Is The DWP Trying To Turn Communities Against Each Other?
The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has stepped up its campaign against benefit fraud – by turning citizens in the North East against one another.
The DWP has undertaken a targeted campaign within the North East to try to find those who are claiming social security when they are not entitled to the support.
A photograph was taken from of a billboard at a metro station in Wallsend, Newcastle that encouraged those who passed through (largely Newcastle citizens) to report those from Sunderland who were suspected of committing benefit fraud.
It is a targeted campaign that has so far not been documented in any other areas of the United Kingdom.
Sunderland Councillor, Barbara McClennan, who represents Hendon, a community that has often struggled for support, has backed general efforts to tackle welfare fraud. However, she has said that this campaign is a ‘slur on the people of Sunderland and the majority of Sunderland people are honest, hard-working and law-abiding citizens’.
She emphasised that fraudulent claims are ‘despicable’ but that ‘Sunderland does not have a higher proportion of benefit fraud than anywhere else’. Furthermore, she called into question the cost of the advert and suggested that it could have been spent of ‘daily visits to the elderly, repairing council houses and filling potholes’.
Around three per cent of Sunderland residents claim social security, which is only fractionally more than the population of Newcastle, with 2.5% of the residents accessing support. Of all these claimants, 9.3% of those in Sunderland and 7.5% of those in Newcastle claim Employment Support Allowance (ESA).
The similarities in resident numbers claiming social security between the two North East cities makes a targeted campaign against Sunderland claimants in Newcastle all the more brazen.
This comes in the wake of the Government releasing new figures on Employment Support Allowance and the outcomes of Work Capability Assessments.
The report showed that not only are there more claimants for ESA but that the clearance times for each applicant have almost quadrupled from an average of nine days to thirty seven.
However, while access to ESA has been widened, the entire process is still unclear with certain regional areas being more likely to be granted support than others. It is a situation repeated for the Support Group (SG), which is offered to assist those who are unable to work.
Independent researcher, Jonathan Hume, who analyses statistical data by multiple government sources highlighted his concerns for the North East, saying:
the Government deliberately broadened access to the Support Group, yet claim a higher rate of Support Group judgements implies the WCA is not being ‘applied correctly’. This moving-of-the-goalposts, making entry to the Support Group easier, then harder, is in the context of a system that shows considerable regional bias, with claimants in some areas being assigned to the Support Group at a rate three times that of other areas. It is also a system associated with abject misery, desperation, destitution and suicide.
Hume added that ‘the Government also recently changed definition of ‘work-related activity’ and downgraded suicide risk’.
The lack of transparency within the welfare system may risk claims of hypocrisy when trying to challenge those who may be falsely claiming welfare.
Since 2010, clamping down on welfare fraud has been at the top of the Government’s agenda. Upon coming to office, the then Prime Minister David Cameron claimed that £6 billion was lost by both fraud and errors in welfare each year. However, he failed to specify just how much specifically was fraudulently claimed compared to the figure lost due to administrative error.
Yet, in 2015 it was revealed that an estimated £13 billion goes unclaimed every year in social security, and over 40% of the unemployed in that year did not receive access to Job Seeker’s Allowance. In contrast, the treasury loses an estimated £16 billion a year in tax fraud, an audit report found in December.
Sunderland is one of the poorest cities in the UK; in 2013 it was estimated that 17,000 children in the city were living in poverty and it was found that all three constituencies of Sunderland were in the top twenty of those who were hit hardest by the ‘bedroom tax’. Across the North East, unemployment has been chronic since the recession, as government promises of a ‘Northern Powerhouse’ have failed to come to fruition.
The government’s lack of investment has been felt with attacks to front line services. Money that was dedicated to the North East’s NHS have been diverted to the South. While the South averaged an extra 3.5% in funding for the NHS, in 2015 plans were revealed that the Tories were seeking to axe £15 million from the North East’s healthcare budget.
The Tories plan then does not only seem to be to turn region-against-region but to turn communities against one another. The North East is being stripped bare yet the DWP’s advertising campaign implies that Sunderland is a problem area for taking money that isn’t due.
In light of the potential for bias against the North East at being able to access social security support, such a targeted advertising campaign may only help further widen the disparity between regions as well as stoking tensions between the cities of the North East.