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The full horror of the Department for Work & Pensions’ Valentine message

Romance isn’t dead. It’s fit to work.

Ah, nothing says love like perpetuating the damaging societal myth of benefit scroungers via a cutesy gif.

Those Casanovas over at the Department of Work & Pensions have decided to get all hot and heavy on the subject of welfare fraud in celebration of Valentine’s Day this year.

“Claiming to be living alone is one of the most common types of benefit fraud – don’t ruin #ValentinesDay by failing to declare your true circumstances,” it says in a saucily authoritarian post on Twitter.

And to add the honey to the vinegar, a lovely pink graphic:

“Declaring your true love tomorrow?” it asks, floating over a cartoon hot-air balloon in the shape of a heart. “Don’t forget to declare your true living arrangements too. Don’t get separated from your Valentine. Tell us of a change now.”

The DWP logo pops up.

And, the absolute tease, it adds a link to an Express article about benefit “swindlers”.

Ooh, DWP, you are absolute filth.

Anyway, once the charm wears off, here’s the context of this claim:

  • The government estimates 1.1 per cent of benefits paid out are fraudulently claimed (in 2015-16). But even this minute proportion comes under the category of “overpayment” (accounting for 1.9 per cent of benefit expenditure in 2015-16), which also includes honest mistakes on both sides. So only a tiny minority of people are fraudulently claiming.
     
  • There is also underpayment in the system, which is almost the same proportion. The amount underpaid to benefit claimants in the same period as above was 1 per cent of total expenditure.
     
  • The government says undeclared cohabiting is a common type of benefit fraud. But this is thought to be because of fast-changing living circumstances and the complicated nature of cohabitation as a relationship – “living together” can mean many different relationships, and the government asks you to declare the income of your married partner, your civil partner, or if you are “living together as a married couple” if you’re claiming benefits or tax credits, which is a confusing description.
     
  • Cohabiting claims have most infamously been messed up on the government’s side – the private company Concentrix that managed tax credit claims for HMRC withdrew money from people who they accused of cohabiting with RS McColl (a Scottish cornershop chain that would appear on some people’s statements because you can collect benefits there), the 19th century philanthropist Joseph Rowntree (a claimant lived in a house provided by the Foundation under his name), and their own children.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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Labour’s renationalisation plans look nothing like the 1970s

The Corbynistas are examining models such as Robin Hood Energy in Nottingham, Oldham credit union and John Lewis. 

A community energy company in Nottingham, a credit union in Oldham and, yes, Britain's most popular purveyor of wine coolers. No, this is not another diatribe about about consumer rip-offs. Quite the opposite – this esoteric range of innovative companies represent just a few of those which have come to the attention of the Labour leadership as they plot how to turn the abstract of one of their most popular ideas into a living, neo-liberal-shattering reality.

I am talking about nationalisation – or, more broadly, public ownership, which was the subject of a special conference this month staged by a Labour Party which has pledged to take back control of energy, water, rail and mail.

The form of nationalisation being talked about today at the top of the Labour Party looks very different to the model of state-owned and state-run services that existed in the 1970s, and the accompanying memories of delayed trains, leaves on the line and British rail fruitcake that was as hard as stone.

In John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn’s conference on "alternative models of ownership", the three firms mentioned were Robin Hood Energy in Nottingham, Oldham credit union and, of course, John Lewis. Each represents a different model of public ownership – as, of course, does the straightforward takeover of the East Coast rail line by the Labour government when National Express handed back the franchise in 2009.

Robin Hood is the first not-for-profit energy company set up a by a local authority in 70 years. It was created by Nottingham city council and counts Corbyn himself among its customers. It embodies the "municipal socialism" which innovative local politicians are delivering in an age of austerity and its tariffs delivers annual bills of £1,000 or slightly less for a typical household.

Credit unions share many of the values of community companies, even though they operate in a different manner, and are owned entirely by their customers, who are all members. The credit union model has been championed by Labour MPs for decades. 

Since the financial crisis, credit unions have worked with local authorities, and their supporters see them as ethical alternatives to the scourge of payday loans. The Oldham credit union, highlighted by McDonnell in a speech to councillors in 2016, offers loans from £50 upwards, no set-up costs and typically charges interest of around £75 on a £250 loan repaid over 18 months.

Credit unions have been transformed from what was once seen as a "poor man's bank" to serious and tech-savvy lenders where profits are still returned to customers as dividends.

Then there is John Lewis. The "never-knowingly undersold" department store is owned by its 84,000 staff, or "partners". The Tories have long cooed over its pledge to be a "successful business powered by its people and principles" while Labour approves of its policy of doling out bonuses to ordinary staff, rather than just those at the top. Last year John Lewis awarded a partnership bonus of £89.4m to its staff, which trade website Employee Benefits judged as worth more than three weeks' pay per person (although still less than previous top-ups).

To those of us on the left, it is a painful irony that when John Lewis finally made an entry into politics himself – in the shape of former managing director Andy Street – it was to seize the Birmingham mayoralty ahead of Labour's Sion Simon last year. (John Lewis the company remains apolitical.)

Another model attracting interest is Transport for London, currently controlled by Labour mayor Sadiq Khan. TfL may be a unique structure, but nevertheless trains feature heavily in the thinking of shadow ministers, whether Corbynista or soft left. They know that rail represents their best chance of quick nationalisation with public support, and have begun to spell out how it could be delivered.

Yes, the rhetoric is blunt, promising to take back control of our lines, but the plan is far more gradual. Rather than risk the cost and litigation of passing a law to cancel existing franchises, Labour would ask the Department for Transport to simply bring routes back in-house as each of the private sector deals expires over the next decade.

If Corbyn were to be a single-term prime minister, then a public-owned rail system would be one of the legacies he craves.

His scathing verdict on the health of privatised industries is well known but this month he put the case for the opposite when he addressed the Conference on Alternative Models of Ownership. Profits extracted from public services have been used to "line the pockets of shareholders" he declared. Services are better run when they are controlled by customers and workers, he added. "It is those people not share price speculators who are the real experts."

It is telling, however, that Labour's radical election manifesto did not mention nationalisation once. The phrase "public ownership" is used 10 times though. Perhaps it is a sign that while the leadership may have dumped New Labour "spin", it is not averse to softening its rhetoric when necessary.

So don't look to the past when considering what nationalisation and taking back control of public services might mean if Corbyn made it to Downing Street. The economic models of the 1970s are no more likely to make a comeback then the culinary trends for Blue Nun and creme brûlée.

Instead, if you want to know what public ownership might look like, then cast your gaze to Nottingham, Oldham and dozens more community companies around our country.

Peter Edwards was press secretary to a shadow chancellor, editor of LabourList and a parliamentary candidate in 2015 and 2017.