The benefits proposals are just another example of policy formation under a ‘knee-jerk government’
Now, I’d like to start by saying that I’m not defending benefit cheats. If someone cheats the system they do more damage than steal a couple of thousand pounds; they contribute to a system whereby those who need benefits are vilified and become embarrassed and scared to ask for what they need – a little help.
However, the proposals by the Director of Public Prosecutions that benefit cheats should face ten years in prison is, in my opinion, just another example of a knee-jerk response to public unrest against all those they see as not pulling their weight or taking advantage of the system.
This year has seen the Home Office driving vans around ethnically diverse boroughs of London encouraging illegal immigrants to “GO HOME”, or at least to text a number, in order to guarantee a safe passage out of the country. There are two problems with this; firstly would any illegal migrant who is in the UK really take a message seriously because it was being driven around on a van? Secondly, at best this strategy exhibits a reckless ignorance in government about how illegal immigration actually works and disregards the criminal elements within it; at worst it’s a rather embarrassing attempt to win back lost votes to UKIP.
Way back in January the Prime Minister announced an in-out vote on UK membership of the European Union. But, don’t worry; it’ll definitely happen if the Conservatives are elected in 2015. There was no mention of the fact that the Conservatives, along with the other two main parties it has to be said, were having votes taken off them by a former Conservative party member who insisted that every single media exposure be accompanied by a pint of warm beer and a significant amount of guffawing at the establishment. This approach to policy again reeks of a ‘knee-jerk’ reaction as the potential ramifications this decision could have in years to come when everyone suddenly remembers this bold promise haven’t been taken into account. It’s simply blatant electioneering.
Now this returns to the plans to increase prison terms for benefit cheats. According to the BBC, frauds in excess of £20,000 could warrant a maximum sentence of three years in prison and those under £20,000 used to warrant a maximum of 12 months in prison. However, this threshold has since been scrapped meaning that smaller frauds could also warrant harsher sentences. So in effect, what has happened is an increase in the prison term for benefit cheats from seven to ten years. Granted it’s a longer sentence, but in reality the sentence was already pretty harsh, not to mention the fact that when in prison convicted benefit cheats will still be depending on the public purse rather than looking for work. If that isn’t knee-jerk electioneering I don’t know what is.
The real tragedy of this apparently ad hoc approach to policy formation is the impact it has on those who do the right thing and toe the line. According to official figures £1.9 billion is lost to benefit cheats annually. While this isn’t an insignificant figure the government loses much more to companies who are able to avoid tax by exploiting loopholes. Equally, figures quoted by the BBC suggest that this year saw the lowest number of convictions of benefit cheats since 2001.
This approach to policy appears to be a continuing trend and gives the impression that it is here to stay. As 2015 draws nearer and the public become increasingly disenfranchised by the main political parties the campaign will begin to centre on the swing voters – unfortunately that will mean the creation of more unfortunate scape-goats and more ‘knee-jerk government’.