Saturday, June 08, 2013

Same Again

So I'm in a bar, speaking to this friend of mine, who we'll call Bill.

Bill's a defence lawyer in Glasgow, deals with shoplifters, sticky-fingered junkies and pavement boxers, that kind of thing.  He's telling me about Mr S, who he's just finished defending against a charge of fraudulent benefits claims.

"Mr S is in his fifties", Bill says.  "He's an engineer, worked in the same factory since he was nineteen.  Two years ago, boom, firm goes into administration and lays off the entire workforce.  Suddenly, it's unemployment.  Mr S gets Jobseeker's Allowance, but it's a shitty way to live. He's still trying to pay off his mortgage, two kids to look after, and nobody anywhere wants to hire a fifty-four year old engineer..."

"Sucks to be him" I say.

"Sure does.  So one day, Mr S shows up at the Job Centre.  The guy behind the desk says, we've been looking at your case, and you've claimed six hundred and fifty quid that you aren't entitled to".

"Over two years?" I ask, doing a quick calculation.  "My God, he's been ripping us all off for more than six quid a week".

Bill nods.  "Yeah, the guy's a regular Ronnie Biggs.  So Mr S says it was an accident, that he ticked the wrong box, says the form was long and confusing".

"Did you believe him?" I ask, thinking back to my own fortnight on the dole.  I had to fill in a form the size of a novella and I got the princely sum of eight quid, and no job offers...  And that was in 1999, the salad days by comparison.

"Hell," Bill says, "The sheriff believed him, not that it did him any good.  I've seen those forms.  You need a degree in fucking advanced mathematics to work those things out.  Mr S is all like I've worked for every penny I've ever earned and I've never stolen nothing from anyone and all that shit".

"Is it true?".

"Who knows?  Who cares?  Not me, not the clerks, especially not the sheriff.  Intentional, unintentional, it's all the same.  So anyway, the DWP are having this big crackdown on benefit cheats, and they're not interested in Mr S's offer to pay them back.  Pay them with what, the money they're giving him?"

"We couldn't have that".

"No, heaven forfend.  Doesn't matter whether he meant it, doesn't matter whether he ripped off five hundred quid or fifty thousand.   Here he is sitting in a room with a sheriff, some lawyers and a pack of twitchy junkies and wham, conviction, there you go.  Guy never had a chance of getting off with it, really".

"Bad luck for Mr S", I say.  "I hope he gets a job soon. Imagine having to go back to the Jobcentre to grovel for change to the same guys that poled you up the backside like that".

"Well, if he was struggling to get a job before, he sure isn't going to find it any easier now that he's got a criminal conviction for dishonesty.  You have to declare that to potential employers, you know".

I whistled.  "Man, that's harsh.  Does the government know this kind of thing is going on?"

Bill gave me a funny look, like I'd asked where babies come from.  "Mate, I told you - the government is pushing this crackdown so hard it's a wonder their arms don't burst out of their sockets".

I gave that some thought.  "I wonder what Iain Duncan Smith thinks about folk like Mr S", I said.

"Hell, I bet he stays up all night long worrying about those motherfuckers", Bill said, draining his pint.  "I bet their plight just breaks his heart".

"Iain Duncan Smith has a heart?"

"I fucking hope so, or there'll be nothing for the vampire hunters to drive a wooden stake through...   Same again?"

I finished my pint.  "Of course," I said.


Dave Weeden said...

Not that I think Labour will be any better. How is Labour going to guarantee jobs to the long-term unemployed in say, Liverpool? Only by making everyone work 6 weeks of the year.

Vaguely related: I'm a landlord. My tenant's housing benefit falls short by £5.60 per week as of April. Where is she supposed to get that from? I let through a housing association (ie we've taken over a tiny part of council housing). Were it up to me alone, I'd be tempted to reduce the rent by £5.60 pw, but I suspect that housing benefit will always be that amount short of the declared rent: so I'd quickly end up at letting for £0. (Note to HMRC: your cheque is in the post.)

Another point: the form is not only long and confusing, but the people being asked to fill it in are not in a good frame of mind: they've recently had an unexpected loss of status, and are having their humiliation rubbed in. (OK, it's not being dragged by chariot around the walls of Troy, but that would be illegal these days anyway.) You should expect people to make 'unforced' errors under those circumstances. (NB I'm not saying that the law should accept that losing your job is a reason for beating your wife/children; I am saying that the law should accept that losing your job is a more than adequate reason for making a mistake on a form.)

john b said...

Is Scots law different from English law when it comes to mens rea then? Certainly in England, to get a conviction for a dishonesty offence does actually require dishonesty (which in this case it sounds like the sheriff accepted wasn't present).

Phil said...

The other jaw of the pincers is the government's planned attack on people like Bill, which - if it goes through - is going to reduce criminal legal aid to a machine for generating guilty pleas, and make people like Mr S suffer in whole new ways.

They really do hate us.

Money isn't Real said...

Part of the new welfare reforms was an introduction of a 50 pound fine for filling the forms in incorrectly.

'Hundreds of thousands of welfare claimants will face £50 fines for making “errors” in filling in benefits forms.

The “civil penalty” will be imposed on people who are not attempting to defraud the State but who are “negligent” in providing details of their claims.

Fraud and error in the benefits system are estimated to cost £3.1 billion, with another £2.1 billion for tax credits.

The Department of Work and Pensions said the new fines regime will ensure that benefits records are more accurate.

“The Department wants to reduce the financial loss from customer error and achieve greater customer compliance,” a DWP document said.

“It is a customer’s responsibility to make sure that the information held by the department is correct and up to date at all times and what they tell us is truthful. Where a customer has failed to do this the Department will impose a civil penalty.”

The DWP expects that by 2014/15, it will be raising £30.5 million from civil penalties, equal to imposing 610,000 fines.

Telegraph Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Luis Enrique said...

"Intentional, unintentional, it's all the same."

not that I'm doubting you, but I am surprised to learn that when it comes to a charge of fraud it makes no difference if everybody involved accepts it was an error.

[I'm sure my surprise just reveals what a clueless middle class cocoon I live in]

flyingrodent said...

Christ, don't trust me. I can't even relate a simple story without filling it with comedy, mid-Atlantic patter.

Makhno said...

Ah, benefit fraud, the great crisis facing the nation.

Of course, intentional fraud adds up to less money than *accidental* overclaims / overpayments. And both put together add up to less than the money which goes unclaimed when people *are* entitled to it, which means the benefit system is paying out less now than if everybody got exactly what they should. And all of those figures are chickenfeed compared to money lost to tax avoidance.

But still, we must clamp down on benefit fraud!