Wednesday, 18 August 2010

Racism and benefit claims

The BBC reports that nine men employed by HMRC have resigned or been fired after an investigation found that they had tampered with records to prevent benefits being paid to at least seventeen BAME families.

They were caught after a detailed audit was carried out when one of the families complained that their data was wrong, and back-payments have now been made to those affected. So, as far as that goes, all good - the system has worked in the long run.

The problem is, though, that child benefit is really straightforward as regards eligibility. Approximately, if you have a child under 16, who lives with you, and you are both UK residents and not in certain immigration categories, then you get child benefit. It's not (for now) means-tested and it's not got a 30-page form to complete for it. It is, essentially, not a particularly difficult thing to audit.

This makes it quite a rarity.

Many benefits - Disability Living Allowance (DLA), Job-seeker's Allowance (JSA), housing benefit, Council Tax benefit, and so on - are extremely heavily tested. They have long and complex forms (30 pages or so when I last claimed some of them; I imagine they've got longer since), and similarly complex rules for who can claim, and how much they're entitled to, based on the social panic over the relatively low amount of fraudulent claims.

If the nine men at HMRC had instead been working for the Department for Work and Pensions, or for the local council, handling claims for those benefits, they'd probably still all have a job, and would have been able to dismiss numerous BAME claims. Tracking them down would have been quite difficult, because there's so much scope for sending claims back for "clarification"1, losing paperwork, and a lot more discretionary decisions - especially with housing benefit where the amount to be paid is very adjustable.

Detecting racism - or other forms of discrimination - for those benefits would be significantly more difficult.

1 One of my JSA forms got returned twice for "clarifications" of data that was either already on the original form or not asked for in the first place on the original form. Conversely, in one particular case where it wasn't straightforward to prove a particular statement I was making was true, the person handling my case suggested a few possible proofs ("No, I don't have that one either") before giving up and saying that I could sign a piece of paper to declare that it was true (bear in mind I've already, at this point, signed the whole form to declare it was true) and that would be okay. It's very arbitrary, and mine was an extremely straightforward case.