SOCIAL SECURITY: A REPORT FROM THE INSIDE The truth about
the welfare rackets
The author is an official of the Supplemen- tary Benefits Commission. For obvious reasons he has to write under an assumed name.
To anyone who has ever worked in the Supplementary Benefits side of the Ministry of Social Security (or, to give it its full new dignity, the Department of Health and Social Security) it is painfully clear that neither politicians nor the public at large have any real understanding or knowledge of the present state and functioning of the supplementary benefits scheme. Members of the Government who do understand it obviously have reputations to maintain and factions to placate and so do not reveal the true situation. The Ministry's staff, who are aware of the widespread maladministration and abuse of the system, are effectively muzzled, enabling the mess to be swept further under the carpet and the abuse to flourish and increase.
Most people are aware that supplemen- tary benefits are payments made in addition to national insurance benefits to individuals who either cannot manage on their national insurance money, or do not qualify for national insurance as they have not bothered about the weekly insurance stamp. Until comparatively recently, the payments were made by the National Assistance Board; and although the name has been changed to the Supplementary Benefits Commission within the Ministry of Social Security, the Commission is to all intents and purposes a separate ministry run by the same people (and in the same way) as those who ran the National Assistance Board. All payments are made by a means test, but it is never referred to as this, for obvious political reasons. Although it is nowadays popular to urge people to claim their 'en- titlement', this is in no sense a paid-for entitlement. More than a quarter of the pay- ments made by the Department are to people who are not entitled to any national insurance benefits at all. Since the supple- mentary benefit is usually larger than a normal national insurance benefit, this con- vinces many of them that it is a sound in- vestment to cease paying the 'stamp' altogether.
No one, of course, would dispute that a man who is genuinely unemployed or sick should have an income on which he can comfortably cope and meet all his responsi- bilities. But at the present time the abuse of the supplementary benefits scheme is so widespread that it has become a mockery. On the basis of my own experience, I must sadly record that large numbers of people, by processes of deception, fraud and even violence, are getting money that they do not need and to which they are not entitled. It is safe to say that each week many thousands of pounds are literally pilfered from the public purse without so much as a cry of protest, let alone any action to curb it. The Ministry has become 'fair game', a place where good money can be obtained with a minimum of effort and a modicum of ingenuity.
Among the unemployed the abuse is par- ticularly marked. In spite of the Govern- ment's economic measures it remains true that throughout most of southern England work is quite plentiful and most people who want a job have no difficulty in getting one. Yet the labour exchanges, here as elsewhere, are filled with clients who show little or no inclination to work. There is virtually no machinery to get them into work and they are quite content to draw large weekly amounts of tax-free supplemen- tary allowances. Friday is signing-on day at the Ministry of Labour (or Department of Employment and Productivity, as it is now ironically called) and it is on Friday, too, that there is a mass migration to the Ministry of Social Security to plead destitu- tion, poverty and starvation.
To anybody on a genuine visit to a supplementary benefits office on a Friday, the experience, as well as being an eye- opener, is depressing and disillusioning. I have many times seen ordinary old age pen- sioners on a routine visit with a query or problem reduced to tears when they are confronted with these professional poverty- pleaders, and many normally hard-working men and women speak with complete dis- gust and contempt for the vast majority of their fellow-clients at the supplementary benefits office. For they see the professional poor at work, and find themselves sur- rounded by leather jackets, long dirty hair, tattoos, obscenities, young children scream- ing, cigarette smoke, the fragrance of well- whiskied breath, violence and abuse. I have seen many of these people putting their 'benefit' into already well bulging wallets. And most of them, after their initial pay- ment at the supplementary benefits office, can then count on receiving further pay- ments each week through the Ministry of Labour.
If a man gets tired of his job, as many do regularly, he qualifies for payments im- mediately. A council workman recently gave up his job, receiving well over £30 after the rent money had been deducted; yet within a week he had stated the usual: 'I've got nothing, what am I expected to do, let my kids starve?' (all two of them). He got his benefit. Hundreds of similar examples occur each week. An extreme case I have en- countered of this type was when a man received a week's wages of over £60, which he spent on the 'necessities' of life within three days, and then received benefit; yet he had still made no attempt to pay off his large rent arrears.
It is true that when someone deliberately gives up his job, disciplinary action can be taken in the form of a penal deduction from the benefit. This amounts to the grand total of fifteen shillings for a period of six weeks. Some deterrent, when the man's total tax free income can still be approach- ing £20 a week!
