Government Criticised For "Linking Benefits With Crime"
Leading disability charity Scope has warned of a "cruel" narrative around people with disabilities claiming benefits. (Alamy)
Leading disability charity Scope has expressed concern about a "cruel narrative" on disability benefit claimants, warning the government against "linking benefits with crime".
In May, work and pensions secretary Mel Stride shared a video of himself on Twitter of a raid to catch benefit "fraudsters" wearing a stab-proof vest with the letters "DWP" [Department for Work and Pensions] emblazoned on it.
"Gangs stealing from the taxpayer are also stealing from the most vulnerable and we have a very simple message - don't, because we will catch up with you," said Stride.
"I joined DWP investigators and West Yorkshire Police on a recent dawn raid on suspected fraudsters."
The department said the raid was concerning £1m of benefit fraud, pledging to crack down on "criminal gangs".
The government has since announced an additional £900m to target benefit fraud. "People need to know that we will catch up with them if they do these kinds of things," Stride told The Mail on Sunday. "And if you're thinking about defrauding the DWP, then don't, because we will find you and you will face justice."
But there is concern among disability campaigners that Stride's heavy focus on benefit fraud conflates a criminal minority with all benefit claimants, and could create unnecessary stigma against those who are entitled to the payments.
Alison Kerry, head of communications at disability equality charity Scope told PoliticsHome she felt that ministers attending raids and linking benefits with crime is worsening public attitudes towards disabled benefit claimants.
"Scope has found 3 in 4 disabled people have experienced negative public attitudes and it’s coverage like this that can fuel hatred and misunderstanding," Kerry said.
"We’ve recently seen an uptick in the linking of benefits with crime, including Ministers posing at ‘raids’ in uniform. What’s even more disheartening, is that we’ve been here before.
"After 2010, the public was softened up for stringent welfare cuts with numerous lurid benefit fraud cases on our screens.
"The fear is that we’re starting to see the same pattern return. One in four of us is disabled, and it’s time that we fully fund and recognise the benefits our welfare system brings to society."
Kerry added that benefits serve a "vital function in society" for those who need them.
"Like the NHS they are a vital service that any of us might need to call on at any time in life," she continued.
"Painting disabled people claiming benefits as lazy or a burden on the taxpayer is dangerous and destructive."
In 2020/21, the DWP lost £8.4bn to fraud and error. In the same period, HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) saw a £32bn deficit in tax owed and tax paid.
Labour MP Stephen Timms, Chair of the crossparty work and pensions committee, told PoliticsHome he believed the government had an issue with getting "the tone" right while discussing disability benefits.
"They introduced a new strategy for disabled people a couple of years ago, it was found in the courts to be illegal, because they failed to consult with disabled people properly," he explained.
"I think that is a reflection of exactly this problem that the government find it very, very difficult to communicate properly with people who are out of work because of disability."
He also highlighted that the work and pensions committee is currently in the process of exploring whether social security benefits are high enough.
"We are carrying out an inquiry on the level of benefit, and we will be looking at the level of which disability benefits have been set," said Timms.
A DWP spokesperson said: “Our welfare system provides a strong safety net for millions of disabled people – making sure they get the benefits they are entitled to while helping thousands into work.
“But it is vital that we deter fraudsters who last year stole £8.6 billion from the welfare system and the people who needed it most.”
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