Tale of two benefits cheats.

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Without wishing to take all my blogging inspiration from last night’s TV show, I have been thinking more about Tower Block of Commons and specifically the bit when Tim Loughton was being harranged outside a cornershop in Birmingham.

The harranger was expressing to the Tory Shadow Minister his disgust with MPs and their expenses fiddling. He was of the view that politicians were on a different, more privileged legal level and could get away with things that most people couldn’t.

Tim Loughton tried to insist that this was false; that everyone is equal under the law etc. Of course this is true in principle but in practice…?

MPs recently agreed to withhold Harry Cohen’s resettlement grant when he retires after the Labour MP was exposed as yet another expenses cheat. Mr Cohen failed to notice he had accumulated £60,000 of public funds to which he was not entitled. Whilst acknowledging that this was a serious breach of the rules, MPs noted that Cohen had apologised and that his wife’s illness may have been a mitigating factor.

Then there is another benefits-fraud scandal that has been discussed in the Commons. Natascha Engel yesterday brought attention to the plight of one Zoey Smith:

Natascha Engel (North-East Derbyshire) (Lab):

My hon. Friend the Minister is aware of the case of Zoey Smith, who, when she was pregnant, worked as a volunteer in a welfare rights office. She wrongly had her benefits stopped, and as a result gave birth two months prematurely. She could not cope, and she has disappeared off the face of the earth. The child has gone into care and the whole sorry story has been a disaster from beginning to end. Does my hon. Friend agree that the benefits regime for pregnant women is incompatible with meeting our child poverty targets?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Helen Goodman):

I am aware of the unhappy experience of my hon. Friend’s constituent, which in essence came down to poor administration in her local benefit office.

The only other mention I can find of the case is in the newsletter of Derbyshire Unemployed Workers’ Centres.

Zoey Smith’s life appears to have been utterly devastated because she was mistakenly thought to be a benefits cheat. MPs like Harry Cohen – as humiliated as they will be and as difficult as it may be for them to find post-parliamentary employment – will probably not suffer so much. Simple juxtapositions like this make it easy to see why people are turned off politics and have so much contempt for their democratic representatives.

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One Response to “Tale of two benefits cheats.”

  1. Leigh Caldwell Says:

    The story you relate is a sad one, and no doubt one of hundreds of similar anecdotes every year.

    However the main reason for this is not official incompetence or hypocrisy, but statistics.

    If one in 10,000 people receives unjust treatment at the hands of bureaucracy each year, statistically we will have many thousands of such stories to choose from, and almost certainly none of them will be about an MP.

    Unfortunately among 60 million people, many tragic stories will occur, no matter how careful and skilled the application of public policy is. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t keep working to make things better. But it also doesn’t mean we should suggest Harry Cohen should get the same outcome as this extreme case.

    If MPs were in fact treated just the same as everyone else, they would be treated more, not less, leniently. The median benefit claimant or taxpayer is probably subject to not more, but much less scrutiny than any MP.

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