April 30, 2008

More benefit cheats

Money down the drainTwo Blackpool fraudsters admitted obtaining £66,500 over nine years. Anita Osborn claimed as a single parent in 1997 and married Mark Lancaster in 1998. The following year he bought a house, and she claimed benefit as if he was her landlord. She also received carer's allowance on the basis she was not working, but she failed to notify she had a job as a collection agent for a finance company. She also admitted possession of heroin and cannabis resin. Allegedly she took the drugs into Wymott prison on August 4 last year. Adjourned for sentencing.

A Stockport woman has pleaded guilty to fraudulently obtaining benefit totalling £35,000 - she failed to declare that there was a working partner in the household.

In Northern Ireland a man has been sentenced to six months in prison for benefit fraud. He claimed Income Support and Housing Benefit totalling £5,676 while failing to declare he was living with his partner. On the mainland he would probably have been told to do unpaid work.

In Hebden Bridge a 74-year-old man received almost £150,000 in income support and tax rebates while earning £60,000 a year. His frauds began in 1995 when he was freed from prison for theft and possessing illegal tobacco. Despite that, his benefit fraud continued for 11 years. The DWP says it will pursue the case to retrieve £1 million under the Proceeds of Crime Act, including not only the £150,000 fraudulently claimed, but also any profit made from investing the illegally received cash.

Finally, Broxbourne Council tells us fraud investigations in 2007/08 uncovered over £240,000 benefit overpaid to people not entitled to the benefits they were claiming.
Some cases involved pensioners who had failed to declare assets held in undeclared Bank accounts resulting in no entitlement to benefits claimed, including one case with an overpayment of over £45,000. These cases normally arise from Government-driven data matching exercises.

Another case arose as a result of a joint investigation with the DWP whereby a person claiming council tax benefit had failed to declare from 1996 that he owned commercial premises and rent from the flat above, creating an overpayment of over £10,000 plus DWP benefits. As a result of a further investigation by a Financial Investigation Unit, he has been ordered to repay all benefits including the cost of free school meals claimed from Hertfordshire County Council. Should he default on this payment he will return to the Crown Court to receive a sentence of imprisonment but will still have to repay all money owing.
Good, but with the help of computer voice analysis software Harrow detected £363,000 of benefit fraud, and Lambeth £450,000 in five months. In the Lambeth pilot, 22% had their benefits stopped or cut, while Harrow reported that after they started the trial more than a quarter of claimants said they did not need the benefits as their conditions had changed.

So Broxbourne probably has some way to go.

April 28, 2008

22% in Lambeth pilot have benefit claims stopped or cut

South Staffordshire wants us to be impressed that their "crackdown" on housing benefit and council tax fraud has saved taxpayers at least £117,000. But Maidenhead has identified bogus benefit claims worth more than £500,000 over the past year. And, as mentioned in previous posts, during a five month pilot of voice analysis software Lambeth Council has saved some £450,000 it was losing through benefit fraud.

That's not the most stunning number. During the pilot, almost 1,700 people were assessed, and 377 had their benefits stopped or cut.

That's 22%. Reproduce that across the social security system and we are looking at vast savings.

A round-up now of some individual cases. One in Greenock is a good example of criminal sloth in the state sector. Hugh Meechan began receiving incapacity benefit in 1999 after being signed off with a bad back. Then - in June 2005 - it was discovered that he had been working. In the cash economy, perhaps? Er, no ... as a bank nurse at Ravenscraig Hospital, employed by NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde. He had claimed £6,174 in benefits during this time. Evidently his case has just come to court.

Free money, help yourselves. Now the case goes from the ridiculous to the surreal.
A report into his background advised that Meechan was unfit for community service because of his back complaint.

But he asked for a review of his fitness when Sheriff Vincent Canavan revealed he would be jailed if he could not do unpaid work. Sentence was deferred for further reports.
A Shirebrook woman who falsely claimed £41,000 in benefits has been jailed. She started receiving income support, Council Tax benefits and housing benefits when she was living alone, but she then moved in with her partner but failed to notify the authorities and continued collecting benefits, despite the fact her partner was in work.

