18 Apr 2014

Suitable court sentence for council tax cheat

Too often we have to complain of light sentences given by courts. Here's a sentence that fits the crime.

A woman who fiddled council tax discounts for four years has appeared in court following an investigation by Huntingdonshire District Council’s fraud team.

Helen McKillop, 47, falsely obtained more than £800 in deductions from her council tax bill by claiming to be the only person living at her address in Huntingdon.

But magistrates at Peterborough heard that her partner was also living there, along with another adult who was resident throughout the whole of the period.

McKillop admitted fraud between September 2009 and December 2013. She was ordered to repay the £827 council tax she evaded, fined £500 and ordered to pay £300 costs to the council.

So she has to pay nearly twice what she stole. That's a good sentence.

She was found to have committed the offence by a council team carrying out an exercise to identify people falsely claiming discounts.They discovered that she provided false information when she claimed a 25 per cent discount on her council tax bill be saying she lived alone while her partner and another adult were at the house.

After the case the council said an Audit Commission Report for 2012-13 showed that false council tax claimants in Huntingdonshire cost local tax payers between £330,000 and £550,000 a year.

17 Apr 2014

Prison for £32k benefit fraud

A woman filled in benefits claims forms making no reference to living with her husband of only a few weeks. Claire Louise Chapplow went on to receive £32,360 in combined benefits over the following three years and eight months to which she was not entitled.

Durham Crown Court heard that when the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) and Durham County Council began looking into her benefit claims history she was unco-operative, failing to meet appointments to be interviewed by investigators.

Despite a plea for leniency made on behalf of the 28-year-old the mother-of-three, she was jailed for six months.

Chapplow, of Third Avenue, Chester-le-Street, who has no previous convictions, admitted two counts of benefit fraud.

Adam Mugliston, prosecuting, said she had been in a relationship with her now husband for a number of years, before their marriage in September 2009. But when she filled in claims forms in October and November that year, she made no reference to living with her husband.

Mr Mugliston told the court information was passed anonymously to the DWP alleging she was living with her husband, who was working and using the Third Avenue address.

It was only at the fourth attempt that Chapplow attended for an interview and denied that her husband had been living with her, as they had not been in a relationship since June 2009, despite them being married months later. She said he lived at a Birtley caravan park, but Mr Mugliston said checks with the site owners discovered they had no reference to him being a resident.

Stuart Graham, for Chapplow, said her husband was not living at home seven nights a week, but it was conceded he contributed to some household expenditure: “she realises she should have told the authorities he was there more than she did.”

Mr Graham said deductions will now be made from any benefits received by Chapplow, but it will not be until 2037 that the entire sum will be repaid. He added that she has found work at a fast food restaurant chain and handed a reference from the company to the court.

Jailing her, Judge Peter Kelson told Chapplow:
You chose to lie on two forms. That dishonesty is at the root of this case. Over nearly four years you received £32,360 to which you weren’t entitled and tried to thwart attempts to have this case prosecuted. I have in mind the need to deter the public from behaving like you did. If every benefit claimant tried to milk the system of £32,000 the country would be in a terrible state.
Chapplow must also pay a statutory surcharge on release from prison.

16 Apr 2014

Moral corruption of the welfare state

These attitudes have not been identified as benefit fraud, but they are so wrong.

A mother who blames benefits cash for making her fat has been branded a disgrace.

And separately

Lifelong sponger mum tells teenage daughter to get pregnant and go on benefits.

Encouraging start for Claimant Commitment

The claimant commitment is really a contract between an unemployed person and his or her “work coach” at Jobcentre Plus, though government lawyers refused to let it be called a “contract”. It turns out that requiring people to sign a paper that commits them to certain actions — such as producing a CV, or checking regularly for jobs — has had an instant effect, says Matt Ridley.

Some people walk out, not wanting to perjure themselves about cash-in-hand jobs they already have. Others get serious about looking for work: evidence suggests that the introduction of the claimant commitment has doubled the number of job searches people do.

Work coaches also take their responsibilities more seriously after signing the paper. And when they “sanction” a delinquent client by withholding benefits, they can point to the commitment: “You agreed to do these things and you haven’t.” Usually such sanctions have to happen only once and the lesson is learnt. Mr Duncan Smith’s hope is that unemployed people should think they have a job like anybody else — the job being to find work — and an employer like anybody else: the boss being the work coach.

It’s too soon to credit the claimant contract for much impact, but Britain’s employment statistics grow ever more startling. Considering the length and depth of the recession, the rise in unemployment was smaller and the subsequent fall faster than almost every expert expected. After years of economic pain, economic inactivity and the number of workless households should be at stubbornly high levels. In fact, they are at record low levels. Total employment is at record high levels.


15 Apr 2014

Benefit thief has months to pay over £60,000

A benefit cheat from Slough was ordered to pay back more than £53,000 in overpaid benefits.

Sarah Darby deliberately hid the extent of her income from Slough Borough Council and received £49,134.41 in housing and council tax benefits between February 2007 and August 2012.

She failed to declare savings, child maintenance payments and the ownership of a property in Market Weighton in Yorkshire - for which she received up to £500 per month in rent.

Darby was ordered to pay £53,601.11 - the amount she falsely claimed, adjusted for inflation, less £2,069.83 she had already repaid - at a confiscation hearing at Reading Crown Court on Wednesday.

The 48-year-old of Eltham Avenue was given a ten-month jail term, suspended for two years, at Reading Crown Court on October 1 after she admitted fraud at an earlier hearing.

She was also given a 12-month supervision order and sentenced to 180 hours of community work.

