Monday, 27 February 2012
Hitting the roof
There is something troubling about a cluster of 'foreigners are ripping us off' stories in the Telegraph of late.
Today's front page reports:
Almost 100 families are raking in enough housing benefit to fund a £1million mortgage, raising fresh doubts about the Government's cap, figures released yesterday show.
In fact, it could have said more than 100, since interest payments on a £1 million loan at 4% come out at £3,333 per month, and the Telegraph tells us that that 130 families receive more than £1,000 per week. (Though if they wanted to pay off the mortgage, as they headline says they could, they'd need another £750 a week to chip away at the capital over 25 years).
The stats have been released under the Freedom of Information Act, so we have to accept that details are going to be sketchy. The 100 in the intro all live in Kensington and Chelsea and receive up to £5,000 per month. On the face of it, it seems a heck of a lot of money. But we don't know who they are, what their circumstances are or why they are receiving this benefit.
Lower down the story we are told about some Somalis whose cases were highlighted a couple of years ago, but we have no way of knowing whether they are among the people covered by the new statistics.
Also lower down the story, we learn that nearly five million people claim housing benefit, with 80% of them collecting less than £100 a week.
So why does that fact that a handful of people, rightly or wrongly, are being paid so much to put a roof over their head - raking it in, as the Telegraph so elegantly phrases it - raise fresh doubts about the Government's cap?
Wouldn't you think that if you were outraged by these payments (to people you don't know and for reasons you don't know) that you would see it as an argument in favour of the proposed benefits cap? Indeed, the three people quoted in the story - the ministry, the shadow minister and a spokeswoman for the Taxpayers Alliance - all saw the figures as proof that the cap was needed.
The figures are certainly interesting and relevant, since the debate over the benefit cap is exercising people in all walks of society. The subject is worthy of deeper investigation - a proper look at who is getting what. But there is something about this story that leaves a nasty taste. That verb in the intro; the reference to the Somalis. It masquerades as straight reporting. But it isn't.
The same applies to the piece in Saturday's paper about a group of Gypsies who flew in and out of Britain to defraud the benefits system of hundreds of thousands of pounds.
Romanians to repay £17.65 after £800,000 benefits fraud
read the headline, guaranteed to provoke outrage.
One woman was ordered to pay just £1 of £100,000 she had received through fraudulent benefit claims, and another £16.65 of £81,000.
The headline and the intro give the impression that this is the only punishment being imposed. But these women - and other members of their family - had been jailed last year for the offences; this was a confiscation hearing. And the point about confiscation hearings is that you can't force someone to give you what they haven't got. There is no point in making an order that will cost much more to enforce than it will return. The idea isn't to waste more of the country's money of wild goose chases.
So once again, the report leaves that taste in the mouth. How often do we read about how much other fraudsters are asked to repay? Rarely.
The scam was cheeky, to put it mildly, the restitution order small enough to make the story valid and interesting. But if only the reporter had given us one paragraph at the end to say how much has been recovered in restitution hearings in the past year, for example, with perhaps the highest payment detailed, we'd have had a little more perspective.
And finally, another case of racism?
Geoff Stephens has lived in Britain for 27 years and used to work as a community warden in Kent. He has taken his colleagues to the European Court of Human Rights for racial abuse because they would greet him every morning by saying "G'day, sport". Yes, Mr Stephens is Australian.
Mr Stephens quit his job because of depression. He says he grew tired of constant references to kangaroos and prawns on barbies. He also claims that people were listening to his telephone calls (and we all know the trouble that can cause).
So I know it's very naughty of me, but I couldn't help but smile halfway through the story when he was asked what he thought about the phone interception.
His reply: "Strewth."
Thank you for sticking with it to the end. Please do share your thoughts below. And please take a look at the other posts. They are all media related.
Sold down the river the Beeb's flotilla and fireworks fiasco - and a feeble fightback. Why didn't the top man have his hand on the tiller?
Hello and goodbye to Wapping a personal diary of life inside the fortress in the days before the strike that changed newspapers forever
Out of print a love letter to newspapers in this digital age. Why they don't have to die if we have the will to let them live and thrive
Why local newspapers matter Why we should care about the revolution in the regional press
Missing: an opportunity How the hunt for Madeleine McCann could be turned into a force for good instead of just a festival of mawkish sentimentality
Riding for a fall Does buying a ticket for a jolly day out at the races mean you are fair game for the snobs who sneer and snipe?
Just a pretty face Illustrating the business pages isn't the easiest job in the world, but spare us the celebs who aren't even mentioned in the story
Food for thought a case study in why we should take health advice with a pinch of salt (and a glass of red wine and a helping of roast beef)
The world's gone mad Don Draper returns and the drooling thirtysomethings go into overdrive But does anybody watch the show? (But there is more Whipple in this post!)