Monday, 23 September 2013

MANDATORY RECONSIDERATION - now they want to stop us appealing

The one consolation and defence for the hundreds of thousands of people forced into the farce of an ATOS medical was that they could always appeal if the decision was negative. Over 400,000 people now appeal ESA decisions every year. Appeals are not perfect, not least because Tribunals still have to apply the same, crazy test. But at least you get a proper hearing before people who know something about the subject - and about 40% of the time the appeals succeed.

Now they want to stop that too ...

At present, if you fail your ESA medical, you can appeal and stay on the basic rate of ESA, as long as you keep sending in sick notes, until your appeal is decided by a Tribunal. Mandatory reconsideration means that you are not allowed to go straight to an appeal; you must first ask the DWP to reconsider their decision. On its own this would just be a way of discouraging people from appealing - a quite unneccessary extra bureaucratic hoop to jump through, and perfectly futile since DWP decisions always have been reconsidered - and occasionally changed - when you appeal. 

The really nasty part of this though is that, although you can still be paid basic rate ESA while you are waiting for an appeal to be heard, from 28th October, you CANNOT be paid ESA while you are waiting for your mandatory reconsideration request to be decided. There is no time limit within which the DWP must make a decision on a mandatory reconsideration request - they are aiming at 4-6 weeks but there is no reason why it should not take them months.

So the scenario, from 28th October, will be that you fail your ESA medical, you request a reconsideration, whereupon all your benefit stops completely for an unknown period. Your only option, in most cases, is to claim Jobseekers Allowance - or try to.

Now people SHOULD try to claim JSA when this happens. It DOESN'T, which a lot of people worry about, mean that you are accepting the ESA decision and can't succeed on the appeal (it doesn't usually come up at all in the appeal). And it doesn't mean you are acting fraudulently - they have decided you are able to do some work, not you, and you are taking them at their word. But it may not be easy because the Jobcentre will want to see some evidence that you are able to do some work, and looking for it. If you go in saying that you aren't fit for any work, your JSA claim will be refused. The line to take is that the DWP have decided that you are fit for some kind of work and you are ready willing and able to take on any work they can find which is suitable for you, given your conditions. The fact that that there probably isn't any such suitable work is not your problem. Being found fit for work doesn't mean fit for any kind of work at all and the Jobcentre can and do make some allowances when you have a disability or a health problem.

Nonetheless, a lot of people will have problems claiming JSA, signing on every fortnight, saying all the right things about looking for suitable work and maintaining their jobsearch activity. When the Jobcentre are told about your health problems, their usual reaction is to tell you to claim ESA! And if you can't, don't or won't claim JSA, you get nothing while waiting for mandatory reconsideration.

That's why we have to protest loud and long about mandatory reconsideration; this petition is a start. It is yet another blatant attack on sick and disabled and their rights. We are being driven to foodbanks and starvation by ATOS and denied access to justice.

Finally a few practical points:

1. Mandatory reconsideration only applies if the DWP letter notifying you of their decision says it does - the letter should say that you cannot appeal until you have requested a reconsideration.

2. You can request a reconsideration of the ESA decision, either by writing to the DWP (at the address on the letter giving you the decision OR by telephoning one of their call centres. You have one month from the date on the decision letter. The DWP say they will consider admitting a late review request but there is no right of appeal if they don't. So get review requests in on time - by phone if you are approaching the one month limit.

3. But when you get you mandatory reconsideration notice, you must appeal in writing, enclosing a copy of the notice (you should be sent a spare copy). You can download the appeal form here. Again you have one month from the date of decision

4. If you lose all benefit under mandatory reconsideration, you can still claim Housing Benefit for your rent. Ask the council to assess you on a 'nil income' basis.

5. The DWP, as part of mandatory reconsideration, will want to contact you by phone to 'discuss' your case and see ask you to send in any additional evidence. Do not be bullied into dropping your review request when this happens, even if they tell you you cannot succeed - it is not their decision. And do not agree to send in further evidence at this stage - it will only add to the delay and mean you have to survive longer with no payment of ESA. Send in evidence either when you first request a reconsideration or later, once your appeal has been admitted.

