Churches write to Cameron asking him to set the record straight

Dear Mr Cameron

We are writing to express our concern that a number of recentGovernment announcements have had the effect of stigmatising thepoor, especially those in receipt of out of work benefits. Ourexperience of working in deprived communities is that life onbenefits is often a struggle, with difficult and stressfulfinancial choices being a daily occurrence. We believe this realityis not well reflected in Government statements and needs to be atthe heart of any debate on Welfare Reform

The stigmatising effect these announcements have had on the poorestand most vulnerable in society has been noted in a number of areasby the signatories of this letter, who may correspond individuallyat a later date. The single outstanding example has been Governmentrhetoric around benefit fraud. We in no way condone benefit fraudand would wish to see this reduced to zero, but we question theGovernment's public emphasis placed upon it. For the financial year2009-2010, the NAO estimates fraud to be 0.6% of the DWP benefitsbill, while errors make up more than double this figure. Thetendency to emphasise fraud when poverty and welfare reform arediscussed often distracts attention from getting resources to thosegenuinely in need, which accounts for the other 99.4% of benefitspending.

The most important example of this misrepresentation occurred whenyour Chancellor conflated benefit fraud and error during his speechannouncing the Comprehensive Spending Review on October 20th2010.

He said:

"Nor will fraud in the welfare system be tolerated any more. Weestimate that £5 billion a year is being lost in this way - £5billion that others have to work long hours to pay in their taxes.This week we published our plans to step up the fight to catchbenefit cheats and deploy uncompromising penalties when they arecaught."

As I trust you are aware the £5 billion figure is a three foldexaggeration of the true Government estimate of benefit fraud. Thepublication referred to above confirms that benefit fraud isestimated at £1billion, and tax credit fraud is estimated at £0.6billion, making a total of £1.6 billion. The exaggerated figure isderived by adding the fraud estimates to the error estimates.

We agree with the Government that benefit fraud is a seriousoffence, but implying that the poorest perpetrate this offencethree times more than is the case is clearly unjust. We also agreewith you that the CSR will dramatically affect the lives of ageneration, but the fact that issues around welfare reform arevital to the social and economic future of this country means it isimperative that the debate is informed by accurateinformation.

As speeches in the Commons are matters of public record we wouldask that you instruct the Chancellor to correct his statement of20th October. We would also ask that the Ministerial forward to thepublication 'Tackling fraud and error in the benefit and taxcredits systems' published last week by the DWP and HMRC, issimilarly corrected, as it makes the same error.

We would ask for a speedy response as the debate on welfare reformis moving rapidly and deserves to be informed by the best and mostaccurate information possible.

Yours sincerely

Revd Martyn Atkins General Secretary The Methodist Church

Simon Loveitt Public Issues Spokesperson The United ReformedChurch

Revd Graham Sparkes Head of Faith and Unity The Baptist Union ofGreat Britain

Rev. Ian Galloway Convener, Church and Society Council The Churchof Scotland

Lt Col Marion Drew The Salvation Army

Niall Cooper National Co-ordinator Church Action on Poverty

Alison Gelder Director Housing Justice

c/o The Methodist Church Methodist Church House 25 Marylebone RdLondon NW1 5JR