And a South Norwood woman has been found guilty of dishonestly claiming benefits on the basis of being a single parent between 2002 and 2005 when she was in fact living with her partner. This must be the hardest deception to tackle in a systematic way, and indeed the council was alerted to the £11,200 fraud by an anonymous tip-off.

A Wythenshawe woman used more than £18,000 in fraudulently claimed benefits to fund a secret crack cocaine habit. She "was given the money in child care tax credits between 2004 and 2007 for what she claimed were spiralling child care costs for her two children". The court heard she had initially been caught out in September 2006, but that she had continued to try to make false claims until she was caught out a second time. Given that she admitted offences running through to 2007, she seems to have been successful.

Finally, a 61-year-old man has been convicted of wrongfully claiming £60,000 in disability benefits between 1996 and 2000. He claimed it took him 10 minutes to walk 50 yards but at the same time he carried coffins and drove a taxi for a living as well as playing bowls in his spare time. It took them four years to stop him. Evidently his case too has just come to court.

Yesterday's post spotlighted inadequate sentencing. Today's tiny sample suggests that even small cases with guilty pleas are taking too long to reach court in the first place. The justice system creaks again.

April 26, 2008

Judging the judges

Elsewhere on Umbrella Blog one of my colleagues praises the quality of the judiciary. Events over the last couple of days give one pause.

Two "vigilantes" who drowned a teenager by forcing him to swim in a claypit have been jailed for a mere five and a half years, after the judge criticised the defendants' "extraordinarily callous behaviour". Read what they did. For that they should be in prison for ten years each - which presumably means a sentence of 20 years. In this country you can bully someone to death and receive a sentence which means a couple of years in jail from Judge Peter Coulson.

Mr Justice David Steel has criticised electronic tagging, after a teenager was murdered by Rikki Johnson, a violent criminal who was wearing a tag and in breach of his "strict" night-time curfew. He has 12 previous convictions, including two for battery and one for intimidating a witness. Security monitoring companies and the probation service can't immediately round these people up. The sentence seems to have been inappropriate. It may be worth following this case, as the Judge has called for further reports on how Johnson was dealt with. The victim's mother said
It is obvious that tags do not work for violent offenders. The system does not respond quickly enough when they break their orders and something needs to change. As soon as he breached the order someone should have been there to pick him up - something should have been done.
Immediate response seems unrealistic, so she is right that tagging doesn't work for offenders like Johnson. Keeps them out of prison, though, which is less embarrassing for the government even if innocent people die on the streets to save the government's face.

A drug-dealer is on the run after leaving his wife and two accomplices facing long sentences for operating a big crack-cocaine business. He was on bail, and failed to appear at Gloucester Crown Court to hear the verdict. Are we surprised? Presumably the naive Judge was.

Lastly in today's roll of judicial dishonour we have Mr Justice Collins, who keeps undermining government efforts to protect us from terrorism. Read here about the latest beneficiary of his reckless liberalism.

In this country the judiciary is unaccountable. Do they deserve to be?

April 25, 2008

Something for the weekend, sir

This morning's parcel from Amazon brought Squandered by David Craig and Nigel Lawson's An Appeal to Reason: A Cool Look at Global Warming.

Craig in his introductory chapter entertainingly pairs promises by Blair and Brown at the start of their premierships.

Blair --- Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime
Brown - Punish crime and prevent it by dealing with the root causes

Blair --- We will make education our No. 1 priority
Brown - Education is my passion

Blair --- Tackle the unacceptable level of anti-social behaviour
Brown - Take action against anti-social behaviour

Blair --- Everyone is entitled to dignity in retirement
Brown - Respect, dignity and security in old age

Blair --- We will get the unemployed from welfare to work
Brown - Advance to a Britain of full employment

Blair --- Restore trust in politics
Brown - Rebuild trust in our democracy.

All good knockabout stuff. It'll be interesting to see how the following themed chapters develop.

Lawson's foreword starts with a jawdropping disclosure.
While my three previous books had no difficulty whatever in finding a British publisher (indeed they did so before they were even written), this book, despite being promoted by an outstanding literary agent, was rejected by every British publisher to whom it was submitted - and there were a considerable number of them.

As one rejection letter put it: 'My fear, with this cogently argued book, is that it flies so much in the face of the prevailing orthodoxy that it would be very difficult to find a wide market'.
It was published by an American publisher who owns Duckworth.

In a TalkSport interview, Lawson said that someone had paid for a copy to be sent to every MP free of charge, so the publisher has already sold more copies than some so called celebrity autobiographies achieve, and they attract substantial advances.

The first chapter proceeds to undermine the IPCC's reports in layman's language from many angles that will be familiar to readers of Umbrella Blog and the blog of Philip Stott, and concludes
It is, however, prudent to err on the side of caution. For that reason, in the remainder of this book I shall work on the assumption that the majority (IPCC) view described earlier in this chapter is correct, while bearing in mind that, to a very important extent, this issue is in fact anything but 'settled'.
This promises to be an entertainingly bracing read.

April 22, 2008

More benefit fraud

Money down the drainAllegations of benefit fraud rarely hit the national press, unless perhaps the accused live in Dewsbury. But every week court cases are reported in local media around the country. These in turn are only the worst of the frauds picked up by the bodies which hand out our money - most of them are dealt with administratively. Together they in turn probably represent only a small proportion of the benefit fraud that goes on up and down the country day in and day out.

One man who did make it to the national media is the ex-mayor of Pembroke who officiated in 67 football matches while claiming mobility and care allowances, and admitted two charges of illegally obtaining benefit amounting to £9,233. He was filmed officiating at a football match in March 2007. Subsequent checks found that during the 2005-2006 season he had officiated in 34 matches. The following season, he officiated at 33. It's taken 13 months to get to this guilty plea in court.

Benefits can attract organised crime. A Nigerian woman who was a housing official in London bought a baby in Nigeria, brought it to Britain, and demanded priority housing for her and her "son". Police believe this is one of a growing number of examples of "child trafficking" for benefit fraud. Senior detectives fear that "thousands" of children are being smuggled into Britain for benefit fraud, and privately admit that trafficking legislation is not working. Police complain that the Crown Prosecution Service is "not bold enough" in pursuit of child trafficking cases. Instead of prosecutions under new legislation, cases like yesterday's are being brought under the lesser crime of "facilitation" of illegal entry into the Britain.

Most detected fraud is more mundane. Lee Simms from Chester-le-Street fraudulently claimed housing and council tax benefit worth almost £19,000. He failed to declare income received from various full time jobs, but claimed his only income was from his partner's part-time earnings, child benefit and tax credits. He also failed to report two periods of employment for his partner and a period when she was in receipt of maternity allowance. Notice how the system relies on claimants to keep reporting changes in their circumstances voluntarily even though they are giving up substantial sums of money.

A Heston man failed to tell the council he was not entitled to benefits because his wife was working and receiving income from tax credits. The paper reports that "he was caught by a computer system which looks for suspicious financial activity. Government departments and financial institutions compared data on Mandan then referred the case to Hounslow's benefit fraud unit for further investigation". Well that's good, but the fraud ran for a year, from May 2005 to May 2006, during which Mr Mandan claimed £4,700 in housing benefit and £844 in council tax benefit. And it took a further 11 months for the case to come to court. This is the clunky, slow state sector.

A Horden man claimed benefits for a crippling back condition while working in a job that required him to walk up to three miles a day, though he had said he couldn't walk unaided. He had been receiving low rate Disability Living Allowance since 1998 and started claiming high rate allowance from April 2002 when the condition worsened, but from November 2005 to May 2007 he worked in three physically demanding jobs. A renewed claim was made in November 2006, which said his condition was much the same, but he was re-interviewed in April 2007. He received a benefits overpayment of £4,470 and has just come to court.

A Longbenton woman fraudulently received benefits of £5,414 after failing to declare she had been receiving a private pension "since at least April 2000", and that she had also been employed for more than three years. This went on from April 2000 and September 2007.

A Weybridge woman admitted failing to notify the correct authorities that her partner had been living with her and her children from June 2003 to April 2007 and was in full-time employment. During this long period she was overpaid £32,389 in benefit.

A Hounslow woman "who cheated the council out of £17,000 in housing benefit by keeping her husband's employment a secret has escaped a prison sentence", reports the local paper. She claimed the money over three years - from June 2003 to November 2006 - even though her situation had changed and she was no longer entitled to the benefits, and "was caught by the council's benefit fraud unit after being tipped off by Government officials whose computer data matching service found her details to be suspicious".

A Walsall man who illegally claimed over £24,000 has been given a suspended prison sentence because he repaid the money from the £30,000 of savings he had failed to declare. The Express & Star reports that "Sharpe is the latest benefits cheat to be brought to justice in the Black Country".
On Tuesday, Amanda Sambrooks, 48, of Branfield Close, Coseley, was given an 18-month community order for continuing to claim income support, housing benefit and council tax relief despite inheriting a cash windfall of £60,000.

On April 4, mother-of-three Joanne Wadsley, of All Saints Way, West Bromwich, was given 100 hours of unpaid work for fiddling £24,000 income support while her boyfriend was living at her house.
A Mold bingo caller has been convicted of benefit fraud for the fourth time after he failed to volunteer the information that he was working. Obviously the right punishment for a habitual criminal is a conditional discharge. He was also ordered to pay compensation of £969.

"A Willingham-by-Stow woman who was involved in a benefit fraud fiddle for six years netted more than £44,000 she was not entitled to". She said she was unemployed and a single parent and had no other income other than child benefit. As a result income support was granted. But then the DWP received an anonymous tip that she had been living with the father of her children.

Finally, to put these individual cases in context. I've blogged before about the success of voice recognition software at Harrow Council in reducing claims. Lambeth Council is now claiming that it has prevented £450,000 in possible benefit fraud.
A council spokesman the project, run in partnership with the Department of Work and Pensions, has proved so successful that there are now plans to extend it.
The clunky state should have extended it across the country long since. The state's systems do mostly seem to be 50 years behind the times.

April 21, 2008

Producer capture

For big organisations the fleeting contact with any individual customer can become less important than the continual orders from departments and head office. Internal processes influence reward more than the service given to the customer. And internal processes can be the result of political jockeying among head office departments, which are several layers away from the customers.

This can have a direct effect on customers, as John Humphrys tells in the case of a flight attendant. What's really striking is the bad experiences reported with the NHS. He had taken his small son to the local A&E.
It could scarcely have been a more trivial injury - a splinter in his finger - but it was swollen and turning septic and I had made a bit of a mess of trying to get it out myself.

Neither the nurse I saw first nor the doctor who joined her would do it. Not because they couldn't - it would have taken them a few minutes - but because of the rules which say only A&E units with specially trained paediatric staff can deal with children. That meant having to travel miles into Central London to another hospital.

They told me they did not have "after-care" facilities in case of complications. But it's only a splinter, I said, not a life-threatening injury. It made no difference. Rules are rules.

So off we went and eventually - after seeing two receptionists, two nurses, three doctors of varying seniority and one X-ray technician and receiving a large dose of painkiller (unwanted) and a bottle of antibiotic medicine (unused) - the splinter was removed.

The patient, I am happy to say, survived with no complications whatsoever, but what should have taken a minute or two had taken five hours and heaven knows how much it ended up costing the poor old taxpayer.
And he attacks the self-serving, vacuous slogans with which state bodies patronise us at our expense.

When the state provides a service, the body providing it is usually big, and more interested in serving its central masters than the local people who ultimately pay for it. In this model the local community has hardly any influence over its police, hospitals and schools - and the aim of bureaucrats, both in Whitehall and on the ground, is to keep it that way. So much more comfortable.

That is why direct democracy is so important.

The clunking state (where have I heard that well chosen adjective before?) is incapable of making the services it provides responsive and light on their feet.

Just as the cumbersome structure of taxes and benefits restricts mobility. The Reform think tank claims that underlying child poverty (net of transfers) has risen, and the withdrawal of means-tested benefits means that some gain only 11p for every additional £1 earned.
1,875,000 people face marginal effective tax rates of over 60 per cent in 2008-09 compared to 760,000 people in 1997-98.
Politicians' vanity has a lot to answer for. Frighteningly, they genuinely think they alone can provide proper services and set the 'right' income levels for households.

Next - forgetful of Canute - they'll be imagining that they can change the climate. Oh ... they do.

Scottish questions simmer nicely

Philip Johnson reports that the Tories are renaming the West Lothian Question as The English Question. This may be politically astute, since the expression "West Lothian Question" won't have immediate resonance with most English voters.

The Tories are reportedly shying away from the David Davis proposal of an English parliament sitting in the Commons. Instead, the committee stage would be for English MPs only.
When the Bill came back to the Commons for its report stage and third reading, all MPs would again have a vote. But the Government would be bound to accept amendments agreed by the committee, or risk losing the legislation.
The political problem for Labour in objecting to this is that it sounds boring rather than radical, so it would be politically difficult for Labour to work up indignation that would strike a chord.

The devil would be in the detail. If the House as a whole could guillotine the Committee stage, the sanction could be neutralised. And suppose a Labour dominated Lords reversed Committee stage amendments and re-instated Labour government proposals overturned in Committee?

Probably a Labour government could circumvent the proposal easily enough, though, by making sure that every Bill contained a measure which didn't apply only to England, so that it wasn't an exclusively English Bill.

Alex Salmond has told the SNP he wants to make make Westminster "dance to a Scottish jig", by winning more than a third of Scotland's seats at the next general election. Commentators seem to consider this unlikely - after all the SNP only just scraped home in the Scottish local election.

And it seems Gordon Brown is losing control of Scottish Labour as Wendy Alexander faces "increasingly strident demands" from inside the Labour movement for independence to be considered by the flagship commission that is reviewing the devolution settlement.

Scotland's no longer a political backwater.

April 19, 2008

Why does Mbeki support Mugabe?

Thabo Mbeki is supposedly the 'mediator' in Zimbabwe. Surely no one believes he is mediating between ZanuPF and the MDC? Rather he is Robert Mugabe's representative on earth, mediating between him and the civilised world, telling the civilised world there is no need to be concerned about events in Zimbabwe.

Thabo Mbeki is the Comical Ali of southern Africa. But it's not funny at all.

Commentators have been puzzling over why Mbeki supports Mugabe unfailingly. The blithe amorality is breathtaking but it seems to be common currency among southern African heads of government. They are all diminished by it.

Kofi Annan wants African action, along the lines of Kenya.
On the question of Zimbabwe there has been substantial international attention.

The question which has been posed is: where are the Africans? Where are their leaders and the countries in the region, what are they doing?

It is a rather dangerous situation. It's a serious crisis with impact beyond Zimbabwe.
What of Mbeki? In his own country a Chinese ship carrying arms to Zimbabwe has left port after workers would not unload it and a court refused to allow the weapons on board to be transported across the country. For Jacob Zuma, advocacy of a more active stance is a cost-free way for him to differentiate himself further from Mbeki.

One could say that Mbeki in government has managed to combine rigidity with spinelessness. And his indifference reflects the views of his opposite numbers in the region.

But maybe they take their lead from him. Maybe he is protecting Mugabe from them voicing concern. Why would he do that?

One explanation is that 'Robert Mugabe knew my father'. They were in liberation struggles at the same time, and the son looks up to his father's friend.

An indirect South African contact has also suggested that there is an extended family relationship. Maybe this is just an urban rumour, as they weren't precise. The suggestion was that a relation of Mbeki might be married to a relative of Mugabe, making Mugabe head of the extended family, and perhaps that much harder to speak out against.

Anyone know if this is true? Are Mbeki and Mugabe by any chance related?

April 17, 2008

Thursday thoughts

Zac Goldsmith wants to save the planet. But he's on another planet already.

Reportedly the family company Organic Investments Limited is based in the Cayman Islands. Why would Conservative candidate Zac do this, except to avoid UK tax?

The Telegraph also reports that 'One business Zac, 33, would like to see fail is the new Sainsbury's in the constituency he is trying to woo. "The shop will have no customers within a mile and a half radius," he has claimed.'

More on Sainsbury's below. Meanwhile, how to apologise with two fingers.

Jobs for the boyos

The Telegraph prints this Lord Kinnock Clarification.
Following our article "Putin has nothing to gain from harassing the British Council" (Jan 19) we are asked to point out that Lord Kinnock receives no remuneration as the Council's chairman and undertakes significant work beyond the post's requirements; he had no involvement in the appointment of his son Stephen as director of the Council's St Petersburg office or of his daughter Rachel to Gordon Brown's political staff; criticism by another newspaper of Glenys Kinnock's attendance at a conference in Barbados was withdrawn following a complaint to the Press Complaints Commission.
Yes, that seems pretty clear.

Lord Windbag is a famous waste of space.

Government greenstanding trumps sensible policy

Justin King has gone public and attacked government plans to legislate to require retailers to charge consumers for single-use bags. He points out that the issue is complex. This policy has had only a temporary effect in Ireland. Paper bags cost more to transport and are twice as energy intensive as a plastic one. Furthermore
Last year a large number of retailers, not just supermarkets, sat down in good faith with Wrap, the government-funded body concerned with packaging and food waste, and Defra to agree a voluntary approach to cutting the environmental impact of plastic bags by 25pc by the end of 2008 - not simply the number of bags.

This target appears to have been thrown out and informed debate overturned.
So the government knew there were informed discussions going on but chose to override them with a crude headline measure which will make life more expensive for many people (standard practice, government doesn't care about that) and won't address the overall problem anyway.

Right long-term decision? I don't think so. This is not serious governing.

Unsafe in their hands

At least 13 London councils have lost data relating to members of the public in the past year.
Social workers from the borough of Kensington and Chelsea admitted to losing information on children in their care on three different occasions, according to a spokesperson, when a laptop, a paper notebook and a file were stolen on three separate occasions.

Two of these cases occurred while staff where in a pub after work, claim reports.
"Staff are required to notify the loss of any confidential information to their manager immediately, as happened in all these cases," says a council spokesperson. So that's all right then. In another case, photocopies of the birth certificates of 375 students who had applied for grants were lost by Havering Council, along with financial records of their parents.

The public sector is 'better'

The Taxpayers Alliance picks up the news that HMRC's policy on expenses receipts is more lax than the standards they require from taxpaying businesses.
Unfortunately this new outbreak of double standards is part of a broader pattern. Politicians and civil servants rarely think of their own behaviour when launching some new crackdown. Politicians are putting in place corporate manslaughter laws while the NHS they run is killing thousands through hospital infections every year. Housing for 'key workers' always seems to mean housing for those working for the Government rather than in the private sector. The Government insists that electricity companies do something about the effect of high prices on ordinary people while putting in place regulations like the Renewables Obligation that push prices up. It really is one rule for them and another for the rest of us.
The policy on receipts is probably sensible - the poor dears might well lose them.

But I shouldn't be calling it the "public sector", any more than I think of these people as "public servants". They are state employees. We pay them, with our money.

April 14, 2008

Denis MacShane values Speaker above voters

Thanks to the Taxpayers' Alliance for picking up on Denis MacShane licking the boots of the Speaker and calling for Douglas Carswell to be disciplined having the effrontery to criticise him.

The Guardian reports that
Tory whips were said to be likely to have "a quiet word" with Carswell, mainly to warn him such a public attack would be counterproductive and end up with him not being called to speak during debates.
Leave aside that this would be abuse of power by a man already accused of bias. The Speaker has chosen to set policy on MPs' expenses in a controversial, reactionary and unpopular way. Why should he be immune from criticism just because he is the less than competent holder of office? Working class origins did not protect Mr Prescott from criticism as an office-holder, so why should they protect Mr Martin?

Outside the Westminster village this reverence for office has no resonance at all. No one in public office should be immune from criticism. Shame on the pompous Mr MacShane for proposing otherwise.

P.S. The Taxpayers' Alliance has commented further.

Interesting times

In England times are starting to change, while Africa remains stuck.

