A University of Manchester historian has delved into the past to shed light on potential solutions for the prevalent issue of benefit fraud among women.

In an article published by the University’s policy engagement unit, Policy@Manchester, Dr Charlotte Wildman draws on historical research to highlight that women convicted of benefit fraud between 1940-1960 “tended to be of low economic status, were lone mothers and often had no previous criminal convictions.”

She writes: “Narratives by convicted and suspected offenders stressed that financial hardship led them to commit fraud, articulated the difficulty in ending frauds once they had started, or suggested they had been coerced by close partners.

“It recommends that benefit fraud can be reduced by addressing the poverty experienced by single parents and that methods of tackling benefit fraud should focus on incentivising self-reporting, acknowledge the role that financial and emotional abuse can play, reinstate greater regional autonomy and discretionary powers to drop prosecutions, and limit the prosecution of women with children.”

Dr Wildman compares the levels of poverty experienced by previous generations of women leading to benefit fraud with the current cost of living crisis.

She adds: “Maintaining benefit levels to meet inflation and rising rents to prevent poverty would alleviate the situation for many women and families.”

The University of Manchester lecturer in modern British history offers a series of recommendations to assist policymakers in devising a benefits system to better protect vulnerable women and women in poverty.

These include launching a consultation on the impact of the Fraud Act – which came into law in 2006 – to “break down the narrative of vulnerable women as criminals,” and as a possible prelude for the government “to implement assessments of financial hardship and vulnerability and the fast-track of welfare payments for vulnerable women.”

She also proposes the introduction of “a robust system that incentivises self-reporting of fraud, including periods of amnesty and realistic repayment plans that avoid overly penalising those who come forward.” She continues: “This approach would address the problem of long-term offenders that place claimants in a cycle where there is no advantage to halt fraudulent claims.”

Dr Wildman advocates an integrated approach to tackling benefit fraud, whilst avoiding criminalising struggling women, involving several government departments and agencies. She writes: “In addition to measures from the Department for Work and Pensions, the Home Office could issue guidance to the police for identifying signs of poverty and vulnerability in fraud investigations. Guidance from the Ministry of Justice regrading vulnerabilities could also help to break cycles of conviction.”

And she calls for greater acknowledgement of the role of “domestic abuse and broader domestic instability as causes of benefit fraud.” She adds: “Relatedly, greater autonomy for regional authorities, such as councils, to advise on potential fraud prosecutions would allow a more holistic understanding of a claimant’s situation and identify opportunities for intervention and support, rather than prosecution.”

‘I am terribly hard up’: How looking at historical experiences of women’s offending can help to address current problems of benefit fraud by Dr Charlotte Wildman is available to read on the Policy@Manchester website.