Benefit fraud cases reach new high as public attitudes change

BENEFIT cheats have defrauded more than £200,000 from Hull Council over the last year – and the figure could increase with further prosecutions under way.

The council has taken action over a record 142 fraud cases this financial year and has secured 37 convictions through the courts – another record.

The authority has launched a crackdown on benefit fraud and said it is being assisted by a change in public perception that it is no longer a “victimless crime”.

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This appears to be borne out by a steady rise in reports of benefit fraud being recorded.

Between March 2010 and February this year, the council received 1,819 allegations of fraud – a rise on the 1,711 recorded in 2009/10.

Of the 142 cases pursued this year that have resulted in cautions, penalties or prosecutions, the total amount defrauded was £203,000.

Another case due to go to court shortly could see this rise by a five-figure sum depending on the outcome.

A total of 82 people have received financial penalties from the council totalling £19,000, which are added to the overpayment and then recovered.

A further 23 cautions have been issued.

Announcing the crackdown after two women were convicted of defrauding a combined total of nearly £9,000 in separate cases, Andy Sims, the council’s benefits manager, said the public had no sympathy for those caught trying to cheat the system.

He said: “With money available to public services reducing there is a need to address those areas where money is being wasted.

“There is no greater waste of public finds than benefits being paid to those that are not entitled to them.

“Public services are faced with making difficult decisions about how they will use finances made available to them to deliver essential services.

“Benefit fraud impacts on the amount of money available, which limits opportunities to provide services that are of real value to communities.”

He added: “Benefit fraud used to be seen as a victimless crime but the public are realising in these hard times that nothing could be further from the truth. Benefit fraud has a negative impact on everyone other then the thieves and opportunists that commit the crimes.”

Mr Sims said the council said it would seek to recover “every penny” it had lost.

Despite the high and increasing number of allegations, most investigations stem from the council checking data with the Government and assessing any irregularities.

Mr Sims said: “Even if an allegation does not proceed to a full investigation, we will always conduct a thorough review of the case to ensure we are paying the correct benefit.

“As I stressed, the majority are genuine claims. It’s the small minority who commit fraud and believe the benefits system is an easy target.”

A total of 41,317 households in the city are currently receiving housing and council tax benefit.

By the end of the financial year next week, the authority expects it will have paid out £140m in these benefits alone.

Housing and council tax benefits are administered by local authorities on behalf of the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP). Nationally, the Government pays out around £190bn in benefits, tax credits and child benefits administered by the DWP and HM Revenue and Customs.

The most recent estimates put annual revenue losses due to fraud and “error” in the welfare system at £5.2bn, almost three per cent of total expenditure.

The council has had a dedicated fraud unit since 1995 and has seven investigating officers, with another preparing cases for court or for those being enforced by the council.

The maximum sentence the courts can impose is a seven-year prison sentence and/or an unlimited fine.