Social Security Experience Panels: fraud and error – report

This report summarises the results from eight focus groups with Experience Panel members, which asked how Social Security Scotland should approach fraud and error.

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Treating genuine client error and cases of fraud

Focus group participants were given a definition of 'client error' and 'fraud.'[3][4] Participants were then asked about whether client error and cases of fraud should be treated differently.

In response, most participants felt that Social Security Scotland should treat honest errors and deliberate fraud differently. Many felt there was a big difference between an honest mistake and a deliberate attempt to trick the system.

Treating client error

Most participants agreed that Social Security Scotland needed to support clients who made honest mistakes.

Some shared concerns about clients who were already vulnerable being treated harshly. Others talked about how clients with long term conditions or learning difficulties could often be unclear about how to use the system. They felt it was unfair if honest clients were made to feel like they had committed a crime.

"You have to treat them differently. Sometimes there are issues with the forms right at the outset. My son isn't great at doing forms, and there are a lot of people out there who do need help completing them. Mistakes are common."

"There is a complete difference between mistaken and deliberate withholding. People I work with have learning disabilities and autism. There is a lot of information to capture and a lot of people can struggle with that and make mistakes."

Many participants said that genuine mistakes were common when using the system. Participants described different parts of the system and how errors could easily occur. Some talked about the difficulties of completing applications.

"The guidance about how to fill in applications needs to be obvious. Do you fill in thinking of the worst day? Is that seen as withholding the truth?"

"Just say something like: 'We know that every day isn't the worst, but tell us about your worst day. We know that 3 bad days can ruin the other four good days.' It should be clear that it isn't fraud to describe your bad days in applications."

Others talked about how it was possible that information could be missed and how sometimes clients might not know what they needed to do.

"It's not that person's fault. Sometimes they give you information and it gets missed."

"Big difference between fraud and genuine error. Lots of errors come when the person gets given the wrong information, then they gets done for it."

Many thought that Social Security Scotland needed to be careful about how it approached clients about errors. Some said if an error was suspected, clients should be reassured when Social Security Scotland first contacted about the problem.

These participants described how any type of notice about a problem on their claim could make them anxious or insecure. They said that Social Security Scotland needed to understand that being alerted to a problem could be very stressful for clients.

"We are all humans and we can all make mistakes. Before jumping to conclusions and putting someone through stress, you should provide support in the first contact."

"At the moment, the letter you get through sends fear down people. You should treat clients innocently until proven guilty."

"The letters that came through were awful. They should be kind."

Many felt that small reassurances would help to build up trust. Several also thought it would mean that clients would feel more able to explain themselves to Social Security Scotland if they had made a mistake. Several thought that clients would not trust Social Security Scotland if it couldn't support them when they had made a mistake.

"At the beginning, treat them the same. You shouldn't assume that all clients have committed fraud."

"If someone unwittingly makes an error, then it's good to have a conversation. Talk to them about what happened."

Several were particularly concerned about the need to reassure those with long term and mental health conditions.

"In certain circumstances, you have to be sensitive with people with long term health and mental health conditions. What is the point of treating someone too roughly if their health is worsened by this treatment? It only impacts the NHS."

Treating fraud

Most participants also felt that clients who deceived the system on purpose needed to be treated differently than those who made genuine errors.

Many said that those who were deliberately dishonest gave the rest of benefits claimants a bad reputation. Many felt that it was important for Social Security Scotland to protect and recover public money.

"All public bodies have responsibilities to recover public money. Can't be allowed to commit fraud running to hundreds of thousands of pounds."

"If they have committed a crime then they should be treated as a criminal. I don't think they should necessarily go to jail, but they can't just be allowed to steal tax payer money away."

Participants also suggested that different levels of fraud should be treated differently. Many felt that Social Security Scotland needed to take strong action against benefit fraud that was organised by groups and involved large sums of debt to be recovered. They also thought that Social Security Scotland should be more flexible in cases that only involved individuals and smaller amounts of debt.[5]

Some said that strong actions were needed because it was important for people to know there were consequences for doing something wrong. Others said that punishments were needed in order to deter potential fraud in the future. If there were not firm enough punishments in place to discourage fraud, several thought this could send a message that fraud was easy to undertake. Several were worried that the number of cases of benefit fraud could rise.

"Strong action will deter fraud. People have to be aware of the consequences."

"There have to be deterrents in all walks of life. In my point of view, stealing is stealing."

A few participants were concerned about the design of a benefits system around dignity, fairness, and respect. They thought that this approach could make Social Security Scotland more vulnerable to fraud attempts. Several were worried that Social Security Scotland could be seen as an easy target.

"Some people think that it is going to be easier to access benefits with Social Security Scotland. I don't mean what they are entitled to, but getting extra money. Government needs to be very careful."

Treating individual circumstances in cases

Most participants thought that Social Security Scotland needed to be able to treat error and fraud differently. However, some also commented that knowing which cases to treat differently was not always easy. They said that cases were often more complicated than either 'an error' or 'a fraud.' Several thought that Social Security Scotland needed to consider the individual circumstances in each case before deciding what it should do.

Participants listed a number of examples describing how different individual circumstances were not as straightforward as either error or fraud. Some talked about scenarios that involved people who were vulnerable. Others talked about individuals who had deceived the system, but also had a long term health condition.

"You need to be wary about dealing with cases that involve people with mental health problems."

Several talked about how it was difficult to know how to treat cases that involved abusive situations. These participants felt it was wrong for a vulnerable person to be punished if they had been pressured into fraud by an abusive partner. It also didn't seem fair that a person was punished if they were too scared of their partner to contact the authorities about their case.

"Depends on the circumstances. If someone is in an abusive relationship and are forced to put information down on a form, then they should be treated differently."

"Some clients might not say anything about any errors on their claim if they are being abused. They might be scared. They could also not come forward because they don't feel able to admit what is happening in their house."

"I know someone who was in abusive relationship, their partner was caught doing fraud. Suddenly they had all kinds of debt that she didn't know about. The government treated them as if they were lying. They weren't aware of what their partner was doing, and were scared of them."

"Someone filled in a form because her daughter had a drug problem and needed the money for heroin. Not her fault, but we attack her and not the big drug lords."

Many were worried about how harsh treatment against error and fraud could impact on families. Some talked about concerns about how fines and investigations could have a negative impact on any children or other dependents in the same household.

"I knew of a case where a person had committed intentional fraud, however their child would have suffered if there was a punishment. It can be hard to call."

Others were concerned about cases of where households had committed fraud because they couldn't afford not to. These participants talked low-income families tricking the system so that they could provide basics such as food and clothes.

"Some young parents may be committing fraud, but they are not doing it for luxury. They are doing it to make sure kids have shoes and clothes. All of their circumstances need to be taken into consideration. But they also need to be made aware that what they have done is illegal."

"Those who have made a mistake, you can't just put them into poverty."



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