Dear Mr Cameron
We are writing to express our concern that a number of recent Government announcements have had the effect of stigmatising the poor, especially those in receipt of out of work benefits. Our experience of working in deprived communities is that life on benefits is often a struggle, with difficult and stressful financial choices being a daily occurrence. We believe this reality is not well reflected in Government statements and needs to be at the heart of any debate on Welfare Reform
The stigmatising effect these announcements have had on the poorest and most vulnerable in society has been noted in a number of areas by the signatories of this letter, who may correspond individually at a later date. The single outstanding example has been Government rhetoric around benefit fraud. We in no way condone benefit fraud and would wish to see this reduced to zero, but we question the Government’s public emphasis placed upon it. For the financial year 2009-2010, the NAO estimates fraud to be 0.6% of the DWP benefits bill, while errors make up more than double this figure. The tendency to emphasise fraud when poverty and welfare reform are discussed often distracts attention from getting resources to those genuinely in need, which accounts for the other 99.4% of benefit spending.
The most important example of this misrepresentation occurred when your Chancellor conflated benefit fraud and error during his speech announcing the Comprehensive Spending Review on October 20th 2010.
“Nor will fraud in the welfare system be tolerated any more. We estimate that £5 billion a year is being lost in this way - £5 billion that others have to work long hours to pay in their taxes. This week we published our plans to step up the fight to catch benefit cheats and deploy uncompromising penalties when they are caught.”
As I trust you are aware the £5 billion figure is a three fold exaggeration of the true Government estimate of benefit fraud. The publication referred to above confirms that benefit fraud is estimated at £1billion, and tax credit fraud is estimated at £0.6 billion, making a total of £1.6 billion. The exaggerated figure is derived by adding the fraud estimates to the error estimates.
We agree with the Government that benefit fraud is a serious offence, but implying that the poorest perpetrate this offence three times more than is the case is clearly unjust. We also agree with you that the CSR will dramatically affect the lives of a generation, but the fact that issues around welfare reform are vital to the social and economic future of this country means it is imperative that the debate is informed by accurate information.
As speeches in the Commons are matters of public record we would ask that you instruct the Chancellor to correct his statement of 20th October. We would also ask that the Ministerial forward to the publication ‘Tackling fraud and error in the benefit and tax credits systems’ published last week by the DWP and HMRC, is similarly corrected, as it makes the same error.
We would ask for a speedy response as the debate on welfare reform is moving rapidly and deserves to be informed by the best and most accurate information possible.
Revd Martyn Atkins General Secretary The Methodist Church
Simon Loveitt Public Issues Spokesperson The United Reformed Church
Revd Graham Sparkes Head of Faith and Unity The Baptist Union of Great Britain
Rev. Ian Galloway Convener, Church and Society Council The Church of Scotland
Lt Col Marion Drew The Salvation Army
Niall Cooper National Co-ordinator Church Action on Poverty
Alison Gelder Director Housing Justice