Perceived fraud in the benefits system

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.

29 responses to “Perceived fraud in the benefits system”

  1. Ben, this can’t really be said often enough. I’m still – and always have been – convinced that it’s the questions we ask.

    If we ask “Do you think it fair that people who could work choose not to, claiming your hard earned tax money” they results will be clearly skewed.

    If we ask “Who are you afraid for under plans to reform the Welfare system” we get very very different answers.

    • Sorry for the delayed reply Sue, only just back. Anyway – I completely agree with you. And in fact, even more – as well as the questions WE ask, it’s about the questions we encourage PEOPLE GENERALLY to ask. We can design a welfare state that is entirely based on asking about fraud – or we can design one based on asking about people’s contributions over their life and the barriers that they face. I think this is the major difference between countries like the UK and Denmark, although it probably needs a bit more work to confirm it.

  2. The power of the press is hugely evident in these figures. As long as they continue ignoring facts and printing stories such as the somali family in Islington then people will believe the scrounger myth. Common misconceptions abound in the Uk from immigrants being given cars to disabled people all playing golf. As ever it is not the govts interests to change these falsehoods.

  3. So how do we defend universal franchise when many (most?) people ‘s opinions are based on prejudice or false statistics? Seriously, what is the answer to right wing press?

  4. Hi Ben, great post again. I’m really looking forward to your presentation at the SPA. When you say you’re going to be looking at exactly who thinks that benefit claims are false – are you going to be looking by socio-economic class, geography, gender, ethnicity, professional position, whether respondents are currently claiming / have ever claimed benefits themselves, or by more/different categories? I’m feeling impatient to see the results! I was just thinking we need this kind of research after having some (white, female) Oxford dons tell me last wk, quite confidently, that they thought Britain’s high teenage pregnancy rates could be explained by the UK’s ‘very generous’ benefits system and people’s propensity to abuse it (without, I should say, any reference to research or, when I asked, any sense of what the benefits they were referring to actually amounted to). I was left feeling really depressed – if people working in the social sciences at one of the UK’s leading universities (people who do research with young people and who seem otherwise fairly empathetic) think this, then what hope do we have of maintaining a meaningful welfare state? I like the way you’ve found a positive in the above data (i.e. most people think most claimants are genuine) but I think the size of the gap between the empirical data on false claims and people’s apparent perceptions is just astonishing…

    • Thanks as ever for the thought-provoking response Kat. This goes back to the question we’ve discussed before – how do we promote a more truthful society? I think there’s various things that need to change, starting with scientists themselves, and their collective voice via the Learned Societies. (Incidentally, I’ll send you an email related to this next week – sorry to keep making you wait!)

      • Hi Ben!
        We are from the Copenhagen Business School and we are doing a first year project on Social benefit fraud.
        I am really interested in the analysis you wrote you have made, where can I find it?
        It is exactly what we are looking for since we based our research question on the myth that poor people commit more benefit fraud.
        “Why does a higher percentage of the benefit receivers in Denmark commit fraud compared to the United Kingdom, when the poverty rate is higher in the United Kingdom?”
        We want to analyze how the importance of the differences in the labour markets and the taxation have in regards to fraud being committed. Furthermore, how the general population’s perception on fraud is and how the risk of being caught affect the level of fraud in DK and UK.
        Any feedback is very appreciated!
        Kind regards,

        Marlene Hosbjerg, CBS

      • Hi Ben,

        Thank you.
        We compared the fraud rates by the cost of fraud, in percentage of welfare spendings.
        I hope this is a proper way because you are right, it is hard to find a way to compare it.

      • The research is really interesting, have you done any research on the British population’s view on which kind of fraud people consider worst? I have a Danish survey with some really interesting results on what the public in Denmark consider as fraud and what kind of fraud they consider as the biggest crime.

      • There’s a little bit on this in the UK – probably the closest we’ve got is this sort of thing. But I’ve been thinking of doing something more detailed on it, and one of the survey organisations is interested in doing something. If you can send a link/reference to the Danish research, that would be really interesting too – this might not be done in time for your work, but it would be really helpful in taking this forward.

  5. I think it will be interesting to run a similiar exercise taking into account the growth of social networking media where people often post stories or anecdotes that seriously misrepresent the true picture. I’m constantly challenging such views but, even so, the vehemency with which so many people believe and defend those inaccurate views shared on social networking sites is very worrying and it leads to hatred and discrimination (immigration and race issues also suffer from this).

    In respect of the governments belief that the public support their programme of welfare reform (benefit cuts), I think social media sites and the propogation of innaccurate news have a lot to answer for and that perpetuation will, in the long term probably lead to a greater proportion of people who think that claims are false.

    • Very interesting comment, and not one I’d thought of at all. Perhaps surprisingly, we seem to know very little about WHY people hold these beliefs – whether it’s just the media’s fault, or if it’s about personal experience (and unfair assumptions about particular people), or if it’s about this kind of everyday hubbub of gossip. I want to have a go at trying to answer this over the coming years, but it will take a few people to really get a handle on this, as it’s quite tricky to get convincing evidence on…

  6. Reblogged this on kickingthecat and commented:
    I guess the question is, is are people basing their estimates on beliefs about benefits claimants, or based on levels of fraud they experience in their own lives, or based on the levels of MPs expenses fraud? Is there any kind of benchmark for people”s general over or under estimation, and is the survey asking questions along the lines of “What percentage of benefits claimants are falsely rejected?”

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