A “staggering” and “horrific” proportion of allegations of disability benefit fraud that are made by the public are eventually found to be completely false, the government’s own figures have revealed.
The response by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) to a freedom of information (FoI) request submitted by disabled activists has shown that nearly nine in 10 allegations of fraudulent claims passed to the department prove to be unfounded.
The FoI request was submitted by the Berkshire branch of Disabled People Against Cuts (Berkshire DPAC), which had grown increasingly concerned by years of government rhetoric that has stated or implied that disability benefit fraud was a huge problem and even a significant cause of austerity.
There has been mounting concern over those years that disabled people are being subjected to disability hate crimes as a result of this so-called benefit scrounger rhetoric, with disabled campaigners warning that such language has added to the “hostile environment” facing disabled people.
But the DWP figures show that nearly all reports of benefit fraud to DWP’s hotline and website have proved to be false and unfounded.
In both 2017-18 and 2018-19, the percentage of cases of alleged disability benefit fraud that were found to be “non-fraudulent” after examination by DWP was 89 per cent.
The figures relate to allegations made about claimants of both employment and support allowance (ESA) and personal independence payment (PIP).
The DWP response says: “All allegations of fraud received are checked to see if the allegation can be substantiated.
“In cases where there is no evidence of wrong doing, the referral will be closed at the earliest possible stage.”
A spokesperson for Berkshire DPAC said: “We asked this FoI after reading yet another horrendous story about the impact on a disabled woman of being hauled through an investigation because of a ridiculous allegation.
“It seems to us that going through the thoroughly discredited ESA and PIP assessments and sometimes having to wait months and months to go to tribunal, is bad enough, even if you win.
“We know that it is destroying people’s physical and mental health.
“If, on top of that stress, you then find yourself under investigation, because someone has made an allegation that you are claiming your benefit fraudulently, how are you expected to cope mentally?
“It worries us that the string of ministers responsible for the DWP and the media have encouraged the general public (for years) to think of us as scroungers and cheats at worst and as a burden on society at best.
“These stereotypes laid the groundwork for people who are jealous of us for receiving benefits (and we know this is quite widespread) and those who frankly just enjoy making trouble, to feel empowered by the chance to ring the DWP and make false allegations.
“It must be massively more worrying for people with invisible impairments, than for those of us with visible ones, but even we are not immune to being questioned by members of the public as to why, for example, we have a blue badge.
“Whilst the FoI response suggests that the DWP doesn’t automatically launch a full-scale investigation [when it receives an allegation of fraud], that will do little to reassure most disabled people, already feeling under threat from a profoundly unfair system.”
DWP says in its FoI response that not all allegations are dealt with by a fraud investigator, with some directed to the “compliance teams” that review people’s benefits and make any necessary corrections.
A DWP spokesperson refused to add to the FoI response.
He refused to say if DWP accepted that the figures showed that a hostile environment whipped up by ministers, other politicians and the media had led to an atmosphere in which a flood of false allegations of fraud had been made against disabled people.
He also refused to say if DWP was concerned about the figures and their effect on disabled people.
And he refused to say what action DWP would take to reduce the number of false allegations.
On Monday this week, at the launch of Disability History Month (see separate story), its coordinator, Richard Rieser, said disability hate crime “has been fuelled by ministerial-encouraged press saying that everybody out there is a scrounger, programmes like Benefits Street, and all the rest of it.
“The Sun ran its hotline to find how many ‘scroungers’ you could find, and this has led to a huge increase in hate crime on our streets against disabled people.”
The hostile rhetoric stretches back to the New Labour government, with ministers such as work and pensions secretary Peter Hain vowing in November 2007 to “rip up sicknote Britain”.
In 2010, Tory work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith told the Sun newspaper that he was “appalled” at how easy it had been in the past for people to claim incapacity benefit and cheat the system, and suggested that a large proportion of incapacity benefit claimants were cheats.
He added: “We don’t want to talk about scroungers in the future, we want to talk about British people being renowned the world over for working hard.”
The government’s efforts to promote the false idea that fraud was widespread was taken up by the mainstream media, with inaccurate stories in papers such as the Daily Mail (“Time’s up for the shirking classes: Just one in 14 incapacity claimants is unfit to work under new, tougher tests”) and the Daily Express (“Sick benefits: 75 per cent are faking”).
At the time, government figures estimated that the overpayment of incapacity benefit due to fraud was just £20 million a year, or 0.3 per cent of spending.
Senior New Labour figures also helped to add to this stigmatisation after the 2010 election.
The then Labour leader Ed Miliband claimed that some incapacity benefit claimants were “just not taking responsibility” and were “shirking their duties” and said that he understood why other people – those who “act responsibly” – were “getting angry”.
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