It’s impossible to understand political attitudes towards the benefits system without thinking about ‘deservingness’ – that is, whether claimants are seen to be deserving. (Regular readers will know this is one of my abiding interests). This week I want to quickly look at a key aspect of this: how much fraud people think there is. To do this I’m using particular questions from the acclaimed British Social Attitudes series, which – astonishingly – I’ve never seen used before.
The questions come from the 2007 survey:
- Out of every 100 people receiving sickness or disability benefits, how many do you think are falsely claiming the benefits?
- And out of every 100 people receiving unemployment benefits, how many do you think are falsely claiming the benefits?
[All results below are weighted and exclude 'don't knows']
So what does this show?
The headline figure is that the British population believes that an average of 34 disability claimants and 37 unemployment claimants in every 100 are falsely claiming. Actually this is to mis-state the average slightly, as there are a few very high figures (’100%’) that skew this upwards. If we instead go for average person, then we get slightly lower figures – the average person believes that 30 in 100 disability claimants and 35 in 100 unemployment claimants are falsely claiming.
An advantage of using this type of question is that we can also look at the distribution of responses – how many people think only a few people are falsely claiming, vs. how many think everyone does. The easiest way of showing this is in the chart below.
This shows the cumulative pattern of responses; to interpret this, it’s easiest to look at a given point on the chart. Take halfway along the horizontal axis – this is where 50% of claimants are seen to be falsely claiming. Then track this upwards, until you get to the two lines. We can see that in both cases, the lines are at about 80 on the vertical axis – this means around 80% of people gave an answer of 50 or less. So only 20% of people believe that a majority of claimants are falsely claiming.
So what does this mean?
There are four things that these results tell us.
Firstly, we need to bear in mind that the question talks about ‘false claims’ – it does not talk directly about fraud, and we’d expect false claims to be a broader category than fraud (e.g. covering what the DWP calls ‘customer error’). The same is also true for a YouGov poll run by the magazine Prospect earlier in 2012, where they asked about ‘scroungers who lie about their circumstances to claim welfare benefits…or deliberately refuse to take work when suitable jobs are available’ – again, probably getting at a broader category of undeservingness than technical ‘fraud’.
In some research we’re doing for the charity Elizabeth Finn Care, we (me + Declan Gaffney + Kate Bell) have asked a separate question that asks specifically about fraud. We’ll share the answers with you on the blog in the autumn (!).
Secondly, people seem to considerably over-estimate the share of false claims among benefit claimants. Even if we put together fraud AND customer error, the latest figures show that 3.3% of unemployment claims are ‘false claims’, and a mere 1.1-1.2% of disability benefit claims. (I’ve talked about fraud figures previously on the blog here). So for people on average to think that 30-40% of claims are false is a massive, massive over-estimate – far more than could be explained by the difficulty in getting good estimates of fraud rates.
Third, despite this over-estimate of false claims, most people think that most claimants are genuine. It’s easy to lose sight of this, but it’s (hopefully!) clear from the chart above. It’s also what the YouGov Prospect poll found, despite all of the magazine’s slightly over-the-top reporting about ‘the end of welfare’ – 70% of those giving an answer said that only a minority were scroungers, while only 7% thought that more than half were scroungers. Amazingly even Conservative voters thought this (62% believing only a minority were scroungers). So people over-estimate false claims, but not to the extent that they think that genuine claimants are the minority.
Fourth, it’s interesting that the perceived false claims for unemployment and disability benefits are similar. We’ll have more to say on this later in the summer, based on an analysis of the reporting of benefits in the media over time.
As you can probably guess, this is part of a much wider package of work that the three of us are doing – and this includes some work I’m doing on exactly who think that benefit claims are false, and what impacts this has on their other attitudes (to be presented at the Social Policy Association conference in July). So watch this space.
Even in the meantime, though, we thought these findings are striking, and we’re interested in your take on them.