Welfare Rights: MPs versus benefit ‘cheats’

Lord Tebbit is right to say that MPs have lost all moral authority when it comes to dealing with benefit fraud, writes Gary Vaux

To keep up to date with what’s happening in the social security world, I subscribe to an online news service. Once a day, I receive a link to stories concerning the Department for Work and Pensions that have appeared in newspapers around the world.

On Thursday 21 May, my google-powered service provided these wonderfully juxtaposed stories.

● DWP minister Purnell in CGT avoidance scandal

The Work and Pensions secretary, James Purnell, avoided paying capital gains tax (CGT) on the sale of his second home, it has been revealed. James Purnell also used £395 of taxpayers’ money to pay for the accountant who gave him the advice on avoiding the tax. Purnell avoided paying CGT on his London flat by listing it as his primary residence with tax authorities, while informing the Parliament fees office that his Manchester home was his primary residence.”

● Single mother pleads guilty to benefit fraud

Single mother-of-three Anne Maughan received a suspended prison sentence after pleading guilty to benefit fraud. Stoke-on-Trent Crown Court heard that Maughan, who has no previous convictions, failed to tell the DWP she had capital in excess of the prescribed limits. Richard Littler, defending, said: “This is not the normal benefit fraud case. She was always entitled to income support. She did not disclose monies in her account that belonged to someone else. Those monies were always to be repaid to that individual. The only benefit she would gain would be the interest on that cash.” Judge Granville Styler handed Maughan a five-month prison term, suspended for two years.

Now it’s not very often that you’ll hear me favourably quote Lord Tebbitt. But I heard him on the radio recently saying that, in his view, MPs had now lost all moral authority to talk about benefit fraud, given the row over MPs’ expenses.

This is not simply a cheap point. Kitty Ussher MP is a DWP minister responsible for the social fund and recently announced a tightening of crisis loans to reduce “inappropriate applications”. This is the same Kitty Ussher who claimed for various improvements to her second home, including getting rid of decorations on the ceiling that she didn’t like. “Most of the ceilings have Artex coverings three-dimensional swirls. It could be a matter of taste, but this counts as ‘dilapidations’ in my book.” She also claimed for plumbing, stating that “the plumbing is strange” and for a replacement stair carpet which was “grimy”. Some of these claims were rejected, but she did receive the full £22,110 allowance.

John McNulty, a DWP minister responsible for employment, claimed £60,000 in allowances for a second home in his Harrow constituency, just a 40-minute tube ride from Westminster. Yet he has recently decided that jobseekers’ allowance claimants should be prepared to travel up to three hours a day (instead of the previous two) to find work.

James Clappison, a Tory work and pensions spokesperson, used taxpayers’ money to buy flowers for his “second home”, part of his 24-strong property portfolio that includes a farm and a cricket club. Since 2001, Clappison has claimed a total of £102,241 in second home expenses.

None of the MPs named above made claims that were unlawful. But the words “moral authority” certainly spring to mind when set against the punishments that benefit claimants get when they make “mistakes” in their benefit claims.

Gary Vaux is head of money advice, Hertfordshire Council. E-mail queries 

Published in the 11 June 2009 edition of Community Care

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