One law for the poor, and another for MPs.Day after day, in magistrates’ court up and down the land miserable, friendless wretches stand a-tremble as they wait to hear how they will be punished for behaviour which, they are encouraged to believe, is akin to a weapon of social mass destruction. For these are the benefit frauds, people who have successfully claimed a state hand-out which the rules – the law – says they are not entitled to. In some cases, perhaps dependent on where the court is situated, the illegal claimant is surprised to find that the prosecutor from the benefits agency and the magistrates are not unsympathetic to the defence that it was the misery of persistent extreme poverty – perhaps trying to get by as a lone parent or on the starvation wages of a cleaner or a carer or the like – which led, inexorably, to the false claims. But in other cases, when the circumstances of the claimant are not so bleak, they are liable to hear themselves denounced as a threat to an orderly, fair society in which everyone has their place and where all benefits will come to those who are grateful enough to wait. In such cases a sternly salutary sentence is in the offing.
A recent example of this was heard at a court in Somerset, when a David Wilshaw was sent to prison for 20 months. His offences were to claim, over a period of four years, tax credit for 16 children who did not exist. It all began, he said, when he claimed legitimately for two children of his partner and saw that he was not required to provide any proof, such as birth certificates, of their existence. This encouraged him to invent other children, which brought in over four hundred pounds a week. It was said that when he was arrested he hinted that he should be congratulated rather than punished; he had, he said, done a “public service by identifying this loophole” which, although showing that he was typically acquiescent in the delusions about the essential justice and progressiveness of class society, did not persuade his sentencers to go easy on him. After all, they had already heard some other facts about him, for example that he had many previous convictions for fraud and was a gambling addict who could run through six hundred pounds a week. It did not help his case that while he was at the betting shop his partner was contending with her own addictive needs, swallowing a minimum of two bottles of brandy a day.
So there you have it – a man who, rather than tackle his personality defects exploits the generosity of a compassionate society. Except that he is not alone in this; a BMA report in January 2007 described Britain as heading for a gambling epidemic, with an estimated 300,000 addicts, while widespread and easily available “treatment” –stifling, or perhaps substituting for, the compulsion – is urgently needed. Gambling is no longer mainly a male preoccupation for it is now known as “female friendly” – although what is “friendly” about it is not easily apparent – and it now threatens to engulf children. The outlook is that the problems will get worse. A Labour MP who sat on the committee which examined the laws of gambling said that new opportunities, such as on-line gambling, were bound to result in a rise in addiction – and “addiction,” he said, “isn’t like flu; it doesn’t just go away and you can’t take a pill to beat it”. Which, true as it is, avoided the point that this Labour government, like its predecessors on the other side of the Commons, had actually aggravated the addiction, akin to forcing someone with flu to stay outdoors in bad weather.
The Gambling Act 2005, among other things, eased the entry requirements for casinos and bingo halls and sanctioned TV advertisements for casinos. Professor Mark Griffiths, who was co-author of the BMA report, commented on the likely effect of this: “The liberalisation of gambling and the number of different ways people can do it, such as mobile phones and spread betting, means the figure (of addiction) will go up”. The Act also allowed the establishment of the “super casinos” ( although in deference to loud protests and, it is rumoured, Gordon Brown’s Presbyterian background, this has since been modified) and other such establishments whose purpose is to supply an hour or two of fantasy to some particularly desolate workers while separating them from what is left of their wages. Gambling is a big, growing industry in which about nine and a half billion pounds are “lost” each year. Such harsh realities threaten the very foundations of working class dreams.
It might be that none of this is of interest to David Wilshaw sitting in his cell but at least he has time there to reflect on his wasted life, which may be more instructive for him than crossing off the days until he is free to get back to his sad, alcoholic partner and the local betting shop. It might occur to him that the treatment given to those who offend against capitalism’s expectations is not unconnected with their social standing. Newspaper addicts will be aware of the turbulence over the scale of expenses available to MPs and the manner in which these have been claimed, giving the overriding impression that Honourable Members are happily aware that they are on to a good thing. Among the most blatant examples of working the system was that of Tory MP Derek Conway, who claimed allowances to employ his two sons and the boy friend of one of them to work for him as “researchers”.
The problem was that there was no evidence of any of them doing any research or even of attending the Commons other than when being entertained on the Members’ Terrace. One of the sons is a university student and the other a “fashion writer” whose day job is to arrange swell parties for upper class youngsters at the exclusive Mahiki night club, a favourite haunt of Prince Harry when he is not preoccupied with clearing the Taliban out of Afghanistan. The estimates of the amounts paid to these “researchers” varied but it was clear that in total it ran into tens of thousands of pounds. Naturally the other MPs got very cross about this unwelcome exposure of their gravy train and as a result Conway had to make the usual noises about being sorry, he was ordered to repay just a part of the money he had misappropriated and he was suspended – told not to turn up for work for a few days. By David Wilshaw’s standards, not too bad a result.
Why were there such differences in the treatment of these two cases, both of which involved obtaining money through false declarations? Both men gambled on not being found out but Conway had the better chance of getting away with it in that he relied on the established system based on the assumption that MPs, who spend their time telling the rest us how to behave, and passing laws to ensure that we do as they say, are incapable of abusing their own rules. Nothing must be allowed to undermine this assumption. Some analysts would regard this as an addiction as powerful and as destructive as the one which bring all those desperate people into the dock and shut David Wilshaw away in prison.