Sunday, 10 July 2011

The need to resist the Mobile Regional Taskforce

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) and HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) have launched a new Mobile Regional Taskforce to combat benefit fraud. The force will be targeting "high risk" postcodes across the country in order to re-examine benefits and Tax Credits claims.

The rhetoric around it is wearily familiar. David Gauke MP, Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury, offers platitudes about "money which is meant for those in genuine need being siphoned off into the pockets of cheats and fraudsters." Minister for Welfare Reform Lord Freud goes for the strong line with "a clear warning that if you are fiddling the system, you will be caught." It's all about getting tough on those bandits who fleece the taxpayer's purse.

However, the reality doesn't quite give the same picture. Whilst the cost of fraud has been cited as £5bn, the actual cost is £1.6bn of fraud, and £3.7bn of official and customer error. Moreover, the actual cost of fraud alone is recouped ten times over by the annual £16bn of unclaimed benefits.

But, of course, the facts alone aren't going to steer the government away from this initiative. As I and many others have said countless times, winning the argument doesn't mean winning the fight. If we want to see the state deviate from its plans to attack people on welfare, what we need is serious resistance. So the question is what form that takes.

Local groups opposed to the tax, known as Anti-Poll-Tax Unions (APTUs), were set up throughout 1989, and by the end of the year there were an estimated one thousand in Britain. The role of APTUs in opposing the poll tax took many forms, including encouraging non-payment, organising protest marches, and resisting bailiffs.

Community networks of members were set up to watch out for and resist bailiffs, and the operation became so successful that debt collecting firms in some areas went out of business. In Edinburgh local APTUs patrolled working class areas with cars and radios to watch for bailiffs, and in London some cab drivers fulfilled the same role. Baliffs offices were often picketed and occupied, and in Scotland hundreds of people defended houses against the forced removal of goods by sheriffs.

The campaign for non-payment gained in strength through the early months of 1990, and eventually became the single most damaging reason for the government to continue with the poll tax. By August of 1990 one in five had yet to pay, with figures reaching up to 27% of people in London. 20 million people were summoned for non-payment. Many local authorities were faced with a crisis, and councils faced a deficit of £1.7 billion for the next year.
The Poll Tax struggle was of course a very different fight, and especially on such short notice and with most working class organisation still in disarray it will be all-but impossible to offer the same level of resistance. However, where there are fledgling initiatives at organising across communities, or where a stronger level of grassroots activism exists, there are lessons that can be learned here.

What is important is that, like the role of Atos Origin in kicking disabled people off benefits, this action is taken note of and met with opposition. If we don't, and we make the mistake of the left and trade unions in boiling this down to an industrial dispute in the public sector, the consequences will be dire.