Brits Catch Welfare Cheats On a Disputed 'Snitch Line'

"Know of a rip-off? Give us a telephone tip-off." That's the slogan of a nationwide publicity campaign promoting the British government's newest weapon against welfare fraud: a toll-free telephone number.

To its critics, the toll-free "beat-a-cheat" hot line inaugurated on Aug. 5 is a "snooper's charter." But it is "an extraordinarily promising way of saving taxpayers' money," says Peter Lilley, the minister in charge of welfare (which in Britain includes health care and unemployment benefits).

"Every pound lost on fraud means a pound less to help people in genuine need. It is a welcome addition to our battle against cheating the system," Mr. Lilley says.

And after a week in which thousands of Britons used the line to report suspected fraud by their neighbors, Lilley decided to launch another another toll-free line for people wishing to expose employers they suspect of behaving dishonestly. The new line will be ready by the end of the month.

The "beat-a-cheat" hot line was launched in a bid to reduce the state welfare bill, currently running at an annual 90 billion ($140 billion) - one-third of total state spending.

The battle is already yielding dividends. Faced with welfare fraud that government officials estimate at between $4.5 and $8 billion a year, Lilley set out in 1994 to curb the abuses.

Last week he confirmed that in 1995, $2 billion worth of potential fraud was detected and prevented, thanks to greater alertness on the part of his own officials and of post office workers who pay out benefit money over the counter. Antifraud measures include the barcoding of claim forms and a computer network aimed at preventing people from claiming housing benefits from several local councils simultaneously.

Most of these measures have been accepted without complaint by British citizens, but the new "beat-a-cheat" hot line is stirring controversy.

Barry Reamsbottom, general secretary of the Civil and Public Services Association, calls the hot line "a dangerous departure." He says it could be turned into a "grudge line" used by people with an unrelated grievance against a neighbor. Lilley has also come under fire from civil liberties groups.

The "beat-a-cheat" line has attracted many more callers than Lilley and his officials expected.

"Calls have averaged 2,500 a day, and we expect the number to increase when our nationwide publicity campaign gets into full swing," says one official. Before Lilley introduced the scheme, he ran pilot schemes in several parts of the country in which half of all snoopers' calls resulted in someone being nabbed for cheating.

Spurred on by the success of the new hot line, Lilley is about to train his sights on employers suspected of cheating the system by hiring staff who they know are already drawing welfare benefits and paying them lower wages than other employees.

The second line will also be available to callers who believe or suspect employers are hiring illegal immigrants, or deducting welfare contributions from employee paychecks but keeping the money for themselves.

Most such fraud, says another official, is to be found in cleaning firms, restaurants and small construction companies, all of which use part-time labor.

THERE are signs that in setting out to target fraudsters and dishonest employers, the government has struck a chord with the British public.

The London Times in a recent editorial thundered: "A culture of entitlement inculcated by years of welfare and encouraged by the Left has contributed to a morally confused approach. There is a persistent attitude that the state is an infinitely generous philanthropist which should not concern itself too greatly when sticky hands dip into its deep pockets."

Every fraud halted by the hot line, the Times said, would "ensure that more money is available to maintain a civilized level of provision for the poor."

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