Treating genuine client error and cases of fraud
Most participants felt that Social Security Scotland should treat honest errors and deliberate fraud differently. Many felt that honest mistakes were natural when clients were using a complicated system. They thought it was important for Social Security Scotland to support those clients who had been confused and had made a mistake. Some said that Social Security Scotland needed to reassure clients when it first contacted them about a potential problem. These participants described how stressful it was to be notified about a potential problem on a claim.
Most participants also felt that clients who tried to deceive the system on purpose should be punished. Some said that Social Security Scotland and all public bodies had a responsibility to protect public money. Others felt it was important to have firm punishments to discourage potential fraud in the future.
Some also talked about how cases were often more complicated than either 'an error' or 'a fraud.' They described how every case and every client was unique. These participants thought that Social Security Scotland needed to carefully consider the individual circumstances in each case before deciding what it should do. Some said that it was difficult to know how to treat cases of fraud that involved people who were vulnerable. Others talked about the need to support those who had committed fraud who were also living with long term health or mental health conditions. Several said that it was difficult to know how to treat cases of fraud that involved abusive situations.
Many participants felt that there were times where clients should be prosecuted for fraud. There was general agreement that fraud which had been organised by groups and involved large sums of debt should always be prosecuted.
However, participants also warned against prosecuting all cases of fraud. It was felt that the decision to prosecute a client for fraud should depend on different things. Some said that Social Security Scotland needed to be fair to the client when it decided whether to refer a client to the authorities or not.
Many had concerns that prosecuting clients for fraud could sometimes do more harm than good. Some talked about the damage that prosecution could have on households and families. Several wondered whether there could be alternative ways of treating fraud in the justice system instead of prosecution. These suggestions included giving warnings, imposing fines. Several participants discussed the option of clients repaying their debts through community work schemes. Some talked about Social Security Scotland or offering clients flexible repayment plans.
Communicating about fraud
Participants generally felt that any public communication about fraud needed to be done very carefully. Some were worried that public information campaigns could start flurries of accusations among neighbours. Several warned against information campaigns that might encourage citizens to catch 'fraudsters' in their communities.
Participants were generally divided about whether different methods of public communication about fraud were appropriate. Some thought that messages should be spread as widely as possible. These participants suggested spreading information about fraud through leaflets, posters, television, radio, and social media. These participants felt that Social Security Scotland should raise awareness about fraud among clients.
However, others felt that regular reminders – delivered more privately – would also raise awareness. These participants thought that private messages would have less chance of fuelling stigma in communities.
Most participants agreed that information about error and fraud needed to be presented in clear and accessible language. Many thought that Social Security Scotland should make it clear to clients what their definitions of error and fraud were. Some also said that the language should clearly describe what processes Social Security Scotland followed in relation to error and fraud. It was felt that clear language would reduce the number of mistakes made in applications and ongoing contact. It was also felt that clear information would help to reduce stress for clients.
There was concern about the use of overly aggressive language. Many thought that intimidating language could have a damaging impact on already vulnerable applicants and clients. Several described their sense of panic whenever letters had come through their door telling them about a problem. They talked about the need to have a softer and more personal tone of language to enquire with clients about potential problems.
Others felt that it was still important to balance softer language with legal language when appropriate. These participants felt that legal language helped to inform clients that fraud was a serious offence.
Stigma and fraud
Throughout the focus groups, though not directly asked about, the topic of stigma was continually discussed. Participants generally thought that previous approaches towards error and fraud had been aggressive. They described how the system had given them a feeling of being guilty until proven innocent. Many also felt that the overall approach to fraud had created negative attitudes towards all benefit claimants in communities.
Several said the way the issue of fraud had been handled had created difficult relationships between clients and authorities. It was felt that a combination of public information, language, and the influence of the media, had created damaging myths about how common benefit fraud actually was. Many noted that most clients were honest and didn't want to trick the system. They felt it was unfortunate that the majority of honest claimants felt stigmatised by an approach that was aimed at a small minority.
Several felt that heavy-handed approaches to fraud reduced the likelihood of people applying for what they were eligible for. A few participants described how it was difficult for Social Security Scotland to strike a balance between discouraging cases of fraud and encouraging applications from those who were eligible.
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