabled. She would not have been competing in the paralympics any time soon.
Less pronounced than the case above about families, but there are also gender and race intersectionalities here. Women, and BME groups, are at higher risk of developing long term chronic health conditions that are variable and that defy easy diagnosis.
Prosecutions for fraud specifically related to disability benefits are the lowest of all forms of fraud. However, as the 2 day trawl of cases I have done showed, they are most likely to hit the tabloids, with public humiliation of the victims. They also play heavily on our human inability to truly comprehend pain, illness and impairment until, and sometimes even when, we ourselves suffer from it.
A healthy person catches the flu. They have shivers, chills, vomiting, hurt all over, and feel deeply, impossibly miserable for a week. And then get better. Feeling sick makes them feel unhappy. Feeling sick makes them not able to leave the sofa or bed. But what if you have low-grade fluish symptoms ongoing for years? As time goes by you stop being miserable every second of every day (although it almost certainly will take a toll on your mental health as well). But you learn to shut off the sick feeling for little snatches and be happy, drag yourself out of bed and walk the dog for 10 minutes, even if you then have to spend 2 hours in bed recovering from that. And face the endless comments. ‘But you don’t look sick’. Which for some tips over into ‘so you must be a benefits fraudster’, and for some of those, real prosecutions, and lives destroyed.
Prosecutions for benefit fraud are based on, and play heavily on, public perceptions of ‘what it means to be disabled’ drawing on tight, narrow, rigidly policed ideas of pain, suffering, and the sick or disabled body, and what they are supposed to look like, to non-disabled people. What disability and long-term sickness looks like to the disabled and long term sick matters not a jot in this heartless system.
Grief and vulnerability
When reading through many, many case studies of benefit fraud I found just what I expected to find. Patterns of inequality of race, of gender, of class, of poverty. Benefit fraud is a crime of the ‘have-not’s’ and that did not surprise me. What did jump out at me unexpectedly was an associating with grief. Story after story detailed a falling foul of the system by someone who had
- just been divorced, or
- just lost a parent, or most often
- just lost a spouse or life partner
These people had been catapulted into financial chaos and were groping around for answers. But they were also making decisions when in the depths of grief when the original, ‘fraudulent’ claims for welfare were being made.
I don’t know why this surprised me so much, I should have know. When I think back to my former career as a Community Worker I can think of endless people coming into the family center raging because they had been turned down for benefits that they thought they had been entitled to, but weren’t. They were always people in crisis. Always. And grief is a major trigger for crisis. Grief comes in many forms, and so does shock. A grandmother finds herself caring for her grandchildren full time because a child has died or gone to prison for a long stretch. This is a crisis. A mother finds herself with no food to feed her children after the loss of her husband, and his salary. This is a crisis. And people in these crises need to make rapid financial decisions, at a time when they are dealing with a giant emotional load that has nothing to do with their finances. It’s easy to take advice from a neighbour. ‘Why not apply for X benefit, that’s what I get’ and not read the small print of the claim forms because that person is at a point where just reading the full details is beyond their capacity due to grief, depression and worry. But applying for the same benefit your neighbour is on is a little like taking the same prescription medication your neighbour is on. If it hasn’t been prescribed by your doctor for you, its probably a very bad idea. Most people who apply for an inappropriate benefit for their exact circumstances will simply be denied. But if someone slips through the net … it can later be ‘benefit fraud’.
But there WAS a system in place to help with this problem. CAB advisers, social workers, community workers, even free legal aid advice if things have already stated to go a bit awry. Its funny, isn’t it, how a government so determined to ensure there is no benefit fraud of any sort is also so determinately stripping away the system of advice and support to people in a crisis who have the skills an experience to guide people towards the right benefit for their circumstances.
What do we learn from this?
And so, to finish up. I spent two days searching for, and reading, every reported case of benefit fraud I could find to try and better understand the fear and torment this issue is currently causing in society. I don’t recommend, if you don’t have to, that you do this. The cases are often sad, upsetting, irritating and enraging. Occasionally you read about a person and just want to find them and give them a good hard slap. More often you want to yell ‘were you really that stupid, did you not know how the system works?’
But in the end, I just became convinced that the benefit fraud ‘industry’ – by which I mean the combined efforts of the DWP and the people they use to investigate and prosecute benefit fraud, the government and the way they use cases as propaganda, and the tabloid press, and the way they report on such cases, – this industry is in fact a significant vehicle for conformity and normalisation. Forcing our visible bodies, and our visible actions with our bodies, not least our sexual relations and choice of sexual partners, into ridged, state sanctioned boxes. Those who are poor, those who are sick, those who are grieving and confused are cannon fodder to keep the rest of us complaint. Horror stories to be convicted and splash across the tabloids to tell the rest of us that if we must be single parents, at least do it in the ‘right’ way, if we must be sick or disabled, do it in the state sanctioned and approved ‘right’ way, if we must be sad, and grieving and in crisis at any point in our lives, do it by ‘their’ script, and don’t dare ever think of not fitting into their ticky little boxes of conformity.