6. Once you have your mandatory reconsideration decision notice and make an appeal, your ESA can be restored, at the basic rate, but only from the date of your appeal. But you must then provide sick notes - so make sure you keep in touch with your GP and keep getting sick notes. If you are signing on, keep hold of the sick notes until you are allowed to make an appeal and submit them then.

EDITED 23rd September to update advice following publication of the regulations about mandatory reconsideration (SI 1983 2380 if you're interested) and to make this a separate post

UPDATED 6th December 2013: Esther McVey has said in answers to Parliamentary questions that:

  • a 'straightforward' mandatory reconsideration of an ESA decision is expected to take about 14 days. Straightforward apparently means that there is no extra evidence which reinforces the advice NOT to send in any additional evidence at the reconsideration stage;
  • Jobcentre Plus CANNOT overrule a decision that you are fit for work and refuse to pay you JSA pending reconsideration. However you must still agree to be available for any 'suitable' work and sign a jobseekers agreement. So, as I said, don't tell the Jobcentre you are not fit for any work at all. Tell them that DWP have decided you are fit for some, unspecified, work and you are available to do that work, whatever it is. They made the decision, not you, so it's up to them to help you find that work they say you can do.

Sunday, 22 September 2013


The Sickness Unto Death was Kierkegaard's diagnosis of life without faith in God. As we commemorate the 10,000 and more who have died awaiting, or after failing, their work capability assessments with ATOS, it is worth considering the analogous condition of those of us who are obliged, by ill health or disability, to claim Employment Support Allowance (ESA).

ESA was introduced in 2008 to replace both Incapacity Benefit (IB) and Income Support (IS) paid to people claiming 'on the sick'. As such it takes two forms - contributory ESA, based on NI contributions and not means tested, and income related ESA, replacing Income Support. With ESA was introduced a new assessment process to decide who was sufficiently incapable to qualify - the work capability assessment (WCA). This assessment results in everyone either failing to qualify for ESA at all, or being placed in one of two groups - the work-related activity group for people held to have some prospects of work, and the suppport group for people with more severe problems. The contract to assess people under the WCA was given to the French IT and services company ATOS.

Initially ESA was only for new claimants; the transfer of existing IB and IS claimants to ESA began in 2011 and is now nearing its end. One of the first and biggest benefit cuts anounced by the coalition government was that, on transfer to ESA, entitlement to the contributory version of the benefit would only last for 12 months, unless you were placed in the support group - after that all help is means tested. There is now no state provision for long term ill health, except for the most severely disabled people, without a means test.

At the core of ESA then is the work capability assessment. Although everyone, including government ministers, refers to this as a test of whether you are 'fit for work' the legal wording is different: you can have 'limited capability for work', in which case you are placed in the work-related activity group or 'limited capability for work related activity' which puts you in the support group.

The development of the work capability assessment was heavily influenced by the development, by private insurance companies seeking to avoid paying out on compensation claims, of new, 'functional', tests of disability, and the computer programes which apply those tests. The programme for the work capability assessment is called LIMA (Logical Integrated Medical Assessment) and is owned by ATOS. For a detailed account of the interpenetrating influences of ATOS, the American insurance giant Unum (with their long history of scandals) and the British state see this excellent piece by Debbie Jolly of DPAC.



This is where different philosophies and perceptions of ill health and disability meet and clash. The government, and the private insurance companies who tell government what to think, claim to be using sophisticated and intimidating theories such as the 'bio-psychosocial model of disability' (which just means they don't have to involve doctors and so save money) and 'evidence based medicine' (to be distinguished from the fantasy medicine most doctors practice). They claim that their 'functional' test is objective as distinct from the sloppily subjective opinions of disabled people themselves or the people who live and work with them. They claim that if the test encourages work, that is because work is good for you (but the evidence they cite is that work in a good job is good for you, not any work).

