I bet the blog post title got your attention. The image is also the complete antithesis to my general outlook on life. It is precisely how this situation has made me though, and no doubt to some degree you will end up sharing it with me!
I don’t mean benefit fraud is acceptable to me, of course. I mean it appears to be acceptable to the Department for Work and Pensions and Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs. Now before the lawsuits start arriving, I suspect I should begin to justify those opinions.
Back in October 2011 I moved in to my current residence. It’s a beautiful ground floor apartment in a sparkling Marina, with fresh sea air, sunshine all day and free allocated parking despite effectively being in a huge metropolitan area of England (albeit at a slightly lower elevation). As always when moving in to a new property, in the beginning – and still now, occasionally – I have fun with bailiffs and debt collectors looking for the previous residents. To this day I continue opening their mail to contact those sending it to advise “not known at this address” as the majority of them have no return address to be sent back to. A little naughty perhaps, but if it stops bailiffs breaking into my house over parking fines, council tax and so on, then I’m sorry but my need to protect my family and property overrides mail transmission law, in my view.
Occasionally, bank statements come through. I bank with the same bank as the previous residents (it turns out), and my partner does not. When I see their envelopes in the mail pile I’ve been conditioned over the years just to open them. There seems little point in glancing at the addressee – it’s going to be me! But occasionally it is not. I’ve contacted my bank and told them they don’t live here any longer on two occasions now, but still they keep coming.
Noticing and Reporting A Fraud
The previous residents of my flat moved back to an Eastern European country early October, 2011. They have not been back to the UK since, and have no intention of doing so. They have a small child, for which they were claiming Child Tax Credit and Child Benefit. I have no issue there. This country is a member of the EU, and as far as I am aware both parents worked.
My problem began when I accidentally opened their first bank statement in December 2011, and noticed the payments were still going in from both agencies. Being a somewhat irate tax-payer, I contacted both the DWP and HMRC on their respective fraud lines. I’d like to give a small “well done” to DWP for having an 0800 number to report these matters on (0800 854 440) and say “shame on you” to HMRC for enforcing the use of an 0845 and costing me money to report someone stealing my money.
I gave both agencies full names, address, bank account details, National Insurance numbers, inside leg measurements and a rough idea where they had gone back to (from the place names on the bank transactions). I was thanked for my assistance and left it at that, safe in the knowledge that I had gone some way of my own volition to reducing our national debt.
Reporting it: Round One
A month later at the beginning of January 2012, more bank statements fell through my door, intermingled with my own bank and credit card statements. I tore open the lot again not paying the slightest attention to the addressee (maybe this is wrong of me? But it fell through my door). Again midway through thinking “I don’t recognise any of these transactions”, I realised it wasn’t mine again. The last transaction dated 6 days prior, was yet more Child Tax Credit and Child Benefit being paid in. Flicking through the pages, it had never stopped.
Again I rang the agencies concerned. “Well done” to the DWP for having the 0800, and for answering instantly. “Shame on you” to HMRC for still having an 0845 number, and not answering it for 20 minutes.
I gave the same information all over again. This time just in case they don’t take anonymous reports all that seriously, I gave my name, address, telephone number, email address, employment details (I like to think I have a trustworthy, upstanding job within the community), and offered to send copies of the documents as evidence. This was declined.
Towards the end of January (you’ll notice a theme developing here) another tree fell through my door courtesy of Royal Mail. Half asleep I tore open the lot and repeated my 20 seconds of “has someone cloned by debit card?” line of thinking before realising it wasn’t my bank statement. Incensed at catching ‘CHB’ in one of the comments I scanned the rest of the statement. They were still in Eastern Europe, and still claiming both benefits.
Apparently, zero action had been taken on my reports despite having every piece of information asked for (twice!), and 3 months to act on it.
I was so incensed I wrote to my MP. I asked some probing questions, and gave all case details to him to date. I asked why nothing was being done. I asked just what it takes to get an action on fraud reports, and if he’d be so kind as to tell me so I could do it. He wrote back by email the next day stating he’d written to Lord Freud, the Minister fo Welfare Reform (nominally attached to the DWP it appears, from his letterhead) and he would forward any response received.
On the 1st Febuary 2012 I received a posted letter from my MP enclosing the response from Lord Freud. He wrote:
“I am replying as the Minister responsible for this area of the Department’s work.
The information that is given to us by members of the public is key to many of our benefit fraud investigations. We therefore encourage any member of the public who might be aware of an individual committing benefit fraud to contact the confidential National Benefit Fraud Hotline on 0800 854 440. The line is available seven days a week between 7am and 11pm. Alternatively, suspicions can also be reported online at www.dwp.gov.uk/benefit-thieves
It is important to emphasise that, for reasons relating to data protection, we are unable to comment on any fraud investigation or enquiries that may be being made [my emphasis] by our investigators. This also means that we cannot provide members of the public with progress updates relating to the information they have provided. [I don't need an update from DWP - the statements I continue to receive say it all]. However, I can assure you that all allegations of benefit fraud are investigated and, where evidence is obtained to substantiate the information further, appropriate action is taken. Benefit fraud investigators are expected to progress cases without undue delay and investigations are brought to a conclusion as soon as enough evidence is gathered to prove or disprove the allegation made. The time taken to do this will depend on the nature of the allegation and the avenues of enquiry that will need to be pursued.
While I should clarify that Child Tax Credit and Child Benefit are benefits administered by HM Revenue and Customs, both this Department and HM Revenue and Customs are absolutely committed to reducing the level of fraud and error in the benefit system and are working closely together to undertake a radical new zero tolerance approach. [Shouldn't benefit fraud always have been zero tolerance?]
Finally, I am unaware of which 0845 your constituent has been contacting, however the advertised National Benefit Fraud Hotline is free to call from BT landlines. [Yes it is. But they will not take reports under any circumstances for Child Tax Credit. They will direct you to call 0845 300 3900].
Today, March 23rd, 2012 I repeated the whole “tree through door” scenario. Today I again sleepily tore open my mail. Today I again opened a bank statement .Today I again see Child Tax Credit and Child Benefit still being paid in with no sign of stopping.
This case is probably repeated hundreds of thousands of times up and down the country (and in my case, across the world). Billions of pounds a year are being lost out of the benefit system due to fraud and error (DWP’s own statistics for 2011 put the value at £3,200,000,000 (3.2 billion pounds).
My job and livelihood, or at the very least my rate of pay is at risk because of government cuts, and yet just 0.15% of that headline figure would pay for what my employer is short by.
What else can I do?