Before becoming the pundits top choice to replace Jeremy Corbyn as Labour Party leader, Keir Starmer was regarded as Britain’s most senior prosecutor.
The former QC is now bidding to take over the reigns at the top of the Labour Party, who are seen by many low-income and disabled people as the only answer to brutal benefit cuts inflicted by the Conservative Party since 2010.
However, in 2013, Keir Starmer championed calls for tougher prison sentences for benefit clamaints who “flout the system”, which ultimately led to maximum imprisonment increasing to ten years.
This maximum ten year sentence is more than many violent and hardened criminals face today, meaning that under Keir Starmer’s terms people who claim benefits fraudulently can be given longer sentences than rapists and even some murderers.
This toughening of prison sentences for benefit cheats is seen as unreasonably harsh and disproportionate. Indeed, Mr Karmer’s clampdown may have even fuelled the ‘hostile environment’ experienced by all benefit claimants today.
“It is a myth that ‘getting one over on the system’ is a victimless crime: the truth is we all pay the price,” Starmer said.
“Benefits exist to protect and support the most vulnerable people in our society and whenever the system is defrauded, it’s also taking money away from those with a genuine need.”
He added: “It is vital that we take a tough stance on this type of fraud and I am determined to see a clampdown on those who flout the system.”
Similar comments made by Tory politicians have been blamed for fuelling hatred and suspicion towards anyone who dares to claim state support, regardless of whether their need is “genuine” or otherwise.
While everyone agrees that benefit cheats should be fairly punished, Keir Starmer’s comments led many people to believe that most, if not all benefit claimants are cheating the system in one way or another.
The fact is that benefit fraud is tiny at no more than a few percentage points at any time over the last decade, while billions remains unclaimed every year due to the suspicion that Keir Starmer helped to create.
However, Mr Starmer is not alone in his poorly thought out comments. In 2013. Labour’s shadow attorney general, Emily Thornberry, shared his thoughts and believed that prison sentences for benefit fraud should be even longer than Mr Starmer proposed.
“Beneath all the spin, this announcement is really an admission that to date, the authorities have not been using the most robust legislation out there to tackle fraud”, she said.
“That it has taken the government three years to address this is a sign of its complacency and incompetence.
“I am in favour of tougher sentences for all types of fraud, from benefit fraud to banking fraud, and would like to see the maximum penalty extended from 10 years to 14 years, bringing it in line with sentencing for other economic crimes such as money laundering.
Gillian Guy, Chief Executive of Citizens Advice, rightly warned that people who make genuine mistakes when claiming benefits could be caught up in the new rules and unfairly imprisoned.
“It is crucial that people who suffer wrong payments due to innocent mistakes or confusion do not suffer unfairly as a result of these new penalties”, she said.
“The current benefits system is fiendishly complicated and many people face upheaval to their support due to reforms.
“Prosecutors must make sure that only fraudsters are punished and hard-up people who have made an innocent mistakes are protected.”
Today, desperate people are still being forced to prove their entitlement to state benefits with as many as 70% of cases for certain benefits being overturned at social security tribunals.
While Keir Starmer and Emily Thornberry were both right to say that cheats should be prosecuted, the language of ‘cheats’ and ‘scroungers’ continues to fuel contempt of poor and disabled people.
Rather than focusing on the tiny minority of those who cheat the system, the next Labour leader must draw attention to the many thousands of people who are wrongly denied the support they need, and the many billions in benefits that remain unclaimed.