What they are actually applying is the crudest possible combination of prejudice and ideology. They use a test which considers an incredibly narrow range of functions and allows only for yes/no answers which completely fail to capture the many practical problems which people with disabilities or serious health problems fact if they try to work. From this test you would imagine that most 'work' involves sitting down and pressing a button occasionally, includes almost no travelling or stairs, requires only occasional communication of the simplest messages - oh, and the employer would prefer you not to black out or crap yourself more than once a week. You can try the test for yourself at the Benefits and Work site if you think I'm exaggerating.

Occasionally, the more sophisticated politicians claim that the WCA follows the social model of disability, as developed by disabled people themselves. They lie. The social model asserts that 'impairments' become 'disability' only because of the systematic discrimination and oppression of disabled people. Disabled people can do many things, including work, but not when the jobs, systems, physical structures and attitudes involved in work make no allowance for their impairments. The WCA apes the social model in distinguishing between the underlying condition and the disability, then makes a mockery of it by using a ridiculous caricature of what work under capitalism is like and ignoring everything we ourselves say about our impairments.

Worse, politicians and a few privileged disabled people, claim that opposition to the WCA and ATOS underestimates what disabled people can do and condemns them to a life on benefit. This is utterly cynical because it ignores the actual effects of an ATOS assessment. If you are found 'fit for work' it does not raise your horizons or encourage you to try working. Still less does it mean you get any actual help to work. It simply cuts your benefits by 40%. Then it requires you to spend most of your time looking for crap work in jobs you can't do and won't get. The alternative on offer to a life on ESA is a life on the dole interspersed with Work Programme placements.

And as for the actual experience of work capability assessments ... a computer that repeats all negative findings over and over while ignoring any problems it does identify ... assessments that can last less than 20 minutes at inaccessible venues ... all alternative evidence ignored ... formulaic judgments applied without thought .... and much more.

That is why you get results like this - a person with both legs amputated failing the assessment. Now of course a double, below-knee, amputee can work - with suitable adaptations, in a workplace they can get to and provided their stumps aren't playing up too much. Disabled people spent 40 years campaigning against government policies that consigned them to inactivity or incarceration and we're not going to have the door slammed in our faces again and be told we can't work.

But here the government and its propagandists deliberately confuse the issue. They apply a test which says it is a test of 'limited capability for work' but is in fact a crude list of a limited range of impairments. They then ignore all the difficulties people with impairments still face in finding and keeping suitable work. Then they use the result to drive disabled people into penury - and brand them skivers and fakers on the way out.

A person with a double leg amputation is not incapable of work. They do face significant barriers to work. Those barriers should be recognised in any civilised system. The decision that this man is not entitled to ESA looks unconscionable and it is - not because he cannot ever work but because he has impairments, and the consequent disability, which demand recognition but are being denied.


These fundamental considerations mean that the work capability assessment cannot be reformed. No programme of tinkering with descriptors can produce a test that is remotely fair because the work capability assessment is not designed to be fair. It is designed to discipline and humiliate. It is designed to block the legitimate claims disabled people have for support they need to be independent. It has to be ended.

Nor does Liam Byrne's announcement that ATOS's  contract would not be renewed by Labour in itself change anything. The contract for ESA assessments is due for renewal anyway in 2015 and other firms are waiting in line, with Capita probably at the head of the queue. And ATOS still have the contract for PIP assessments over most of the country (PIP - Personal Independence Payment -  is the replacement for Disability Living Allowance designed to cut 20% from expenditure and reduce support for 500,000 disabled people). And ATOS's replacement will still be implementing the same work capability assessment. 

ATOS are not simply incompetent anyway. They have done what government - the last Labour government - asked them to do. They have implemented a system designed to reduce expectations of, and demand for, support by the state for disabled people. They have enabled a campaign of harassment and abuse, orchestrated by the coalition government, against disabled people and other claimants. They have done what they were paid to do even if 10,000 died in the process.

