My apologies for being about 48 hours behind with the news, but the announcement that a credit rating agency may be paid to hunt down benefit cheats cannot pass without comment.
One issue that springs to mind is that bounty hunting is a phenomenon usually found in areas where institutions are weak and the arm of the law is very short indeed. Is this a symptom of how weak Britain's institutions have become, or is it instead indicative of the process of promoting the private over the public by which they have become weak? It would appear to be an admission that any number of authorities are incapable of policing the benefits system. Given the substantial sums paid to provide police services and benefit fraud investigators, and the attack on the professionalism of all these groups which is implied and inherent in this announcement, we are entitled to ask what is being done to strengthen them, to make them fit for purpose, before the spastic response of bringing in the private sector is indulged.
The question of safeguards is also important. We are entitled to ask by what miraculous process the staff of credit rating agencies can suddenly be expected to transform not merely into expert witnesses on the benefits system but also on benefit claimants. They will presumably be unable to carry out medical examinations. They will not have access to confidential correspondence in the, perhaps limited, number of cases where claimants of Incapacity Benefit or Disability Living Allowance are able to sustain lifestyles far beyond their nominal incomes because they have won the Victorian equivalent of a triple rollover on the lottery and become the sole beneficiary of a South African gold mine owner, or, like Pip Pirrip, of a wealthy sheep farmer in New South Wales. It might not happen very often; but it might happen, and with non means-tested benefits it's really nobody's business but the claimant's. Being profit rather than service driven, they will presumably concentrate on the lowest of low hanging fruit; the young and stupid, probably females with infants in tow, will almost inevitably not merely be caught more often but also targeted more often than the old and wicked. It would be very interesting to know whether police informants who are themselves engaged in criminality will somehow achieve a miraculous exemption from scrutiny. I wouldn't bet against it.
As an aside, it seems that jailing intellectually unaccomplished young women is an activity at which We the British have become really quite good. Nobody seems to be ashamed of it, and nobody in power really actually seems to give a damn why that should be so. Oh, Iain Duncan Smith, The Chingford Slaphead, pops up from time to time wearing the kind of melancholy look that made Alistair Sim a great deal of money, to do his Alistair Sim routine about the need to get people to get into work and all that, and he seems sincere most of the time, but one can't really escape the feeling that any social conscience the Conservative Party proclaims itself as having operates strictly within that body's very narrow ideological limits. In their mind, if you're not in their Big Tent you might as well be in a cardboard box.
As a number of Glaswegian tobacconists and vintners so large as to be actuarially unacceptable will tell you, I'm not at all averse to doing business with the private sector. Indeed, I've only ever worked in private businesses. However, when I do business with them, it is on the understanding that it is them I am doing business with. I do not accept asking for a packet of Berkeley Menthols and receiving a packet of Richmonds. By the same token, I do not accept submitting a claim to a state agency and finding myself being a profit opportunity for a credit rating agency as a result. One action, the purchase of cigarettes, is a purely private transaction, and rightly so; but the other involves the interaction of citizen with citizen and the need for a citizen to justify themself in order to establish title to claim benefits available to all if they require them, and a private company has no place in this process at all.
It is to be hoped that this particular acid trip-inspired abortion of a policy is placed in the round file at the earliest opportunity. The potential for abuse is too great in relation to any savings likely to be made, or indeed capable of being made. And all it needs for the contractor to be bankrupted is to get someone's details wrong. When you have a name as common as mine, that doesn't fill you with much confidence.