Benefit fraud is an insult to taxpayers

Department for Work and Pensions
Department for Work and Pensions

A routine election pledge that we have yet to hear, but doubtless will, is a crackdown on benefit fraud. Every party is against it; every government promises to stop it. Yet it has now reached levels that the Public Accounts Committee, parliament’s spending watchdog, has said are “unacceptably high”.

Fraud increased considerably during the pandemic because of lax controls but in 2022 it still amounted to more than £6 billion. The National Audit Office has qualified the accounts of the responsible Whitehall departments every year since 1988.

It often takes a single story to illustrate a wider point and the tale of how a Bulgarian gang syphoned millions of pounds from the British welfare system has exposed its failures better than any audit report.

Five Bulgarian nationals are about to be sentenced after they admitted stealing more than £50 million from the UK taxpayer. The gang had thousands of “customers” and joked about the inability of the Department of Work and Pensions to catch them. Their scam was only stopped when a diligent Bulgarian policeman noticed the sudden increase in the wealth of residents in the mountain city of Sliven. New properties were being built and residents were wearing designer clothes.

Thousands of people, many of whom had never visited Britain, were receiving up to £2,500 a month in benefits from the UK. How was this allowed to happen? Investigations are continuing into other suspected rackets.

Criminals will always seek to exploit areas where they can make money illicitly. But the suspicion that the British benefits system is wide open to fraudsters, scammers and crooks is confirmed by this extraordinary story.

The court heard that the false claims were supported by an array of forged documents and lies. These included fictitious tenancy agreements, counterfeit payslips and forged letters from landlords, employers, schools and GPs. Many Bulgarians travelled to the UK for a short period of time to support the application for Universal Credit before returning home with the claim still extant. Some appear to have carried out the fraud online.

Where were the checks? What were officials doing – were they working in the office or from home? Is this just the tip of the iceberg? Hard-pressed taxpayers, who are bankrolling the lifestyles of people 1,500 miles away, need to be told.