Most immigrants don’t cheat on benefits, although the knowledge that Britain has a welfare state is a powerful attractant. When they get here they are encouraged to apply for their “entitlements” with claims forms available in no fewer than 165 languages. Some who cheat may have been inspired by homegrown hucksters—such as the man who claimed £60,000 in disability payments for being unable to walk properly or dress himself yet won archery competitions and could drag trailers across fields. There was the rheumatoid arthritis sufferer filmed playing golf—and the woman who claimed child benefits for ten imaginary children and disability benefits for two real but non-disabled children. Then there was the Pirates of the Caribbean actor, the leading Paralympian, and an aristocrat of sorts. Even rock gods can fall: Iron Maiden’s former lead singer claimed almost £46,000 in disability, housing, and council tax payments for back problems. His error was in touring with the band while he was officially incapacitated and allowing these energetic performances to be broadcast on YouTube.
The previous government made halfhearted efforts to deal with benefit fraud—halfhearted because most of those they were investigating belonged to one or other of Labour’s client constituencies. In any case, they have a sentimental attachment to benefits, because the postwar left’s raison d’être has been to make extravagantly unaffordable promises to anyone, then shriek like banshees whenever an adult points out how feckless they’ve been.
In 2007/2008, the government spent £154 million to get £22 million back. In 2010, a trumpeted blitz on £93 million worth of benefit fraud recouped only £47,000. By the time the new government came in, the annual cost of fraud, error, and overpayments in the highly complex system (there are more than 50 benefits) was put at £5.2 billion; £1.5 billion of that was fraud.
The government proposed a “Universal Credit” to replace most existing benefits and started to assess 2.6 million disability-benefit claimants to see if they really were hors de combat. Judging from early results, the Department of Work and Pensions estimates that nearly 600,000 may be claiming sickness benefits (up to £99.85 per week) although they are fit for work—almost 40% of claimants.
In the meantime the bill continues to creep upward. Last November, the Audit Commission estimated that £2.1 billion had been lost in fraud from council budgets and only £185 million of this had been detected. So there is a long way to go, and progress will be slowed by the necessity of constantly comforting frightened Liberal Democrats.
In the meantime, we can relish some of the “explanations” fraudsters have offered:
I wasn’t using the ladders to clean windows, I carried them for therapy for my bad back.
My wallet was stolen so someone must have been using my identity, I haven’t been working.
He does come here every night and leave in the morning and although he has no other address I don’t regard him as living here.
It wasn’t me working, it was my identical twin.
But for the best excuse of all, we need to revisit Remi Fakorede, who invented phantom disabled children to amass an impressive £1 million. But it was not her fault, she told the judge in 2008. A “voodoo man” who had already killed her mother with a curse warned Remi that if she did not cooperate in the scam she would lose her fingers. To underscore her earnestness, she then reached into her pocket and took out the severed fingers of her daughter, who had lost them as a baby. And on that bombshell we leave her and the subject, symbolically sticking up her fingers at the speechless judge, and through her at the whole shambolic system.
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