The BBC will tonight air an edition of Panorama looking at benefit fraud – entitled “Britain on the Fiddle.”
The issue is one that has caught out politicians and the media alike in the past. Both Chancellor George Osborne and Work and Pensions Minister Lord Freud have exaggerated the level of benefit fraud conflating it with the sums lost to error.
The Department for Work and Pensions publishes figures on the sums lost to benefit fraud and error: preliminary data suggests that £3.3 billion was lost in the 2010/11 financial year, with £1.2 billion of this identified as fraudulent payments.
However when tonight’s document was trailed in this morning’s newspapers, an entirely different and much larger figure was proposed.
The Mirror claimed that: “Benefit fiddles have rocketed 30 per cent in the last three years costing the economy around £22 billion annually.”
This is nearly twenty times the figure reported by the DWP.
When Full Fact began to investigate this claim we immediately found problems. The BBC website confirms that the figure is one that is used in tonight’s Panorama.
However it states clearly that “government is losing an estimated £22 billion to fraud and error across all departments.” Only £4 billion of this is due to benefit fraud.
By far the larger proportion of this sum is the £18 billion lost through error – both those made by claimants and those made by government – and other types of fraud, such as those involving commercial contracts.
The BBC told us that the source of this claim is research published by the Centre for Counter Fraud Studies, based at Portsmouth University. The difference between these figure and those given by the DWP is that the former includes fraud and error not covered by the DWP, such as tax credits and “social housing scams.”
We will of course be watching closely tonight to ensure that this is made clear.
However given that the amount of error in the benefits system greatly outweighs the amount of fraud, and given that the Work and Pensions select committee has noted that much of the press reporting on benefits claimants has been “pejorative…irresponsible and inaccurate”, whether a documentary entitled “Britain on the Fiddle” will help to bring some balance and perspective to this important debate remains to be seen.
Full Fact will be looking into the £4 billion figure more closely tomorrow. Check back then to find out more.