Women are disproportionately represented in convictions for benefit fraud: in 2019, females made up 55% of the 98 summary convictions and 58% of the 1160 convictions for indictable benefit fraud offences. Since women’s convictions and custodial sentences are acknowledged to cause significant harm to them and their children, it is important to look at strategies that address benefit fraud whilst limiting the criminalisation of women. In this article, Dr Charlotte Wildman draws on her historical research on women, fraud and poverty to make policy recommendations on how government and society can address these issues.
- The current cost of living crisis has led to significant increases in benefit fraud.
- Historical research shows that the historical experience of women in poverty echoes cases we now see concerning fraud, poverty and domestic abuse.
- Incentivising self-reporting and avoiding excessively penalising those who come forward could break the cycle of long-term offenders.
Benefit fraud – the current problem
In 2022, the Public Accounts Committee reported that ‘levels of fraud and error in benefit expenditure are unacceptably high.’ Overpayments due to fraud represented 2.7% (£6.4bn) of total benefit expenditure in the financial year ending in 2023 (FYE 2023) and the most common forms are misreporting earnings or savings and failing to declare the household contributions of a partner.
Single claimants who failed to declare living with a partner were the second largest source of all fraud at 2.2% of total benefits expenditure in both FYE 2023 and FYE 2022. The Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) announced a £900 million Fraud Plan that focuses on new legal powers; increased data analysis; and private sector collaboration with a particular focus on addressing the problem of false declarations relating to means-tested benefits.
Insights from historic research
Historical research uncovers women’s experiences and perspectives of committing benefit fraud. It identified that women convicted of benefit fraud 1940-1960 tended to be of low economic status; were lone mothers; and often had no previous criminal convictions. Narratives by convicted and suspected offenders stressed that financial hardship led them to commit fraud; articulated the difficulty in ending frauds once they had started; or suggested they had been coerced by close partners.
It recommends that benefit fraud can be reduced by addressing the poverty experienced by single parents and that methods of tackling benefit fraud should focus on incentivising self-reporting; acknowledge the role that financial and emotional abuse can play; reinstate greater regional autonomy and discretionary powers to drop prosecutions and limit the prosecution of women with children.
Parallels with the past
Welfare fraud was a key concern of the British government as the Second World War necessitated more claims by widows and following the introduction of Family Allowance payments in 1945. High housing costs and price rises (not unlike present times) amid wartime shortages presented difficult living conditions for lone mothers.
Typical offenders were lone mothers misreporting their paid work who blamed the costs of living. A 39-year-old Merseyside woman in 1944 who breached the rules of her widows pension testified: ‘The only explanation I have is that I am terribly hard up and my expenses are so high… I made the wrong statement because I wanted to get a little more money as I am already… in arrears with the rent.’ In Manchester 1944, another woman explained: ‘I was very hard up at the time and did it to get little bits of clothing on the kiddies’ backs’.
Women expressed a sense of powerlessness about being able to tackle their own frauds as there was no way to halt or repay false claims without risking prosecution.
Some women also found themselves committing fraud because of turbulent personal circumstances. A Manchester woman separated from her husband had four children in local authority care, and had several previous prison spells for fraud and theft. In 1960 the man she was cohabiting with ‘suddenly left me without any money or warning’ whilst she was pregnant and with two young children. Accused of fraudulently claiming Family Allowance using a stolen claim book, she faced a custodial sentence and losing custody of her three youngest children. These experiences depict a cycle of prison, poverty and the loss of parental rights that was difficult to break. Local authority social workers today will be all too familiar with this cycle.
Other women found themselves accused of benefit fraud because of coercion by male partners and abusive relationships.
Recommendations – what todays policymakers can do
The above cases demonstrate how poverty was a primary cause of benefit fraud – we can draw strong comparisons with these cases and the current cost of living crisis. Maintaining benefit levels to meet inflation and rising rents to prevent poverty would alleviate the situation for many women and families.
The ministerial foreword to the 2022 DWP policy paper Fighting Fraud in the Welfare System equates benefit fraud with criminals taking money from “honest, hard-working taxpayers”. It does not acknowledge cost of living pressures and the specific pressures on vulnerable women and women in poverty.
This research and the parallels we can draw between women’s circumstances then and now indicate that the Work and Pensions Committee should engage and consult with women. A consultation on these issues with a view to a post-legislative assessment of the Fraud Act would be a positive move. Firstly, this would break down the narrative of vulnerable women as criminals, and secondly, tangible measures the DWP could take would be to implement assessments of financial hardship and vulnerability and the fast-track of welfare payments for vulnerable women.
Another proposal is the introduction of a robust system that incentivises self-reporting of fraud, including periods of amnesty and realistic repayment plans that avoid overly penalising those who come forward. This approach would address the problem of long-term offenders that place claimants in a cycle where there is no advantage to halt fraudulent claims.
Addressing benefit fraud whilst avoiding criminalising struggling women will require integrated interventions from government departments and agencies. In addition to measures from the DWP, the Home Office could issue guidance to the police for identifying signs of poverty and vulnerability in fraud investigations. Guidance from the Ministry of Justice regrading vulnerabilities could also help to break cycles of conviction. These government departments should consult, review and legislate to bring about policies and interventions that reduce harmful convictions and destructive cycles for vulnerable women.
Greater acknowledgment of the role of domestic abuse and broader domestic instability as causes of benefit fraud would also help identify and address cases. Relatedly, greater autonomy for regional authorities, such as councils, to advise on potential fraud prosecutions would allow a more holistic understanding of a claimant’s situation and identify opportunities for intervention and support, rather than the prosecution.