That does not mean we have wasted our time in all the campaigns, pickets and protests, just that we have a long way still to go. There are some signs for instance that Tribunals - and even decision makers at the DWP - are coming to recognise how crude and inadequate is the work capability assessment. Many more decisions are being made that circumvent the test proper by using the 'exceptional circumstances' provisions that exist alongside the test. Regulations 29 and 35 of the ESA Regulations are the ones to cite. If you can show that there would be 'a serious risk to your physical or mental health' if you were to fail the test - either for the support group or for the work related activity group - then a Tribunal in particular can bypass the points system and award ESA regardless.

But NOW - now it gets worse.  


Thursday, 19 September 2013


A short comment on this case. Joanne Gibbons, "a benefit cheating single mum" as the MEN nicely puts it, was claiming Income Support and Child Tax Credit when she started a job which must have been for over 16 hours a week. What she was supposed to do then was to switch her  Income Support claim to a claim for Working Tax Credit. She didn't, she went on claiming Income Support and didn't tell the DWP about her work.

Someone informed on her, anonymously as always. The DWP investigated and got details of the work. She will have been interviewed under caution, admitted the work and her Income Support will have been stopped. Then she was charged, probably with 'knowingly' failing to disclose a material fact under S112, Social Administration Act. This is a relatively minor charge, used when dishonest intent cannot be proved.

As part of their preparation for Court, the DWP will have prepared a statement of how much extra money Ms Gibbons received through her non-disclosure as compared to what she would have received had she gone about it in the approved way. At that stage they made what should have been an embarrassing discovery: her Working Tax Credit, had she claimed it, would have been approximately double the amount she in fact claimed. It's not possible to check these figures without knowing more of Ms Gibbons' circumstances but this is perfectly plausible.

Even a couple of years ago, this discovery would, in all probability, have led to the charges being dropped. They might have issued a caution or applied an administrative penalty (£350 or a 50% increase in the sum to be repaid) instead. Not now; the case went ahead. Ms Gibbons was convicted as charged, sentenced to 80 hours community service and required to pay £100 costs. Her solicitor, Julian Farley, described the case as "perhaps an indictment of the benefits system".

No, Mr Farley, it is most definitely an indictment of the criminal justice system. What happened was that Ms Gibbons made a decision to let her benefits roll on rather than take the risk of disruption and accidental overpayments associated with the tax credit system. I don't know if that was a fully informed decision, whether Ms Gibbons was aware of the respective figures for each benefit, but it wasn't either a simply stupid or a remotely criminal decision.

Now she has a conviction, she has costs and a community order to contend with and, unless the DWP are unwontedly generous, the civil penalties that flow from a conviction are still to follow. She will probably have to repay the £3,140 Income Support overpaid - I think the statement to the contrary in the article just means that the Court didn't order repayment. However the DWP can still recover that amount, do not have to offset notionally underpaid tax credits against overpaid Income Support, and generally don't. And since she has been convicted of a benefit offence she also faces an automatic three month benefit sanction, during which period she cannot be paid either Income Support or working tax credit.

So what was the point of this prosecution where there was no fraud and no loss to anyone except Ms Gibbons? I think the DWP and CPS prosecuted simply because they can - it was an exercise of power. They want to assert that power because they, and their political masters, want to send a message to anyone claiming benefit: we own you.

We own you because you are poor and have to claim benefit. If you break our rules, you will pay. We will humiliate and disempower you at every turn. We will use our press to denounce and stigmatise you. We will sneer at you behind your back. We will do this if you do not work and we will do this if you do work. Your labour is at our disposal through workfare schemes. Your children are under our scrutinity. You are poor: only our rules apply.

This, more or less, is the intended outcome of the government's sustained hate campaign against anyone who, through poverty or disability, has to claim benefit - a sort of modern helotry. They are not there yet. Universal Credit will take them closer. Solidarity in action between workers, especially workers in the state machine, benefit claimants, disabled people and any other oppressed groups can roll them back.

