Thursday, 13 August 2009

Claiming benefits while working

Claiming benefits while working

New proposals are overkill

The successful prosecution of Shashi Bacheta and Jeffrey Cole provides an example of people being caught for cheating the system. Unfortunately, there are plenty of people who work while claiming benefits and who evade detection. Surely the government should be able to track these people down by other means. It is reasonable to expect that making unemployed people work full-time will drive the majority of those claimants off benefits, but it seems to me like the new proposals that the government outlined in July 2008 offer a sledge-hammer to crack a nut.

Report suspected benefit fraud

The government operates a complaints system where people can report their suspicions about possible fraud. There is a benefit fraud hotline and a postal address, both listed on the government's page on reporting benefit theft. That page includes a link to a report a benefit thief online form. From comments I saw in in the BBC debate Should benefits be linked to community service?, it seems that the government isn't very good at processing these complaints. Some people made alternative suggestions for tackling this issue, but they smack of desperation and would certainly cost more money than they save. It would be better to spend such extra money on processing fraud complaints more effectively. Nevertheless, the alternative suggestions are listed below.

Sign on every day?

One suggestion is that people should be forced to sign on every day. Have you considered how much the extra staff would cost the taxpayer, for no useful purpose? I'd get used to signing on every day but if the government has money for extra staff, I'd rather they spend it on staff who can discuss career options in a meaningful way. That might help me. Signing on every day won't.

I read a claim that daily signing on was tried out in the seventies. On the very first occasion that I signed on for benefits in 1981, I was required to sign on every two weeks, as I did after I signed on again in May 1996 during The nineties job quest, and for most of my current period of unemployment. A new system was introduced in 2008 where we sometimes sign on weekly (which I did for a period of eight weeks, but haven't been asked to revert to weekly signings yet) and sometimes every two weeks, but I'd be surprised if they introduce a daily system.

Presumably, the people making this suggestion think it will make life more difficult for those who want to cheat by claiming benefits while working. While that is true up to a point, it won't stop those determined enough to cheat. Such people are likely in any case to either do evening or weekend work (so that it doesn't clash with jobcentre opening hours) or to do work that allows flexibility. Making these people sign on every day would inconvenience them but wouldn't stop them.

Sit in a room?

One person suggested that benefit claimers should be made to sit in a room for two hours every day, just to stop them doing another job while claiming benefits. The vast majority of benefit claimers don't have a job, contrary to the myths perpetuated to that effect, but the person who suggested this clearly hasn't thought it through. It may not cost the claimer anything except time to sit in a room for two hours, but the cost of providing the accommodation and the supervisory staff to manage such a scheme would be astronomical and would far exceed any savings made elsewhere. Moreover, it wouldn't stop anybody cheating by working at evenings and weekends, unless the government is prepared to fund the cost of employing supervisory staff at those times. If people must be punished simply for being unemployed, at least provide something for them to do. Providing computers to search for jobs or do some other kind of training (the obvious thing to do) will cost a lot of extra money, over and above the cost of just sitting in a room.

Illegal activities

It occurs to me that if people are claiming benefits while engaged in illegal activities such as drug smuggling and prostitution, even making people work full time won't stop them, since these activities can be conducted outside normal working hours. If the government wants to crack down on benefit fraud, they have to find other ways of doing it.

No comments: