Greasy Pole: Dipti in the dock

Standing there, just able to see above the top rail of the dock, Dipti did not look like a threat to the very fabric of civilised society. For one thing people who threaten civilisation are supposed to be reckless, defiant, composed. But Dipti was trembling and had desperate tears in her voice. And while she stood there civilisation, unthreatened, carried on outside the court. The list of cases for that day noted that she was charged with False Representation – between this date and that date, against the Benefits Agency, resulting in her being “overpaid” well over ten thousand pounds. In plain words – Daily Mail-speak – she was a Social Security fraudster, a benefits scrounger, a leech sucking the blood of the welfare state – a threat to civilised society.

Cases like this are prosecuted separately from the run-of-the-mill criminal charges, which are handled by the Crown Prosecution Service. Instead the Benefits Agency have their own lawyer to put to the court the details of the offences. The facts were, said the lawyer, that Dipti had applied for Income Support, stating that she had no other income. She had been sent a book of vouchers to cash each fortnight and on each of them she had signified that there had been no changes in her circumstances such as to affect her entitlement to benefit. But for some months she had been working as well. Nobody in court pointed out that the word “working” was hardly the right way to describe her experiences: “low paid, stressful drudgery” would have been more appropriate.

It was just another episode (although this was something the lawyer did not say) in a miserable life. Her parents were too poor to care for her properly and sent her to live with an aunt in England, in the hope that she would do better in another country. And so it turned out for a while, until both the parents died and her aunt, who she regarded as her mother, was killed by a hit-and-run driver. Alone and vulnerable, she was married when she was 18 and had three children. It was not the happiest of unions as her husband was an alcoholic who never had any silly ideas about supporting his children financially, which left Dipti to struggle on as best she could, doing whatever odd job was available, scraping a living for her family. It came as a relief when the husband left the home for good and when he had been gone long enough Dipti was able to get a divorce.

It would have been surprising if the children had come through this emotionally intact. And they didn’t: they behaved as might be expected of children whose short lives had been distorted by insecurity, violence and the stresses to be found in the deeper levels of poverty. They were, all three of them, incapable of coping with what is called – by courts, government agencies, the media – “normal” life. A psychiatrist, trained to brace people’s expectations of society to accept and tolerate the unacceptable and intolerable, would have interviewed each of them and written learned notes to the effect that they were “disturbed”. It is not their job, or within the scope of their training, to assess how “disturbed” is capitalist society; that might bring them to the conclusion that the people who react against the inhuman pressures of that society are sometimes healthier emotionally than those who are at ease with it.

In any case Dipti was too busy to bother about psychiatrists and their theories. She had found a job which suited her, allowing her to work irregular hours which could be fitted around the needs of her children – who were in their teens by then. It did not need any qualifications – she had problems with reading and writing – and provided periodical training. There were however two main snags. One was that it was demanding work and the other was that the wages were very low. It was agency work, as a care assistant, which meant Dipti had to visit people to do basic things which they could not do for themselves. From day to day she did not know where or when she would be asked to work; the agency would telephone her with the jobs on hand for that day. In fact she did get a lot of offers of work from the agency, because she had some huge debts and so was always eager to earn the extra money and she was always reliable and helpful.

There was a third snag. She did not tell the Benefits Agency about her job but carried on claiming Income Support, signing those vouchers to say nothing had changed for her. If she was ever bothered about this she told herself that after all each wage slip showed a reduction for Income Tax and in any case her husband had never paid anything towards the children’s’ upkeep. Did this not entitle her to some money from the state? But agency work is a field well-patrolled by the fraud seekers of the Benefits Agency and eventually they uncovered what Dipti had been up to. When they approached her she did not try to hide anything, although she was shocked when they told her how much she had been illegally paid. Her shock was not lessened when they also told her – a bit late in the day, some may think – that her wages had been low enough to qualify her for Family Credit, which over the period would have been worth some thousands of pounds – about a quarter of the amount she had overclaimed.

The lawyers briefed by the Benefits Agency do not as a rule prosecute with the same zeal as the Crown Prosecution Service. In cases of benefits fraud the facts are usually put to the court in the round, including some details which may make things easier for the person in the dock. So in that sense Dipti was not treated as harshly as she might have been – certainly not as she had feared. But of course the chairman of the bench had heard it all before, many times and he had come to the conclusion that the country was being overrun – and overturned – by people who were getting something for nothing – claiming state benefit which they were not legally entitled to. There is, he informed Dipti, too much of this going on. He had probably familiarised himself with the official estimate that social security fraud costs between £2bn and £4bn a year – and was too shocked to notice that the evidence to support those figures was so weak. It had got to stop. He stopped short of saying that he could do this all by himself. Instead he told Dipti she could well go to prison for this – all options were open. She would have to come back in a few weeks, after further enquiries had been made, when sentence would be passed. Meanwhile she could leave the court and civilisation, with its minority class getting a great deal for nothing through their exploitation of people like Dipti, could go on. Outside the court she grabbed her mobile phone and got on to the agency, asking what work they had for her for what was left of that day.

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