Over the years our collective vocabulary has been armed with words and phrases to be used in the battle against those attempting to ‘cheat the system’. The Daily Mail and similar newspapers frequently feature front-page articles concerning benefit claimants being caught red-handed on their local golf course or simply being a “layabout”, thus proving their claims were fraudulent.
The crusade to stamp out such fraud has become increasingly strident over the years. I’m sure you’re all familiar with the terms ‘benefit cheat’, ‘scrounger’, ‘leech’, and so on, all employed daily by the right-wing press to refer to those committing benefit fraud. Daniel Sage, whose blog focuses on our attitudes towards social welfare, monitored the use of such terms by leading newspapers over the years. The results are startling. Between 2009 and 2010 for instance, the use of ‘benefit cheat’ increased from 277 to 693, while the term ‘scrounger’ rose from 291 to 902. This has culminated in The Sun newspaper recently launching its ‘Beat the Cheat’ campaign, where it encourages “Brits to be patriotic and report any cheats you know”. The journalist John Humphrys jumped on this bandwagon in his BBC documentary last year, claiming that benefit fraud was “a con so common that many of us know someone that’s at it”.
Now I’m not writing to support benefit fraud, but the way it has been sensationalised by the media has appalling consequences. The first is that facts have gradually become submerged by anger, easily manipulated considering the current financial situation. One sickening example of this is the massive increase of bullying aimed at those claiming disability benefits. A Scope poll published last September showed that two-thirds of people with disabilities had experienced taunting or hostile behaviour from total strangers, a significant rise from that experienced just months earlier. Neil Coyle, who is Director of Policy at Disability Rights UK, has stated that harassment of disabled people is “growing as a result of a mis-perception of much more widespread abuse of benefits than actually exists”. This apparently rampant fraud we are led to believe in doesn’t match up with the facts. The Department of Work and Pensions places the rate of benefit fraud at around 0.8%, which hardly warrants a nationwide witch-hunt.
This leads to the second danger that comes about when benefit-bashing becomes virulently encouraged in society. The stream of stories telling us that Britain’s financial problems lay with those committing benefit fraud has shifted the blame from others who are inflicting infinitely more damage. The amount of money that was lost to benefit fraud last year was around £1.2 billion, which is no small amount, but if we are to sharpen our pitchforks and drive our enemies out of town, we should understand who those enemies are. Compare the £1.2 billion to the £25 billion that is annually lost due to tax avoidance.
This is a method by which multinational corporations and their owners pay their accountants to find the loopholes (that they have often lobbied for) allowing large amounts of tax to simply be avoided. Danny Alexander, current Chief Secretary to the Treasury, condemned those “wealthy people and businesses who […] treat paying tax as an optional extra”. Even the Confederation of British Industries (CBI), who would prefer an even lower corporation tax than currently exists, agrees that the government should move to “stamp out truly abusive avoidance schemes”. A salient example is Sir Philip Green (pictured below), who owns Topshop, BHS, Dorothy Perkins and other large businesses. He avoided paying £285 million of tax in 2005 by making sure it made its way untouched to his wife in Monaco. In 2009 he earned £1.5 billion on the British high street but still managed to pay no tax on those earnings. He then went on to be asked by David Cameron to advise the government on how best to slash public spending.
If we are to be encouraged to ‘name and shame’ social parasites, it should be people like this. Nicholas Shaxson, author of Treasure Islands: Tax Havens and the Men who Stole the World, claimed in an interview last year that “every multinational corporation pretty much these days will have offshore subsidiaries that they will use for […] cutting down on their tax bills”. The Tax Justice Network, which is a leading non-profit organization arguing for a fairer approach to tax, state that “tax avoidance now occurs on a massive global scale”, and endorses a behaviour that is “economically inefficient, socially destructive, and profoundly unethical”. In response to this, the argument has been made that these companies are well within their right to avoid taxes as long as it’s legal to do so. What becomes apparent however is the fact that the public services taxes pay for are crucial to the success of these companies.
For example, in 1999 The Economist published an article about Rupert Murdoch entitled ‘Rupert Laid Bare’. They were shocked to learn that because of News Corporation’s use of tax havens such as “the Cayman Islands, Bermuda, the Netherlands Antilles and the British Virgin Islands”, Murdoch had made £1.4 billion in profits but paid no net British corporation tax. Now we can be pretty certain that he relies on things paid for by taxes to ensure his business continues to run smoothly. He relies on roads to transport his newspapers across the country, an education system to supply an efficient workforce and a health service to keep them healthy. Does anyone care to doubt the fact that the strike at Wapping in 1986 could not have been crushed if it wasn’t for the hundreds of police officers sent to turn the pickets away?
When we are informed that those who have caused ‘Broken Britain’ are some of the poorest people in society, and told that the only way of fixing it is by subscribing to the message of a ceaseless media campaign designed to make us fight amongst ourselves, it is important to remember who the real perpetrators are. They aren’t only the type of people paraded on Shameless, the people which certain Liberal Democrat MPs believe occupy some unpleasant space called “chav-land”. If we are to insist on being told how the economy is being cheated, and how society is being corroded from within, we must also insist on knowing who our real enemies are.