The first time Mark Powell discovered he was in trouble was when a letter headed Fraud Investigation Section arrived from the Department for Work and Pensions stating that an investigator was going to call at his home to interview him.
Powell had been claiming incapacity benefit for years due to diabetic neuropathy and had not worked in all that time. However, his wife had taken a part-time job – despite her own partial disabilities – to supplement the meagre family income.
He had phoned the DWP and informed it of this and had been told that it had been noted on his records. He thought no more of it and it was more than two years later that the fateful letter came.
When the woman arrived from the DWP on the appointed day to carry out the interview under caution, Powell was stunned to discover his wife’s part-time job was the reason for the visit. The DWP was claiming no knowledge of her job and told Powell point blank that he was lying when he said he had informed the ministry.
A visit to his solicitor followed and Powell was further surprised at the advice he received. He was told it would be his word against the DWP and the best thing he could do was plead guilty, as a plea of innocence would be impossible to prove and always brought with it a stiffer sentence.
“Whatever happened to innocent until proven guilty?” he asked. The solicitor chuckled wryly and shook his head.
When the day of his court appearance came Powell was handed down 160 hours of community punishment and a man who had been unable to walk without discomfort for almost a decade and who had never been in trouble in his life left the dock ashamed, angry and bitter at the injustice.
If Powell’s case was a rare aberration on the part of the DWP it would have been bad enough but investigations show he is far from alone.
In 2008 Rosemary Sela, a 30-year-old mother of two from north London, took a job during school hours as a way of keeping her car on the road. She worked for 16 hours a week in a local shop.
She wrote to the DWP telling them of her activities. Five weeks later she received a letter from the DWP stating it had been informed she was “working and claiming.”
Sela pointed out it was perfectly legal to “work and claim” as long as the DWP had been informed. The ministry replied it had received information from a “third party” telling them of her shop job. She had not kept a copy of the letter she had sent them and was given 200 hours of community punishment and ordered to repay £3,200 in benefits.
With food and fuel prices spiralling it is becoming almost impossible for those on state benefits to eat, keep warm and clothe themselves. When this is coupled with the near impossibility of finding a job that pays a living wage, instances of working and claiming are going to increase.
In response, instead of making it easier to find work, the DWP is stepping up its snooping tactics in the hope of trapping more unfortunates.
Paying rewards to the public to grass on neighbours or anyone they suspect of working and claiming illegally is often the first source of information. Investigators will then often initiate a fraud inquiry based solely on this evidence secure in the knowledge that the current system requires the accused to prove their innocence.
While there is no doubt there are those who abuse the welfare system there are clearly very many who are victims of an overzealous regime that assumes guilt.
Investigators are fully aware their own salaries depend on results and that every conviction, deserved or otherwise, serves to enhance the fear and insecurity of all who rely on benefits to survive.
Twenty-nine people are convicted of benefit fraud every working day. The DWP claims it costs the country a billion pounds a year. This is of course nothing compared to the £30 billion lost to the Exchequer every year in tax evasion by the rich, but no-one at the DWP can put their hands on heart and state that every one of those hauled before the courts was guilty.
By its own admission, the DWP loses three times as much money every year in errors and incompetence than it does via alleged fraud and yet the persecution goes on.
Joanna Crieff of Cardiff, who is registered blind, was accused of working part-time as a taxi driver on the evidence of a neighbour who claims she had spotted her behind the wheel. Crieff, who has not driven for 20 years, was convicted of benefit fraud and sentenced to a period of probation but she fought back, appealed, forced the DWP to prove her guilt and when it failed and admitted its error she sued it for damages and won.
Trade union lawyer Chris Leslie has clear advice for anyone on benefits dealing with the DWP. “First of all, never rely on phone calls or simple letters – these are easily forgotten or lost in an organisation as cumbersome and inefficient as the DWP.
“Always put any information in writing and then hand deliver it to your nearest jobcentre where you can ask them to photocopy it and stamp a copy to return to you. This proves beyond any doubt that you have informed them of your actions. If they subsequently ‘lose’ their copy that’s their problem – you have your proof.
“If you still find yourself under investigation never hand your proof to their investigators. Do not even put it within reach of them. Instead lodge it with your solicitor and insist they deal with him or her.”
Those interviewed indicate that the majority of cases of benefit fraud are driven not by greed but by desperation under a welfare regime that has totally failed to keep up with the needs of its users.
The only way to escape the clutches of the DWP is to find full-time work. This is all but impossible even for the young and able-bodied and completely out of the question for those with disabilities.
Until the government acknowledges that assistance and not persecution is the real answer then the catalogue of broken lives will continue as investigators, driven by targets, forget that the object in their crosshairs might not be a hardened criminal but simply a decent human being driven to desperation by a system initially set up to protect them.