Mugabe's regime can't even fiddle elections plausibly any more. Neighbouring countries' governments prefer the devil they know in Zimbabwe, an approach briskly clear of any values like the freedom and democracy they called for in throwing off their colonial oppressors. The worst of them is of course Thabo Mbeke. Peter Oborne has suggested some historical reasons for this but all the signs are that the man in his governing is an immoral wimp. And - as David Blair reminded us in The Telegraph - Mugabe has never been a democrat, always a thug.

In England, meanwhile, Matthew Parris is grandly dismissive of Gordon Brown. He accuses him of "a paralysing failure of intellectual confidence: a yawning absence of creativity. What was not absent was ambition." Parris is worth reading in full, but he's wrong. Brown does have an agenda, which is not just about calculations to further his political ambition born of vanity.

He's a statist. He believes he has the ability to improve Britain through micro-management. He truly is a stalinist, in that he sees people as objects that will respond to central state initiatives. He really does think he can reveal to the banks what it is they have to do.

Parris is right in noticing that Mr Brown doesn't articulate a big idea. That's not because he hasn't got one. It's because this big idea of his would spell political ridicule and doom for him and he knows it.

Our household has never seen any signs of Mr Brown's allegedly great intellect, so we welcome the curled lip of contempt appearing in media coverage. We also welcome the slowly emerging warmist realism drawn together by Philip Stott. The interesting BBC interview he mentions isn't about the theory of global warming (here are some chilly links), but rather about adaptation to climate changes. Do read Stott on Japan's energy resources - and the letter to the IPCC he links to. Even if you're pushed for time, look at the graph plotting temperature against carbon dioxide levels.

The trouble with our optimism, though, is that Mr Brown probably does believe that by heaping so called green taxes on our small country he can persuade the rest of the world to follow his moral lead, and that he will curb global warming.

Strange, then, that Mr Mugabe cares nothing for Mr Brown's opinions.

April 12, 2008

More benefit frauds

The Sun alleges Karen Matthews committed benefit fraud of nearly £400 a week by claiming she was sole support for her four children who were living with her, while in fact her supermarket fishmonger boyfriend was living there. The paper reports:
The family own a widescreen television and had bought two computers. Social workers had given them a third for Matthews’ eleven-year-old son.
A Swansea man has admitted receiving almost £22,000 in benefit he was not entitled to. Between April 2003 and October 2005, he failed to tell the DWP that he had money in excess of the permitted £8,000 and was overpaid just over £17,000 in income support. He also failed to tell Swansea Council about the money and was overpaid £4,631 in housing tax benefit and council tax benefit between May 2004 and October 2005.

An Edinburgh woman who cheated a benefits agency out of almost £23,000 said she used the money to buy her children gifts. She had failed to volunteer that she was back in work. This went on for three years. She also admitted obtaining £5,800 in carer's allowance and £104 in housing benefit and council tax. Three years! You have to wonder why database matching isn't routine. Not a regular special exercise, but routine. People in the black economy are harder to catch, but it should be a piece of cake to identify claimants who are paying tax and national insurance. Shouldn't it?

The Sun also claims that the woman who gave birth at 57 had been a benefits cheat. She admitted using fake documents to claim over £4,300 in housing and council tax benefit. "She also allegedly raked in £15,000 after her 79-year-old mum Gladys died in 2001 by continuing to claim her £600-a-month war widow’s pension."

A Tamworth man falsely claimed a total of £9,113 made up of £7,177 in housing benefit and £1,936 in council tax benefit over three years after failing to declare he was in full time employment. Again, the system relied on him to tell the truth and lose a lot of money.

A Greenock woman accepted housing and council tax benefit totalling £3,500 over a four-year period without disclosing income she received from a job - with the NHS. This is just ridiculous. The government is slurping out our money - not theirs - without the most basic checking in place.

More spectacularly, a Birmingham woman claimed nearly £57,000 worth of disability benefits over 11 years despite working for the entire time. This was no black economy job: she was working as a housing officer at Moseley and District Churches Housing Association.

Talking of elementary checks, a man from Weston-super-Mare claimed more than £85,000 in child tax benefits for 16 fake children over a four-year period after he and his partner realised they did not have to send children's birth certificates to tax officials to prove they existed. They lived in a one-room property and he was a known gambling addict, with 85 previous convictions for fraud. No chance of getting that money back.