A large proportion of those who do register as being unemployed in their par- ticular trade are in fact carrying on other occupations on the side, such as fruit picking, scrap dealing, or working as builders' subcontractors. Often the man's wife, too, will be working, making the over- all incomes of these households quite large. I am always mystified why no survey is ever made to discover just what percentage of the un mployed really are unemployed.
Presumably the answer is that the results of such a survey would show the full ex- tent of the present abuse and the system would be shown in its true unfavourable light. Nearly five years ago a survey was carried out on unmarried mothers and de- serted wives to see how many were receiving money to which they were not entitled; but although the inquiries provided some remarkable results, so far as I am aware they were never made public.
Even those who commit the most blatant frauds have little to fear from punishments. Recently it was discovered that a man who had been drawing supplementary benefit of over £13 per week for several months, had 'forgotten' to report that his wife had been working all the time. He received a larger than usual fine for this type of case—no less than £20—which still meant that he was many pounds in pocket. Since then he has bought a car, and his wife and child- ren (home for a few weeks from council care) managed to get a free holiday from some organisation for underprivileged families. Here, again, cases like this are common, and not isolated as some would have us think, while there are many cases of known fraud which never get to court at all but are merely settled by the allowance being withdrawn, often only temporarily.
One fundamental flaw in the present system is that, although they are mostly dealing with the same people and the same problems, the Ministry of Labour and the Ministry of Social Security are two com- pletely separate entities. Co-ordination between the two is almost non-existent, and sometimes the policies of the two ministries are almost diametrically opposed. The most sensible solution, I believe, would be a single department dealing with the unemployed. capable of handling the whole financial side while being in close contact with em- ployers and aware of where work can be obtained. As it is now, the Ministry of Social Security has no effective method o getting a person to work. In theory a ma can be prosecuted for refusing work an failing to maintain himself and his family but most officers of the Ministry canno' remember such action ever having been taken. In practice, persuasion alone can used, usually to absolutely no effect.
Last year the then Minister of Soda Security, Mrs Judith Hart, brought in ruling that fit, single people under the ag of forty-five could have their benefit with drawn after a period of four weeks, prod ded that there was work available. Althoug this group of unemployed is no real pro' lem anyway, the new regulation has been complete success. This proves that when deadline is set, work is soon found. Th same principle should now be extended t the other classes of unemployed, and tb officers of the ministry need to be gi‘e greater powers to use their discretion an initiative to get people into work. The four-week rule has, in fact, alread been used (unofficially) on men over fort five, with some success. Some weeks ago family man, who had been exaggerating a ailment, was told point blank that money was being stopped as he was makin no effort to get work. It had been known for some time that he had been making money on the side but nothing officially could be done about it. The next day he found a good job and he has been working ever since. The officer who terminated the allowance would not have received any support from his superiors if the man had complained to his MP, yet he had ended an abuse, saved the country money and made the man stand on his own feet again.
Once a man has decided that he is better off receiving benefits than working he may even become too idle to 'sign on.' The benefits are so good and the responsibilities so few that certain standard malingerers' diseases develop, such as 'backache' or 'de- pression', neither of which can be accurately diagnosed. Consequently doctors' surgeries are full of such conditions on Monday mornings—but never on Friday afternoons. (Incidentally, if a man is unfit to work through being a drug addict or an alcoholic, he can claim his weekly benefit but is under no obligation to have treatment for his condition.) Probation officers, often almost driven to a life of crime themselves out of sheer frustration, say, unofficially of course, that it is frequently impossible to persuade their 'customers' to work since the state benefits are so high. In theory there is a 'wage stop' which can be applied to benefits to prevent the money received from exceeding a claimant's normal wages. This is claimed by some politicians to be vicious and in- human, but in practice the wage-stop, far from being pernicious, is more often merely pointless, since many people see no sense in working a whole week when they could in fact receive the same amount of money for doing nothing.
