Council gets tough on benefit cheats

Joseph Bulmer

Warning to people making false claims for housing and council tax benefit

NORTH Devon and Torridge District Councils have issued warnings to benefit cheats amid a crackdown on illegal housing and council tax claims.

With both councils facing spending cuts of 7.1per cent a year over the next four years as part of the Government’s Comprehensive Spending Review, the message is that help is available for the needy, not the greedy.

Since April, North Devon Council has given a total of 57 criminal sanctions involving fraudulently obtained overpayments totalling nearly �135,000. Of those, 17 of the more serious cases resulted in prosecutions in court; the council has issued nine administrative penalties where the claimant must pay back the full amount as well as an additional 30 per cent; and 31 cautions where the claimant must pay back the full amount.

The majority of offences uncovered so far this year have involved failure to declare earnings (59 per cent). Other offences involved undeclared tax credits (17 per cent); presence of partner (12 per cent); capital (six per cent); and pensions (two per cent).

Today (Wednesday) Sticklepath man Cameron Provan will be sentenced at Exeter Crown Court after being found guilty of cheating taxpayers out of more than �16,000 in housing benefit and intimidating a witness.

On Friday, Scott Jones was sentenced to 100hours community punishment plus �85 costs for undeclared earnings.

On October 20, Christopher Arrondelle was fined �167 by North Devon Magistrates for failing to declare his partner’s earnings.

At Torridge there have been 27 criminal sanctions during the same seven-month period. Of these, 12 resulted in penalties, 11 cautions and four were successfully prosecuted.

Again, the majority of offences involved undeclared earnings 41 (per cent). Other fraudulent claims involved undeclared income such as tax credits (33 per cent); undeclared partner (11 per cent); undeclared capital (seven per cent) and non-occupancy (seven per cent).

Councillor James Morrish, leader of the council, said: “Benefits are there to help those that really need and deserve them. Torridge District Council officers work extremely hard to make sure that people – both individual residents and businesses – who do need help and are entitled to benefits, get their entitlement as soon as possible. “Benefit cheats are stealing from their friends, their neighbours, their families and all decent law-abiding council tax payers. Make no mistake, when necessary and when appropriate, Torridge will prosecute.”

Cllr David Luggar, lead member for Revenues and Benefits at North Devon Council, said: “During this tough economic time ever penny counts. Local residents can be assured that the council is working hard and doing everything it can to make sure people cheating the benefits system do not get away with it and repay what they have claimed.”

The two district councils are responsible for the payment of housing benefit and council tax benefit on behalf of the Department for Work & Pensions (DWP). The benefit is available to help people on a low income pay their rent and council tax bills.

Claimants are required to notify the council about changes in their circumstances to make sure that they receive the correct amount of housing and council tax benefit. Changes can include income, capital or property, and the presence and circumstances of any additional persons in the household.

The council said that the majority of people claiming benefit did so for legitimate reasons and notify the council of any relevant changes. However, it is aware that a minority will always try and cheat the system, taking money that could otherwise be used to provide services for those in real need.

The council has a variety of ways to detect and deal with those who defraud the system, including data matching with other organisations; reviewing benefit application forms and carrying out spot checks; anonymous tip-offs by members of the public who suspect fraud; and notifications from other agencies such as DWP.

Mike Mansell, acting chief executive at North Devon Council, said benefits were funded by the tax payer and the council had duty to protect the public purse.

“The amount of money available to help people suffering severe financial hardship is limited so people who commit fraud to obtain benefits are effectively stealing money that is intended to help others in real need,” he said.

“Our team works hard to put a stop to benefit fraud and are often helped by members of the public who approach us with information they have which we are always very grateful to receive.”

If members of the public think someone is committing benefit fraud information can be passed anonymously and in total confidence to the council using the North Devon Council benefit fraud hotline number (01271) 388369, or the Torridge hotline (01237) 429292.