Set the record straight, Mr Cameron

Together with several other charities and national churches, we have written to the Prime Minister, requesting a public correction of misleading statements made by the Chancellor about benefit 'fraud'.
Set the record straight, Mr Cameron

George Osborne made seriously misleading statements about the scale of benefit fraud

In his Commons speech announcing the Comprehensive Spending Review, the Chancellor incorrectly stated that welfare fraud was estimated to be ��5bn. The actual government estimate is ��1.6Bn, less than a third of the Chancellor���s figure.

As part of a coalition of Christian churches and charities, we have written to the Prime Minister asking for the public record to be corrected, both the Commons Record and an official publication where this error is repeated. The debate on welfare reform is too important to be conducted on the basis of wrong information. Here is a copy of the letter we sent:

Dear Mr Cameron

We are writing to express our concern that a number of recent Government announcements have had the effect of stigmatising the poor, especially those in receipt of out of work benefits. Our experience of working in deprived communities is that life on benefits is often a struggle, with difficult and stressful financial choices being a daily occurrence. We believe this reality is not well reflected in Government statements, and needs to be at the heart of any debate on Welfare Reform

The stigmatising effect these announcements have had on the poorest and most vulnerable in society has been noted in a number of areas by the signatories of this letter, who may correspond individually at a later date.  The single outstanding example has been Government rhetoric around benefit fraud. We in no way condone benefit fraud and would wish to see this reduced to zero, but we question the Government���s public emphasis placed upon it. For the financial year 2009-2010, the NAO estimates fraud to be 0.6% of the DWP benefits bill, while errors make up more than double this figure. The tendency to emphasise fraud when poverty and welfare reform are discussed often distracts attention from getting resources to those genuinely in need, which accounts for the other 99.4% of benefit spending.
 
The most important example of this misrepresentation occurred when your Chancellor conflated benefit fraud and error during his speech announcing the Comprehensive Spending Review on October 20th 2010.
 
He said:
���Nor will fraud in the welfare system be tolerated any more. We estimate that ��5 billion a year is being lost in this way - ��5 billion that others have to work long hours to pay in their taxes. This week we published our plans to step up the fight to catch benefit cheats and deploy uncompromising penalties when they are caught.���
 
As I trust you are aware, the ��5 billion figure is a threefold exaggeration of the true Government estimate of benefit fraud. The publication referred to above confirms that benefit fraud is estimated at ��1billion, and tax credit fraud is estimated at ��0.6 billion, making a total of ��1.6 billion. The exaggerated figure is derived by adding the fraud estimates to the error estimates.
 
We agree with the Government that benefit fraud is a serious offence, but implying that the poorest perpetrate this offence three times more than is the case is clearly unjust. We also agree with you that the CSR will dramatically affect the lives of a generation, but the fact that issues around welfare reform are vital to the social and economic future of this country means it is imperative that the debate is informed by accurate information.
 
As speeches in the Commons are matters of public record we would ask that you instruct the Chancellor to correct his statement of 20 October. We would also ask that the Ministerial foreword to the publication ���Tackling fraud and error in the benefit and tax credits systems��� published last week by the DWP and HMRC, is similarly corrected, as it makes the same error.
 
We would ask for a speedy response as the debate on welfare reform is moving rapidly and deserves to be informed by the best and most accurate information possible.

The letter was signed by Church Action on Poverty, the Methodist Church, the Salvation Army, the United Reformed Church, the Baptist Union, Housing Justice and the Church of Scotland.

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