A Watford woman wrongly claimed benefit. Her offence was not to notify Watford Borough Council or the DWP that her hours worked had increased to more than 16 a week. This time the DWP became aware of a change in her circumstances following a data matching exercise comparing records held with them and other agencies. She was overpaid more than £2,700.

Sometimes it gets too complicated. A Market Harborough woman admitted benefit fraud of £4,811. When it came to the council's attention that her boyfriend might be living with her, they launched what they called a ‘significant’ surveillance operation that included monitoring how many times his vehicle was seen outside her home, finding out he had registered at a local GPs, and discovering that he had told his bank her address was his. According to her lawyer:
The problem was a lack of definition about what constituted living together. Her boyfriend was not supporting her so she had carried on claiming benefit.
But that wasn't the problem at all. Who's going to pay for the surveillance? Did they really need to spend all that time to construct a case?

April 07, 2008

HSBC loses customer data

financevictimsIn a major loss of customer data, HSBC has owned up to losing a computer disc four weeks ago with information about 370,000 customers.

The customers' details included their names, dates of birth, and their levels of life insurance cover. HSBC says there are no addresses or bank account details, and on this basis maintains that customers' exposure to potential fraud is limited.

HSBC are keen to stress that the data was password protected (which isn't usually hard to break), so it probably wasn't encrypted.

The disc was sent by courier. Now, we know that couriers lose some things. So the question is: what proportion of items entrusted to them do couriers lose? And how many discs containing customer information are HSBC sending whizzing around the country?

Of course HSBC could keep the data secure if they paid one of their employees to take it directly from A to B. But doubtless it's cheaper to use couriers and accept that from time to time chunks of customers' data will go missing. Effectively they are planning for failure.

Nationwide and Norwich Union have suffered heavy fines and public reprimands for not looking after customer details properly.

April 05, 2008

Good governing is hard and unglamorous

While the right-wing blogosphere twitters about the prospects for a Conservative party which shows few signs of being any better at governing than the present incumbents, big changes are taking place which few may know of if they don't see the Financial Times.

No, not the drop in the number of mortgage deals on the market from 15,599 last July to 4,270 now, with 22% of available deals having been withdrawn in the space of just one week. Mortgage news is everywhere in the press as the flexibility of the mortgage market implodes far beyond predictions, with no one having any idea where it will end, least of all the hapless Mr Eyebrows. Are we on our way back to the times of any rate you choose as long as it's our Standard Variable Rate? Regular refinancing of mortgages through the next new introductory rate has become routine for many households. Borrowers who can't find another deal they can afford will find it harder to sell as the number of home transactions plunges by one third year on year.

But we all know this now, even if our superficial government couldn't see it coming. One of the FT's recent major themes is covered in its third front page story this morning, headlined Fears of social unrest as rice prices surge by 10% to hit a fresh high. This is not 10% over one year - it is 10% in one day, and 50% in two weeks. How much of this is due to hoarding and speculators? No one knows, but the underlying trend is clear. Countries such as Vietnam, India, China and Egypt are now banning foreign sales.

There are fears that rising food prices could spread social unrest across Africa after triggering riots in Niger, Senegal, Cameroon and Burkina Faso. Nigeria, Senegal and Ivory Coast are among the world's top 10 rice importers. Importers such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia are removing tariffs on food imports.

Hungry people riot. Mexico City has had "tortilla riots" because of the high price of maize, while thousands of Indonesians have protested about shortages of soyabeans. Filipino diners face smaller portions of rice, while Egypt has long queues for subsidised bread.

These countries' governments are having to face up to real issues, rather than abundance of plastic bags, or cynical tilting at the mirage of man made global warming while the UK's energy security and social cohesion become increasingly fragile.

These aren't glamorous issues. There are no votes to be won if you get them right, just plenty to lose if you mess up. They can't be packed away with a deft headline. They require detailed work, years ahead of any crisis.

The Tory heroes of the blogosphere show no sign of any sustained efforts to think about serious issues. Probably the best argument for changing governments is that the present lot are tired and highly mediocre. But it's hard to picture new incumbents being seriously better.

P.S. Richard North has put these points in a broader context.