Tuesday, 17 September 2013


The massive press coverage given to Keir Starmer's announcement of new Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) guidance on benefit fraud cases emphasises just how central a political role benefit fraud, and the war on welfare generally, have for the Coalition government's project. That it is purely a political issue, that it is not genuinely an economic or fiscal problem of the slightest significance, is immediately apparent from the latest report from the National Fraud Authority. From a total loss to the public sector from fraud of £20.6 billion, £14.1 billion is attributed to tax fraud as against only £1.9 billion, less than 1% of expenditure, in benefit and tax credit fraud. And this tax loss is only for fraud narrowly defined - tax evasion of the Google/Starbucks/Amazon kind is vastly more extensive.

This much is widely accepted on the left. But, too often, statements pointing this out are accom-panied by a ritual denunciation of benefit fraud - "of course people who defraud the benefits system should be prosecuted" - with no critical examination of the category itself. 

I want to argue here that 'benefit fraud' is, like poaching under the Game Laws of the 18th century, both a class crime - one that is committed only by working class people driven by necessity - and a political crime, one created and prosecuted for purely political purposes. The vast majority of benefit fraud is not in fact 'criminal' in any generally recognised sense at all and the left should not be joining in its demonisation.

So what did the one time liberal and mainstay of the Legal Action Group, Keir Starmer QC, have to say on Monday - at a time, quite coincidentally, when signs of public disaffection with the war on welfare were starting to appear?  "It is vital that we take a tough stance on this type of fraud". Radical stuff. He then went on to announce two things: that prosecutors would make more use of charges under the Fraud Act, which carry maximum sentences of up to 10 years, instead of specific charges under social security legislation for which sentences are capped at seven years; and that former guidance that suggested using only the magistrates court, with its limited sentencing powers, where the amount allegedly defrauded was less than £20,000, would be withdrawn. This follows the merger of the former DWP prosecution office with the CPS in April 2012.

How much difference will this make? The new guidance will have some effect, leading to more prosecutions and stiffer sentences, over a period. The publicity will do more - when a routine policy announcement from the CPS fills the front page of the Times, that is tantamount to an instruction from our ruling class, to its junior members and acolytes in the lower reaches of the state, to show no mercy.

From now on then, there will be more families broken up, mothers and babies in Styal, and tabloid denunciations for people who took one chance too many to salvage or improve their lives; all to promote class hatred, salvage the coalition and procure another term as Director of Public Prosecutions for Mr Starmer. For the record, I'm against benefit fraud on an individual level: you'll probably get caught which can ruin your life - and I wouldn't want anyone to give these bastards a chance to do that.


What then does benefit fraud, this affront to decency and scourge of the nation, look like? The new CPS guidance for prosecuting counsel actually includes a useful and quite accurate typology of benefit fraud  - I think we are to understand the four categories as listed in decreasing order of frequency:

1) A failure to declare true financial circumstances

e.g. employment (paid or unpaid, employed or self employed work), household income of any kind, capital (including savings, properties owned, investments, student status (including loans or grants), outgoings over declared (including rent or childcare), nursery care
So you do a bit of work, don't fancy seeing 85% of what you earn go in lost Housing Benefit, and keep it quiet. 
Or you help a mate out with his business and he can't pay you properly and slips you the odd twenty. 
Or your ex-husband put your name down as joint owner of a property in some shady dealings of his and, since you never want to see him or his again, it doesn't occur to you to declare it. 
Or, desperate for a bit more money, you and your childminder overstate the fees charged and split the difference (which is conspiracy and more serious). 
Or you're a Polish single parent, can't get work, can't get benefit unless you do work, so you invent some self employment. 
Or you get 20K compensation for something or other. Money for the first time in your life. Pay some debts, get a few nice things, spread it out a bit among all your nice new friends and it's gone. So you don't tell the social.

You do it because feel like you've got to. I did it when I was unemployed with a young family - two years undeclared cleaning work for family and friends. It got us through.

Occasionally you get some rich bastard stashing away millions then trying to claim Housing Benefit. Usually a pensioner. There were a few more like that after the property crash. But mostly its desperation and survival in this category.

2) Failure to declare true social, personal or family circumstances

e.g living with a partner as husband and wife, children leaving, dependants dying
The last one has me stumped; I have never come across anyone trying to go on claiming for a child after they have died. I think they made that up. 

