Image: Mary McManus, manager of the East Belfast Independent Advice Centre in Templemore Avenue
By Brian Pelan, VIEW editor
The manager of an east Belfast advice centre has hit out at the Belfast Telegraph over its recent front page story about benefit fraud.
Mary McManus, manager of the East Belfast Independent Advice Centre, said: “The Belfast Telegraph has chosen to sensationalise and exaggerate benefit fraud to the detriment of its readers in its recent front page story.
Ms McManus said: “On Tuesday, December 6, the Belfast Telegraph had a front page which read, ‘Staggering £800,000 weekly bill for benefit fraud in Northern Ireland’.
“Below the headline they pictured a couple leaving court who had been found guilty of fraud.
“On reading the article there is more sensationalism using such terms as, “staggering”, “ballooning” and “spiralling” to describe estimated levels of fraud and spend on Social Security.
“As the manager of East Belfast Independent Advice Centre, I was dismayed at this article as it was sensational and played in to the myth that benefit fraud is a rampant problem in our society and that spend on Social Security is out of control. So what are the facts about spend on Social Security and benefit fraud?
“The story was based on the latest Financial Auditing and Reporting report by NI Audit Office. It was, in fact, a good news story as estimated error and fraud overall in the Social Security Agency, Northern Ireland Housing Executive and the Land and Property Service had reduced from two percent the previous year to 1.7 percent of the Social Security Budget.
“Benefit Fraud was not even listed as a key finding of the report by the NI Audit Office in their press release. The now notorious Renewal Heat Incentive (RHI) Scheme featured as a key finding but it is only listed at the end of this article stating the following, “£11.9 million was spent in 2015-16 on the non-domestic Renewable Heat Incentive scheme without the necessary approvals. Total expenditure of £30.5 million has been made to 31 March 2016. Systems to prevent or detect abuse of the scheme were inadequate.”
“This scheme is described as the worst scandal in the history of the Stormont Executive that will cost the people of Northern Ireland £400 million over the next 20 years.
“The figures contained in the auditor’s report refer to actual spend on the RHI scheme whereas the figures regarding benefit fraud and error are estimates. The Belfast Telegraph therefore made a conscious choice to emphasise estimated levels of benefit fraud rather than focus on the RHI Scheme which rightfully continues to dominate the news.
“How does the amount of money lost in benefit fraud compare with other types of fraud? In 2011-12 benefit fraud across the UK was estimated at just under £1.6 billion in total, one percent of the total Welfare Budget and less than official and claimant error which was £2.2 billion. In the same year tax fraud was estimated at £14 billion and Public Procurement Fraud was estimated at £2.4 billion. Benefit fraud is the second lowest type of public sector fraud just above identity fraud.
“The Belfast Telegraph article goes on to state that one of the most, ‘shocking findings’ of the NI Audit Report is that NI’s benefits bill is, ‘ballooning’, as it increased from £5.7 billion to £5.8 billion. The NI Audit office report states that this is an increase of 2.1 percent on the previous year.
“According to the Economic and Social Research Centre the amount spent on benefits is increasing because of, ‘several economic and demographic factors – including an ageing society, a growing private rented sector increasing the housing benefit caseload, and lower-than-expected earnings growth – which have increased expenditure’,
“The article also fails to make explicit that biggest expenditure of the £5.8 billion spent in NI goes on pensions.
“What is really sad about headlines and articles like this is that it exaggerates benefit fraud and spend on Social Security making people in receipt of Social Security feel like a burden. This results in less people accessing their entitlement.
“An estimated £15 billion in benefits goes unclaimed in the UK in one year. That is a ‘staggering’ £281,461,538 per week. It is also nine times more than the amount estimated to be lost through benefit fraud in the UK.
Ms McManus added: “Research conducted by the charity TurntoUs found that 48 percent of low income households are not claiming what they are entitled to. These are people already on a low income who really need the money for basic necessities. Just think of the growth of poverty in our society characterised by food banks springing up across the country.
“Every year in EBIAC, we help thousands of people such as families, pensioners, disabled people, sick people, carers, working people on a low income and the unemployed to navigate the incredibly complex Social Security System.
“They are not the people featured in this article, they are just trying to get by often in terribly difficult circumstances such as trying to cope with the diagnosis of cancer or trying to raise a family on a very low income or cope with looking after a disabled child. They need all the financial support they can get from the Social Security System that is there to provide a safety net for them. They do not need their local paper making it out that they are fraudulent and a financial burden to society.”