Another anomalous and abuse-ridden aspect of the ministry's work is its treat- ment of strikes and strikers. Officially, all those who are directly involved in industrial disputes are debarred from receiving supple- mentary allowances for themselves, and may claim only on behalf of their families; but in practice this is just not so. For in- stance, during the unofficial London dock strike of 1967, over £500,000 was paid in supplementary allowances to the strikers. Here were 6,000 men supposedly under- going all manner of hardship on the grounds of principle, in fact being paid by the nation to disrupt its economy. While the militants were making their decisions at dock gate meetings, hundreds of men would be receiving their payments at the ministry's hastily set up local emergency offices. Even at the strike meetings themselves the men were told where to go to receive their money. (Needless to say, Mr Jack Dash was among those receiving money from the state.) According to the ministry's regula- tions, money can be claimed for the striker's family and to cover the cost of rent or rates. Most of the dockers were already receiving quite large payments each week from tax refunds; and since the first £3 15s of this was ignored in the calculation of benefit Payable, the striker's overall income was in fact almost the same as a full supplementary allowance. The few strikers who received no tax refund at all were usually classified as 'urgent cases' and paid an allowance for themselves anyway.
Here again the ministry seems to be anxious not to tackle the problems facing it. Its main concern seems to be to avoid all criticism from those who imagine that strikers are always downtrodden members
of an exploited class. In fact, with first hand experience of several strikes and informa- tion from both the 'exploiters' and the 'ex- ploited', it becomes very difficult to decide just who is exploiting whom and for what. The strike, far from being a weapon of de- fence; now seems often to have become an offensive bludgeon. Yet the Government actually makes a positive financial contribu- tion to strikes, helping them to continue and flourish by paying strikers in the form of supplementary benefits and those 'laid off' with unemployment benefit, earnings-re- lated supplements and supplementary bene- fit. A minute minority of left-wing agitators with axes to grind and nests to feather can and do disrupt our major industries at will. Men denied a ballot vote and faced with prospects of intimidation and unpleasant- ness will reluctantly play along for the alleged sake of 'solidarity'. Decisions are
FACTS AND FIGURES
from the Report of the Supplementary Benefits Commission for the year ended 31 December 1968, published July 1969.
`Several of the statistics in this re- port show the increase in the ad- ministrative load. As compared with the last full year of the National Assistance Board [19651 continuing awards in the year 1968 increased by over 50 per cent, immediate payments by almost 80 per cent and the num- ber of callers again by over 50 per cent.'
`Reports from officers whose job it was to interview people who had been unemployed for a considerable time were also scrutinised.... Over the country as a whole, reports were available on about 11,000 men, all unemployed for at least three months, who had been selected for interview . . In fact, six out of ten ceased to draw allowances before or soon after the interview was due to take place. Most found jobs for themselves. . . . These figures give some reason to think that in a wide range of occupa- tions some people might be too ready to rely on the Supplementary Benefits Scheme.'
made easier and consciences appeased by the knowledge that neither the striker nor his family will be allowed to suffer much financially by an apparently loving govern- ment.
At the Ford strike in March five emer- gency supplementary benefit offices were established in the vicinity of Dagenham to pay benefits to the strikers (from the tax- payer, not out of insurance contributions). Approximately 15.000 men were paid each week an average of £6 per week. This sum may appear small. but when added to strike pay and income tax refunds it meant that the overall take-home pay of the strikers was quite healthy, with the prospect that any slight loss of earnings could quickly be made good by plenty of overtime work as soon as the strike was over. The Social Security Act itself specifically states that strikers themselves are not eligible to receive benefits, yet in reality part of their in- come tax funds is 'ignored' each week and this, when added to the amount pay- able for dependants, means that their over- all income is the same as that of any other person receiving a straightforward payment of Supplementary Benefit.
It almost seems that wherever agita- tion is persistent enough, benefits will be paid. Up and down the country, whenever there is a strike and two or three strikers are gathered together, supplementary bene- fits will be there. Even the leaders and agi- tators-in-chief will join the queue to get their benefits. It is not unusual to hear them. in the course of the strike meetings them- selves, advising the men to make their claims.
Earlier this year eleven workers at Elks- mere Port stopped all production at Vaux- hall Motors. Consequently thousands of men were laid off. They then signed on at the Department of Employment and Pro- ductivity and received their benefits. When they finally went back to work teams of social security officers actually moved into the factories to pay out workers for their first week back. All tax refunds were com- pletely ignored in calculating their require- ments, which meant that even people with refunds of up to £20 a week, and with few commitments, still received money. Nor do the actual payments made constitute the only expenditure. for the ministry's staff themselves receive expenses of up to £3 10s. per day plus travelling expenses —which means that the overall cost of subsidising a strike can be very large indeed. In this way a few men can not only stop an entire pro- duction line but also create a vast drain on public funds. Men can strike or be laid off knowing full well that they will suffer no financial hardship--even their personal savings (and often union funds, too) will remain untouched, as the government will pay.
