Katy Ward 17th May 2019
“When my ex was sleeping with me, I never gave a second thought to the fact she was claiming benefits and working on the side. It wasn’t until she left me that I suddenly felt indignant about her crime.”
This confession comes from Matt*, a 31-year-old chartered surveyor from Leicester, who made a report of benefit fraud against his former girlfriend who claimed Jobseeker’s Allowance of almost £80 a week and more than £300 a month in housing benefit during their relationship, while also running an undeclared online business.
Nobody would condone benefit fraud, which has reached its highest ever level, with government figures finding £4.1bn in benefits were overpaid during the 2018/19 tax year and more than 5,000 people convicted of benefit fraud.
From a legal perspective, we all have the right to report a cheat but the psychology is complex and often sinister, with a desire to avenge personal grievances frequently being a significant motivator.
Matt reported his ex-fiancée when she ended their relationship of seven years.
“She confessed she’d given a mutual friend from university a blow job. I felt humiliated.”
While the couple had been in a relationship, he claims he had been happy to ignore her deception to the state. “I was bitter she ended things,” he says. “In my fury, I decided she sold shit to middle-class lefties, while I’d been cheated on and was pretty skint.”
Reporting her for benefit fraud seemed the easiest option. “When she was sleeping with me, it never bothered me she was claiming benefits unfairly. It bothered me she had cheated on me, not that she had cheated the benefits office.”
If I’d reported her on moral grounds, there wouldn’t be any guilt
As (what he assumes) is a result of his report, Matt’s ex-partner’s benefits were sanctioned, she was threatened with court action and forced to repay the money she had fraudulently claimed. Five years later, he now questions his motives as his anger has subsided and he is married with a baby.
“Logically, benefit fraud is wrong and, if I’d reported her on moral grounds, there wouldn’t be any guilt.” he says.
Feelings of regret aren’t uncommon when it comes to acts of revenge, according to Professor Ann Macaskill of Sheffield Hallam University, and it can be an uncomfortable thing to deal with but there are ways to move forward.
I feel pretty ridiculous for making the report
“Apologies are very powerful,” says Macaskill.
“To be seen as sincere, an apology should show that you really regret what you did, you are willing to try to make amends. Such an apology can help both parties. Apologies are not always accepted, but you are likely to feel better for having made the effort to apologise. The guilt is likely to reduce.”
Matt feels that what he did was wrong. “I was just a scorned bloke annoyed his girlfriend preferred another man,” he says. “If I’m honest, I feel pretty ridiculous for making the report.”
A moral right
For Kevin*, a 39-year-old council worker from York, the motivations for reporting a family member reached further into his past. A few months before Christmas, he made a report against his brother for fraud, who, Kevin says, has a history of drug use and caused their mother endless distress before her death from a stroke in 2006.
The roots of his decision go back into his childhood. “The night before my most important A Level, he took an overdose. My dad was meant to drive me to my exam the next day, but forgot in the midst of all the drama,” he says.
Kevin eventually got the bus alone, borrowing the money from a neighbour and none of his family asked how it went.
Although Kevin is almost 40, this incident stuck with him. “I wonder if mum would be here if it weren’t for the stress he caused.” His brother’s drug problems continued through his twenties, thirties and early forties but he has been clean for almost seven years.
I’d be lucky to go any holiday… never mind a three-week trip to Vegas
While registered as unemployed, Kevin’s brother works full-time as a labourer and earns £80 a day. He also claims employment and support allowance (ESA) – a similar benefit to Jobseeker’s Allowance designed for those unable to work as a consequence of a medical condition and often paid at a higher rate.
“What finally broke me was him and his boyfriend showing off they were taking a three-week trip to Las Vegas. “I work hard in a low-paid job installing stair lifts. I’d be lucky to go any holiday, never mind a three-week trip to Vegas.”
As soon as I filled in the form, it felt wrong
Although Kevin is convinced he had a moral right to report his brother, not everyone agrees. “My wife asked if I’d start quoting the Daily Mail or wiping my armpits with an England shirt. She insisted more people lose out than gain in the benefits system.”
According to charity Turn2Us, £10bn in state benefits were unclaimed during 2016 and 2017, with the average family missing out on approximately £3,000 per year.
For Kevin, the wait to hear has been one of the most stressful aspects of his decision to report his brother. “As soon as I filled in the form, it felt wrong. I received a message informing me my complaint could take many months to investigate and I may not find out about the results.”
Despite making the complaint in November, he has yet to hear back. There’s a chance no action will be taken. According to figures from the Independent, more than 280,000 public benefit fraud tip-offs (roughly 87%) during the previous two years resulted in no action due to a lack of evidence.
Benefits cheats can be reported online or by phone with as few details as a name.
How do the reportees feel? Eileen* is 78 and was reported for a crime she admits she technically committed.
After her husband walked out on their 40-year-marriage, she was left with almost nothing. Her children were adults and her former husband hired an accountant to hide his assets.
“I’d hardly worked since getting engaged and having my four girls. I came from a generation who assumed your husband would look after you,” she says.
Without a significant pension of her own, she relied on state provisions and top-ups from pension credit – a scheme to ensure pensioners receive a minimum of £167.25 per week (or £255.25 for couples).
I always thought those people were lazy scroungers, but I am technically the same
Eileen began cleaning a neighbour’s house for £5 per week.
“I didn’t declare it,” she says. “I knew I should, but just pushed it to the back of my mind”.
One afternoon, an adviser called from the Department of Works and Pensions to inform her there’d been an allegation about her claim.
“I panicked and told her I couldn’t talk because I was on my way to work.
“When you hear about benefit cheats in Channel 5 documentaries, you probably don’t picture divorced mums-of-four in their late seventies. I always thought those people were lazy scroungers, but I am technically the same as they are.”
I still don’t know who reported me
While Eileen has no concrete information on the person who reported her, she has heard rumours it was her former husband’s new wife.
“I still don’t know who reported me,” says Eileen. “I’d like to think she wouldn’t do that do, given the fact she stole my fella, but I honestly don’t know. I guess whoever reported me technically had the right.”
Katy Ward 17th May 2019