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‘We will track you down’: how the UK government is reviving the troubling ‘scrounger’ stereotype

Bass-heavy techno plays, police sirens blare, and men in flak jackets and helmets lead a suspect away in handcuffs. It’s not a late-night crime drama – it’s a public service announcement from the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).

The video shows a large team of Met police officers and DWP officials conducting a raid in a block of flats, handcuffing men and taking videos of evidence. Cut to Tom Pursglove, minister for disabled people, health and work, addressing the viewer directly:

We will track you down, we will find you, and we will bring you to justice.

Pursglove is describing the goals of a new “fraud plan” from the department, a policy push to introduce tougher penalties for benefits fraud. A policy paper published in May 2022 details the proposals, including legislative updates to be formalised “when parliamentary time allows”.

They include giving the DWP new powers to arrest and conduct search and seizures, expanding its access to third-party data (for example, banking information), and introducing a new civil penalty for fraud. Previously, claimants had the option to go through the courts if they wished to refute a fine, but under the new legislation, fines would become compulsory.

On its surface, preventing benefit fraud is not a controversial aim. No one wants people cheating a system which is designed to help those most in need, right?

But the DWP’s messaging, as seen in this video, is part of a wider pattern of anti-welfare rhetoric that has a long history in the UK. The idea that benefits claimants are “scroungers” or “cheats” makes it less likely that people will access the resources they need (and are entitled to), resulting in even higher levels of poverty.

The language used in the video is aggressive from the start, discussing the necessity to “root out” fraud with multiple uses of “track down”, almost reminiscent of a hunt. Pursglove speaking directly to the audience positions every viewer as a possible suspect, reinforced by the imagery of police vans, handcuffs and a taser. Traditional British values are invoked through zoomed-in shots of the lion-and-unicorn badge cover and monochromatic union flags on police jackets, while Pursglove discusses fairness – framing the Met police as a force for justice.

The ‘scrounger’ narrative

The DWP’s video suggests the “scrounger” narrative is returning after a brief hibernation during Brexit, where issues of trade and immigration dominated public concern. It is best summed up in Pursglove’s message:

We of course want a safety net that supports the most vulnerable in our society and those who find themselves in difficult circumstances, but we just cannot have people cheating the system.

An ongoing problem since the conception of social policy in the UK has been determining who is in “genuine” need and who is not. A pamphlet called A Caveat for Common Cursetors, published in 1567, details the different ways beggars would feign illness to encourage charity. This, much like the modern tabloid equivalent, was sensationalist and thought to exaggerate the truth to make for better reading.

In her work The Disabled State (1984), policy theorist Deborah Stone argued that the foundations on which the modern welfare state is built have caused inherent suspicion of people trying to claim benefits.

For example, people claiming personal independence payments (PIP) have alleged that assessors use “tricks” to covertly assess whether they are being truthful about their conditions. These were described in a 2022 DWP committee meeting – examples included allegations that lifts were broken deliberately to see if claimants were able to use stairs, and that assessors purposefully dropped a pen in front of a claimant to see if they had sufficient mobility to pick up an item.

These alone could be dismissed as unfortunate coincidences, but are very serious when placed in context. A few years earlier, the high court found PIP regulations unlawful due to discriminating against people with mental health impairments. And the latest statistics show that 69% of PIP appeals are successful, which suggests that people are frequently denied benefits that they are later found to have the right to.

Read more: Skint Britain: response to series about life on Universal Credit shows government is still not listening

Scroungers in the media

The modern scrounger stereotype was revitalised in the mid-2000s and 2010s, through media and television programmes such as Channel 4’s Benefits Street. The 2014 show followed the residents of James Turner Street in Birmingham, the majority of whom were unemployed and received state benefits. Posing as an observational documentary, the show shined an unsympathetic light on these residents, and would sometimes include or exclude details of a disability to fit the narrative.

The year after Benefits Street, The Sun newspaper published “The Welfies”, profiling nine people considered “benefit grabbers” and describing one as “the slobbo with no jobbo”.

These examples reflect a moral panic surrounding welfare in the 2010s, which reinforced the idea that welfare claimants are “shirkers” who take advantage of a system for those genuinely in need.

Benefits fraud: the numbers

In 2012, it was estimated that welfare overpaid due to benefits fraud and tax credit fraud came to just under £1.6 billion. This is a big number, but some perspective is necessary. In the same year, £1.3 billion in benefits went unclaimed due to errors by claimants and officials.

Pursglove states that £9 billion will be lost to fraud “in coming years”. Meanwhile, social policy analysis company Policy in Practice estimates that £19 billion a year is going unclaimed in benefits – also reflecting the amount unclaimed due to the complexity of application processes and stigma felt by applicants, despite their eligibility.

Again, when we contextualise the numbers, benefits fraud becomes a much smaller issue.

It is not a leap to consider that the demonisation of welfare claimants in British society could be contributing to so much going unclaimed. Alongside “poverty shame” (where people feel ashamed of claiming benefits due to prejudice), obtuse and hard-to-navigate assessments mean that when denied benefits, people don’t appeal the result due to sheer exhaustion.

With one in five people living in poverty last year, the return of the “scrounger” discourse will only worsen these already dire problems.

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