But the others ... 
Your son storms out after a row. You don't know if or when he's going to move back in but he keeps coming back for a sub. So you keep claiming for him. 
Or your kids are taken into care. You want them back but you've got a dodgy boyfriend so the social workers will only let you have daytime contacts - no overnights. You've still got the expenses so you still claim for them. 
Or your boyfriend sort of comes and goes. Good fun when he's around, brings drugs for you and presents for the kids. But you've got two kids and you can't rely on him so you claim as a single parent. BIG overpayment because he used your address to apply for a credit card and you can't prove he wasn't there most of the time.
Or you get divorced but you can't get rid of your ex. He keeps coming round because he can't find anywhere half decent to live so you drift into letting him sleep on the sofa. That neighbour you quarreled with phones the fraud hotline and you're in Court for cohabitation.

The mistake people make is to assume that the complicated messes they make of their lives are their problem and their business. WRONG. If you're poor and claiming a means tested benefit, and especially if you're a woman with children, it's the state's business and you account for it in Court.

3) Disability related fraud

e.g. unreported improvement in mobility or diminished care needs (Disability Living Allowance cases), unreported improved capacity to work (Incapacity Benefit and Employment and Support Allowance cases)
This always makes good press. Plenty of hearty scoffing and guffaws to be had over the story of the man claiming DLA who ran a marathon dressed as a parrot, or climbed Mt. Everest - or whatever. The thing is though, even in the most egregious examples, it's not that the person doesn't have a problem at all; they do. The condition might have eased off, they might find they can do more than they thought but, on the inside, they know they're not right. But it's appearances that count and if you don't look disabled enough you can have a problem.

But of course if you've got a proper disability this won't happen to you. Like the woman in her 50's who had three strokes but recovered well enough to potter slowly round the house (although she tended to walk into doors) - prosecuted and convicted. Like the young woman with cystic fibrosis who was investigated, videoed, raided and prosecuted for all the DLA she had received in her adult life - the prosecution was dropped at the last minute and she was dead soon afterwards. Like the man, a single parent with multiple sclerosis, who got a part time job, declared it, but didn't tell DLA - prosecution averted but the DLA stopped. People I knew.

Disabled people today face continual and repeated challenge, disbelief and punishment, by the state and its agents, for their impairments. We have to be ready, all the time, for the next ATOS medical, DLA reassessment, Social Services review of our care package, or argument at the disabled parking space. We internalise the pressure, feeling guilty when we have a good day, rehearsing our defence in an inner monologue. We think twice before demonstrating our real capabilities for who knows who is watching?

And now Mr Starmer wants to make sure we are prosecuted to the full extent of the law if we are held by someone, anyone, in authority to have overstated our disability.

4) Identity or organised fraud

e.g. applying for national insurance numbers, benefits, payments or other financial advantage, using a false or hijacked identity and/or false identity documents in support; forgery and counterfeiting, or an organised attack or manipulation of the welfare payment system such as a cyber attack, internal or contract fraud.
OK, I concede the point; this stuff is straightforwardly criminal. It's also rare and not what the Tories actually mean when they talk about benefit fraud.

I also concede that not everyone who is accused of of benefit fraud is a nice person and upright citizen (although many are). That is not the issue. The issue is that almost everyone accused of benefit fraud is poor, disabled, or both, and that their 'crime' is created and structured entirely by a jealous, intrusive and punitive system of means testing and assessment which is applied exclusively to them.

In times to come, I hope and believe, it will seem as cruel and bizarre to have criminalised and destroyed people in their tens of thousands for behaviour forced onto them by this system, as the deadly struggle between landlords and poachers under the Game Laws seems today.

We must demand, as a partial minimum reform, an unconditional basic income (coupled with a basic disability income) which will eliminate most elements of the so-called crime of benefit fraud. And Keir Starmer has to go.