The other main area of abuse is found among women who claim benefit on the grounds that they have been deserted by their husbands or by the fathers of their children, and have no financial support. The idea of helping a genuinely deserted wife or unmarried mother until she sorts out her domestic and emotional problems is a proper policy for an aware and com- passionate society, but the number of people who are misusing the scheme is alarming. If the ministry were to make pub- lic the figures it must have of the percent- age of women who are abusing this entitle- ment it would immediately be clear that the whole system needs to be reviewed and that allegations of wholesale abuse should not be disregarded (as they now arc) and written off as ill-informed exaggeration. The truth is that large numbers of couples arc finding that supplementary benefits make a very pleasant tax-free dividend for extra-marital liaisons.
Many single girls and separated wives are in fact living with men in a husband-and• wife relationship. yet although they are aware that they are not eligible to receive supplementary benefits. they nevertheless make fraudulent claims and receive weekly payments as a result. The cases often degen- erate into Brian Rix-like bedroom farces, with the ministry's visiting officer trying to sort out just who is sleeping with whom. Even so. the woman only has to deny co- habitation—e.g. 'My friend does come to visit me from time to time and it so hap- pened that he left his pipe-rack and shoes behind' or 'Of course he's not hiding, he just happened to be in the wardrobe when you came'—and nothing can be done.
Again, a husband may initially leave his home to work away, or a genuine domestic upset may occur; but once his wife finds out how much benefit she can get it often becomes painful for her to give it up. When the husband returns, therefore, or a recon- ciliation takes place, the supplementary benefit will often still be claimed. On many occasions, when the initial desertion is genuine, the wife finds herself receiving more money from the state than she did from her husband, so, unless she is pre- pared to make a fraudulent claim, the state provides her with a clear financial incentive to prevent a reconciliation taking place.
Recently one woman who had been re- ceiving benefit over a long period was
actually prosecuted for failure to disclose both cohabitation and the fact that she was working. She was found guilty and given a small fine and she promised to pay back the money she had wrongfully received. After much bickering with the ministry she agreed to repay the total amount (well over £1,600) at the rate of half a crown a week----itriply- ing some 250 years to pay—and this ludi- crous offer was accepted. Although she does not pay even this now, nothing more is to be done; yet both she and her partner were well aware that they had been breaking the law, and both had been, and still are, earn- ing good wages.
In areas where there is a high proportion of coloured people and suspected cohabita- tion is taking place, great care has to be used when trying to terminate the allowance, as it is the unwritten law, laid down by senior officials of the ministry, 'to take it easy on coloured people', and so avoid all accusations of colour prejudice, heAvever unfounded they may be.
The trouble some people will take in pre- paring a fictitious desertion is quite amazing. In one such case I encountered, the woman wrote to the ministry stating that her hus- band had run off leaving her in urgent need. The visiting officer rushed out to take a statement from her, to help her in her time of need. On arrival a tearful deserted wife and mother bade him enter and t1I wife introduced him to her husband's 'identical twin brother', who: hearing of his brother's dastardly behaviour had come to give moral support, and was deeply distressed by his brother's callous and irresponsible be- haviour. The woman was then issued with an allowance book to cover all her needs. After months of being absent at an un- known address the husband suddenly re- turned, and, by way of coincidence, the identical twin brother left the same day as he did not wish to intrude on the happy reunion. The visiting officer then rushed out to tell the husband he had been a naughty boy and all was well. A few weeks later the local welfare officer discovered that no brother, let alone an 'identical twin', existed. Meanwhile, during his supposed absence, the husband had pestered all the welfare organisations, obtaining clothing and a pram to prevent 'hardship'.
However, it was decided not to prosecute the couple, for, when she realised that her scheme had been discovered, the wife, under great mental strain, informed the ministry that she had recently attempted to commit suicide. She said she had already stuck her head in the gas oven a week before, and was determined to do herself in. Later still, it was found out that she had indeed put her head in the gas oven—almost exactly a week after the gas had been cut off for non- payment of the bill. Mentally unbalanced? After trying to get the couple to repay the money voluntarily for a few weeks, with no success, the whole matter was dropped. This example may sound like pure fantasy, yet it is perfectly true; and such schemes and dramas are taking place all the time.
