Community Links is an excellent resource and their post on Fraud and Error in the benefits system is brief but essential reading.

They point out that giving out statistics that lump fraud and error together is misleading, and causes everyone to focus on the fraud and ignore the error.

Secondly underpayment of benefits (this year running at £1.2bn), is arguably an even bigger problem, because it leaves vulnerable people in a desperate situation, evicted or unable to buy food. They often end up seeking advice at Community Links, because the system has let them down so badly. And don’t forget this is just people claiming a particular benefit but getting less than they’re entitled to. It doesn’t include people who aren’t aware they’re entitled to a benefit at all.

Thirdly, ‘customer error’ is not the fault of the claimant. The report separates out intentional fraud (£1.1bn), unintentional ‘customer error’ (£1.1bn), and ‘official error’ (£0.8bn). Our experience at Community Links shows that claimants make errors because they are left to navigate a hugely complicated system with very little guidance, bombarded with unintelligible forms, and offered very little support. It’s a stressful experience, made worse when DWP tries to claw back money they’ve overpaid. The high level of customer error is an indictment of the DWP (if a business was losing £1bn a year because customers couldn’t work out how to use the payment system, they’d sort it out pretty quickly).

Thank you, Community Links. And don’t forget the evidence that the DWP routinely overestimates the amount it overpays, and lack of proper representation results in hundreds of benefits claimants being falsely imprisoned every year!

And what about that benefit fraud? Community Links has launched the Need, not Greed campaign, to highlight the fact that a number of people on benefits do cash in hand work not because they wish to cheat the system, but because benefits pay below poverty level and people feel forced into being a “cheat” in order to survive.

As they tell us,

With the economic recession, rising living costs and increasing unemployment, more and more people will be on benefits.A life on benefits, even for a short period of time, is tough. Benefits are not enough to live on (benefit levels are paid below the poverty line) There are many traps when on benefits and many barriers to taking up employment. This means that people may turn to cash-in-hand work to provide an income, as well as retain a degree of control and financial independence in their lives. There is no way to gradually move off benefits and there is very little support on offer to remain financially secure when doing so. People quickly hit a brick wall and are left with little choice but to turn to cash-in-hand work.

To take just one circumstance that pushes people into doing cash-in-hand work, consider the fact that most private landlords do not accept housing benefit. You may qualify for housing benefit, but it’s no good to you if you don’t live in council or housing association accommodation (of which there is a major shortage, and for which waiting lists can last for years). My £70 a week housing benefit wouldn’t come close to covering the cost of renting a single room in my area, but more to the point there’s not one single rental agency here who’d even agree to rent to someone on benefits, or private landlord who’d accept housing benefit as payment.

Why refusing to rent to people on benefits for disability doesn’t count as discrimination against the disabled is beyond me, but that’s the situation we find ourselves in. Meanwhile, the number of empty houses in the UK could house the homeless population, but no one seems to be willing to do anything about it.