Two additional points. First it might be supposed that the process of bringing a criminal charge of benefit fraud is surrounded with checks and balances to ensure that justice is done. Surely the case will have been thoroughly and forensically investigated to ensure both that the facts are beyond reasonable dispute, and that the law is being correctly applied? Someone's liberty is at stake and the defendant is legally represented.

In fact the procedure is slipshod and full of error. The amount overpaid (critical for sentencing) is routinely exaggerated. The most basic question - whether the accused was or was not entitled to the benefit they received - is invariably assumed by the criminal court to have been authoritatively decided by the initial, purely administrative decision of the DWP. The best chance for the defendant is to have that decision overturned on appeal by a benefit tribunal. However, criminal defence lawyers do not do benefit tribunals and judges characteristically ignore or dismiss tribunal proceedings. For a full account of the grotesque inadequacies of benefit fraud trials see this excellent and detailed memorandum by Neil Bateman, who has been ploughing a lonely furrow in this field for years. 

Second, press accounts of benefit fraud cases (which are always based on material presented to them by the DWP and never investigated) invariably feature only the criminal sentence and fail to mention the wide range of civil sanctions which are imposed by the DWP alongside the sentence - any overpayment is always recovered from ongoing benefit entitlement and receipt of future benefits is now barred, on conviction, for between three months and three years. This includes Housing Benefit so loss of the home almost always follows on conviction.

EDIT:  Keir Starmer is apparently not to seek a new term as DPP. Good. I hope his actions come back to haunt him.

Sunday, 15 September 2013


Welfare fraud stories often repay critical examination. They can tell you a lot about how the law works and the press report it.  I will have a look at some reported cases from time to time on this blog. 

Consider this case, from the Daily Mirror: a woman, Jayne Young from Hartlepool, who allegedly claimed, fraudulently, up to £150,000, mostly in Income Support and Housing Benefit. 

The article makes much of the fact that, at £40 per month, Ms Young will take 178 years to repay less than half the total (the figures are inaccurate but never mind). And, it notes bitterly at the end, the repayment order only applies if she gets a job - HA!

In fact following conviction, and on release from prison, she will be barred from claiming almost all benefits for three years. When she is allowed to claim, any benefit she gets will be reduced by at least £78 a month, indefinitely. The Court compensation order is on top; her punishment is going to go on for a long time.

But what was the crime? She allegedly claimed benefit as a single parent for 10 years while living with her partner, Jason Swanson. He is the father of her two eldest children. They had three holidays together in 10 years.  According to the defence "Young had a troubled life and difficult partner and there were times when she was living alone. She has severe depression".

That's all we know but it suggests a bit more. Mr Swanson is apparently not the father of some younger child or children. He was 'difficult' in unspecified ways. We can assume he was working or the overpayment would have been much lower. And they did not actually live together all the time.

It seems just remotely possible on these facts that the person who actually gained from all this was Mr Swanson. He was accommodated for free. He did not have to make more than minimal provision for his children. He could go off and leave Ms Young when the fancy took him. He either knew, or deliberately failed to know, that Ms Young was claiming benefit as a single parent and accepted the resulting financial gains. And he faces none of the consequences.

There are clearly darker possibilities of mental or physical abuse as well but, discounting these, something still looks rather wrong here. And it is not an uncommon story at all.


I worked in welfare rights for thirty years. We would see this type of case quite regularly - a 'cohab' case we would call it, in the cynical shorthand you fall into; short for cohabitation. The actual legal provision is that a man and a woman "living together as husband and wife" will have their income aggregated for the purposes of all means tested benefits. And for some benefits, like Income Support, a couple cannot be entitled if either of them are in full time work.

If you claim Income Support as a single parent you are therefore required to disclose if you start to live with someone as husband and wife. If you either fail to disclose such a fact, or if you positively misrepresent it - by ticking 'No' in answer to the question that is on every claim form: "Do you have a partner" - then you have committed a criminal offence.