Among the most difficult women to deal with are the 'camp followers', a collection of single women, separated wives and pros- titutes who gather on caravan sites close to American Air Force bases. They lead lives similar to those of the camp followers of old, except that they receive supplementary benefits as well. They range from young girls who have just left school to hardened professionals who, with advancing years, are finding it difficult to manage on unsubsi- dised trade. Most of them receive supple- mentary allowances of about £10 a week, yet from their luxury caravans, expensive hair-dos, 'with it' clothes and heavy intake and storage of spirits, it is clear that they enjoy other sources of income. This extra income comes from the American service- men with whom they are living, or from a succession of 'boy friends' who drop in at all hours of the day and night – just for a cup of tea, of course.
if the Commission's visiting officer indi- cates that he thinks something of the sort is taking place he will find himself at the re- ceiving end of a great burst of moral in- dignation: 'Of course I'm not living with anyone, I'm a good clean-living girl I am. I'm not like all the others round here' (de- spite the three illegitimate children, by three different fathers, sitting in the corner). Many of these ladies find their children too much of a bind and have them taken in 'by the council—all except for one: for if a woman has a dependent child she is not obliged to work until the child becomes non-dependent at the age of sixteen. This rule is founded on the understandable assumption that a child's mother is the person best qualified to bring it up. But when the woman has a continuous stream of male visitors, holds drunken parties and gets involved in vicious cat fights over men, the application of the rule in these cases seems hard to justify. However many comprehensive schools the
government establishes, the children of such households will never have a fair chance. In all hardship cases involving women with children one fact is abundantly clear: the present system of obtaining maintenance from the child's father is completely in- adequate. Men, run off and submerge them- selves somewhere in our crowded society, or just take on other financial commitments, and the financial burden of supporting their children falls on the state.
Many of those who abuse the supplemen- tary benefits scheme, whether deserted wives or unemployed husbands, are not satisfied with the automatic gains of their deception
and will attend the ministry's offices regularly to plead for additional payments towards clothing and bills or for vouchers to obtain clothing and other articles from the wvs. Here again, much of this extra help i§ abused. One woman who obtained financial help to buy a pram advertised it in the local paper the following week and obtained a good price for it, while a man Who was established in a fresh house and given good secondhand furniture to get him off to a good start sold it all at the local market.
Needless to say, the ministry employs a
body of special investigators whose job it is to check all these types of abuse. Un- fortunately, however, the procedure re- quired to get them onto a case, combined with the fact that there are too few of them trying to do too much work, means that the effect they have on the overall situation had ionis very small. For much of last year they such a large backlog of cases to look into that even some of the most blatant ex- - amples of fraud had to be overlooked as the ministry's investigators had no time to deal with them or to follow up information; and the position is getting worse. The visit- ing officer himself is under such pressure of work (contrary to popular visions of the civil service) that he has'no time to spare for individual investigations; for when a prosecution is brought a considerable Amount of time has to be spent in obtain- ing the full facts, presenting them correctly, observing the Judges' Rules and so on. In any event, most of the punishments now meted out by the courts in this type of case are so derisory that they hardly justify the time and effort involved in securing a con- viction. Court cases are certainly no longer a deterrent to abuse.
Strange as it may seem, in all the ministry's dealings the much-publicised phenomenon of child poverty in Britain is seldoni, if ever, encountered. It is true that children are regularly seen inadequately clothed, badly fed, dirty and even diseased, but is it right to use the word poverty? Cer- tainly not with any financial connotation; for in most homes where 'child poverty' is found, even if the families were receiving £50 a week the condition of the children would be unchanged. The unhappy facts are that even in modern civilised Britain, despite good wages and adequate welfare benefits, a Ylarge number of people choose to live in the most appalling squalor. It can be found in `itny town, and whole streets can be visited where the majority of the inhabitants live in conditions that most people would find completely repugnant. These conditions, however are created not by exploitation but by the people themselves. Despite this the whole of our welfare system seems to be founded on the philosophy that if a person receives enough money and material benefits 'tit his problems will be solved. In fact to- day it is education and supervision that are required as many families are not even aware of the basic rules of hygiene or of how to live within their budget or what food they should eat. The time has surely come for an honest and open discussion of the whole question "(of social security benefits, for it is clear that something has to be done. On the one hand benefits should be made more difficult jo come by; while, on the other, there should be more highly trained welfare workers who can help families to cope modern life. Time and sympathy are what Is required—not money and political slo-