THE BLOG

Drag Queen Benefit Fraudster a Gift to Papers, but Not to Claimants

23/08/2013 14:46 BST | Updated 23/10/2013 10:12 BST

UnemployedNet campaigns against media misrepresentation of benefit issues, particularly fraud stories prominently featuring a single person being held up as indicative of all claimants.

But sometimes a story has so many juicy elements it becomes hard even for us to fight.

When The Guardian, usually so staunchly onside in the welfare debate, runs a full piece on it we may be well advised not to object.

Mark Hawthorn, a 49-year-old from Stoke, was a drag queen performing in duet Glitterlips under the name 'Aunt Tilly' and getting paid for doing so.

His claim that he was unable to work and needed £84,000 in disability benefits was obviously not true, although The Mirror's shock at his ability to perform in heels shouldn't give Atos any ideas.

The company delivering the government's hated work capability assessment is likely to be considering adding 'able to walk in heels' to its test of disabled people as we speak.

The case also included that old media favourite, the judge attempting a joke.

Michael Challinor said: "Your offending was breathtaking.

"You should have confined your acting to female impersonations rather than pretending to be ill."

The result was a six month jail sentence during which it is to be hoped that Hawthorne leaves his make-up, dress and wig on the outside.

The combination of sex, glamour, money, prison, disguise, gender uncertainty, and other tabloid-baiting elements was too much to resist for the many newspapers that ran the story.

Not all potentially newsworthy aspects were picked up; The Telegraph, usually a bastion of small government, wrote: "Footage of Hawthorn - aka Aunt Tilly - on stage in a blonde wig, high heels and cocktail dress was uncovered by officials from The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) after it was uploaded to Youtube."

It failed to uncover what DWP staff were doing surfing Youtube videos of drag acts in the first place.

The red-tops hungrily chase any stories that feature an outwardly-healthy disability benefit claimant doing something active - their ultimate fantasy is discovering that Usain Bolt claimed a million in mobility allowance while running at the London Olympics - but they fit into an agenda.

This case may have had enough titillating elements to justify their interest, but papers are happy to splash any story they can find of an individual falsely claiming benefits in a concerted campaign against the welfare state.

The worst of this is that it is succeeding: the public now believes that 24% of all benefit money is claimed fraudulently while the government's own figure is only 0.7%, and thinks that 41% of all welfare spending is on unemployment (3% in reality), and this bleeds into government policy.

A YouGov poll earlier this year showed that the benefit cap has proved so popular that twice as many people believe it should be set at £20,000 as believe it should remain at the current £26,000 limit.

Only 9% say there should be no limit, while another YouGov poll last month showed 78% of all people support the cap.

These attitudes take place against evidence that the UK has some of the lowest benefits in western Europe - 20th of 26 countries across the whole EU - and that they are falling further behind our competitors as falls in their real value are imposed by the coalition.

Newspapers, helped by politicians developing their own anti-social security narratives, wield immense power in Britain, and too often misuse this power.

Each welfare fraud case you read about may seem to have a place in the paper, and Aunt Tilly's is a hard one to ignore, but when the result of their accumulation provides the basis for heaping more suffering on already deprived people, it is time for this concerted campaign to stop.