Back in the 1970's one of the early campaigns of the then flourishing claimant's movement was against 'sex snoopers' - social security officials investigating with whom a woman claimant was sleeping (it was never the other way round). The campaign worked. Social Security officials stopped asking questions about people's sexual activity. In fact they stopped so completely that it became a problem. People in entirely non-sexual relationships could end up being treated as LTAHAW (living together as husband and wife; yes, it's an acronym) and have to insist on talking about their absence of sexual relations.

However the need for the state to know when a man and woman formed a couple remained. They could rely on informants much of the time, via various fraud hotlines. More recently they have been able to use credit reference agency and other records to pick up any electronic trace of a male presence in a single parent household. When they have a hot enough tip they deploy surveillance - a car parked at a discreet distance with an observer taking notes of comings and goings, or motion sensitive cameras, trained on the 'suspect's' front door, and mounted in a convenient tree. When they're ready they can raid the house looking for physical evidence of a male presence, and tour the neighbours, touting for unfriendly statements. 

Some people really like doing this stuff. It's like The Sweeney - a bit.

But what they actually uncover is, almost always, a long way from the picture of cynical lies and manipulations that is presented in Court. They find unstable relationships with the man coming and going as it suits him. They find men who, when they are in the house, don't feel obliged to contribute financially. They find wideboys and charmers who keep several houses going They find violence and abuse. They find disabled children making life difficult or mothers with major mental health problems. They find women, bringing up their children effectively alone, who absolutely need their own income, and claiming benefit is the only way of getting it.

They find, in short, in a context of low incomes and poverty for both people of both sexes, a world of relative privilege and freedom for working men, and women forced, by childcare responsibilities into the 'crime' of benefit fraud. And this system is created and enforced by the state.

There are always exceptions of course. Plenty of men do take on their responsibilities; the downside of that for the woman being that they lose most of their income. Sometimes the DWP appear vaguely aware that there might be an issue here and respond by trying and failing to bring conspiracy charges against the man involved. But the narrative of benefit fraud goes unchallenged, even on the left, where we tend to argue merely that it is much less prevalent than government and their media make out - not that the category of fraud itself is an agent of oppression.

The real crime here then is that there is no right to an independent income for women taking on childcare responsibilities. Until 1948 there existed, as a relic of the old Poor Law dating from 1601, a family means test. Any member of an extended family could, in principle, be made responsible for the support of any other  so that when the young adult son of a family, say, found work, support for the entire family might stop. Abolition of the household means test in 1948 was rightly celebrated as a great victory for the whole working class movement.

However the 1948 settlement was still rooted in, and structured by, a host of gender based assumptions which have only gradually and partially been reformed away. Still reigning unchallenged is the principle of aggregation of income and joint means testing of couples for benefits and tax credits. In fact this principle is being extended. Low income same sex couple are now caught in exactly the same way as male-female couples - the definition of living together as husband and wife has been extended to people "living together as civil partners". And Universal Credit will draw millions of working couples into the DWP's policing system.

 In 1990, middle and upper class women benefited from the abolition of the same gender assumption in the tax system - separate taxation was introduced. That the same principle could be extended to working class women is a notion met by silence or incredulity. Feminists and socialists need to address this as a central priority. We need to be demanding a basic income scheme and an end to all means testing.

Meanwhile here are a few practical suggestions:
  • if you're claiming as a single parent, don't let anyone else use your address and return any mail you receive for someone else. I know it can be hard for people without an address but the risks here are too unequal for you to be able to help;
  • if there is any question of you becoming a couple with someone else, set a date: until then they are only a guest - don't let them use you address, don't let them keep their things in your home. But don't panic about how many nights a week they stay - there is no rule about this. What matters is that they have a home somewhere else, which they still use;
  • if you are pulled in for cohabitation, the central question is: are you members of the same household? Not, say, is he your boyfriend or, does he give you any money? You need evidence,  like paying of rent or bills or use of the address, showing that they live somewhere else;
  • appeal any and all benefit decisions saying you are a member of a couple. Concentrate on these appeals, rather than the criminal case. You have a much better chance of winning at a benefit tribunal than in a criminal court. And if you win the appeal, the criminal case usually collapses.