“It’s rare that we come across anyone quite as brazen as Darby was - claiming the same benefits usually reserved for people who need help to keep a roof over their heads, while at the same time owning her own home and generating income from it," said Matthew Chugg, fraud investigations officer for the council. “It’s only right that she should face the consequences of her disgraceful actions.”

Darby could go to prison for 18 months if she doesn’t pay the full amount back within six months. She also has three months to pay £7,500 in costs to Slough Borough Council.

14 Apr 2014

Fenland District Council updates on benefit fraud

Eight benefit cheats have been successfully prosecuted in the past year and six more cases are in the pipeline as Fenland District Council continues to pursue suspected fraud.

The amount of overpayments identified in those 14 cases comes to more than £160,000.

More than 90 individuals have also been issued with formal cautions or had their benefits reduced or ended following intervention by council investigators. Anyone guilty of making a fraudulent claim has to repay the money owed in full.

Two of the most recent cases that have gone to court have led to suspended 
prison sentences.

In February Rachel Richardson, from Wisbech St Mary, was sentenced to eight months in jail, suspended for 12 months, after pleading guilty to dishonestly claiming more than £31,000 in Housing Benefit, Council Tax Benefit and Income Support over more than three years. Between December 2009 and January 2013 she had claimed the benefits as a single parent, saying that her partner had left her and gone to live in Yorkshire. But a detailed investigation carried out by the council and the Department for Work and Pensions revealed that the couple were living together throughout that time.

Two weeks ago, Martin Lacey, from March, also received a suspended prison sentence after pleading guilty to dishonestly claiming more than £16,000 in Housing benefit and Council Tax Benefit between September 2008 and April 2013. He was given a suspended prison sentence of three months for each offence, suspended for 12 months, and ordered to pay a contribution of £200 towards costs and £80 victim surcharge. He will also be required to undergo 12 months of supervision.

Mr Lacey originally claimed the benefits from a rented property after selling his former home in 2007 for more than £60,000. He was told then that he did not qualify for benefits because his capital exceeded £16,000. In September 2008 he made another claim, saying his capital had dropped to £1,200, and this time he was successful. The claim continued to be paid until 2011, when it was reviewed.

The review revealed that he had twice paid a large amount of rent in advance. Questioned where this money had come from, he said he had borrowed it from his mother and he was paying her back when he got his Housing Benefit payments. The investigation also showed that, although he had only ever declared one building society account, he had in fact held several and that his capital had exceeded £16,000 throughout much of his claim. He said he had not declared the accounts because he didn’t know he had to, nor did he know about the £16,000 capital limit.

Cllr Michael Humphrey, FDC’s Cabinet member responsible for finance and benefits, said: “These prosecutions show how seriously we take benefit fraud and how thoroughly we investigate any suspected cases. There is a lot of public money involved. However, it is not just about prosecutions - they are a last resort. Our primary focus is on tackling any suspicious cases early, nipping things in the bud and preventing overpayments being made in the first place.”

11 Apr 2014

Light sentence for benefit thief with teenage daughter

A lesbian mother-of-one pocketed almost £50,000 in benefits by claiming she was an unemployed single parent despite being in a civil partnership with another woman. (h/t Dave)

Karen Armitage, 42, even tried to claim her partner, Micheala Axall, was actually her mum when the seven-year deception came to light.

Armitage was given a suspended prison sentence after pleading guilty to two charges of failing to notify a change in circumstance and two charges of making a false statement.

Prosecutor Camilla Buck said Armitage made claims for income support, Job Seekers Allowance, unemployment support and housing and council tax benefit dating back to 2000.

The court heard the mum-of-one failed to notify the Department of Work and Pensions that she had lived with hospital worker Miss Axall from 2005 and that they were in a civil partnership from August 2006.

Armitage was arrested after evidence showed the couple had been living together at the semi-detached house on Asket Drive, Seacroft, Leeds, West Yorkshire.

The prosecutor told Leeds Crown Court: 'She was interviewed in July 2012 and said Miss Axall was her mother.' Armitage later admitted being in a relationship with her but claimed that they did not live together.

The court heard Armitage has previous convictions for theft, handing stolen goods and obtaining property by deception. The total amount illegally claimed was £49,409.

Defence solicitor Richard Reed said Armitage now accepted that the couple shared bank accounts, Miss Axall supported her and that she should have declared the fact to authorities. Mr Reed said Armitage had not worked much in the past. He said she was now looking at ways of paying back the money. He added: 'But she is realistic that she may never be able to repay this vast sum.'

The lawyer said Armitage’s daughter was now in her teens and would suffer if her mother was sent immediately to prison. Mr Reed said his client had pleaded guilty at an early opportunity and had expressed remorse for her offending.

Judge Rodney Jameson, QC, gave Armitage a six-month prison sentence, suspended for 12 months. She was also told to do 200 hours unpaid work and attend a 15-day programme designed to address her offending.

The judge said most people in Armitage’s situation should normally expect to go straight to prison. But he added: 'There is no real reason to believe that you will re-offend, or that you are in any way a danger to society as a whole.

Which is no argument against a suitable sentence.

'If you can repay, as I am told you are hoping to do, at least some part of this money, that is in the public interest as well as in your own interest.'

10 Apr 2014

Claimant "could hardly walk" but holidayed in China

A benefits cheat who claimed over £35,000 in disability payments was caught when she posted a picture of herself on the Great Wall of China on Facebook. (h/t Dave)

Dawn Pinchen from Annitsford, Northumberland, said she was unable to walk the length of a car due to a spinal injury.

The 40-year-old fraudulently claimed £35,601 in income support and disability allowance over six years between 2007 and 2013.

Newcastle Crown Court heard how Pinchen was caught by the Department of Work and Pensions after officials found a picture of her on the 13,000-mile Chinese landmark on Facebook. Officials had also seen her walking in to a shopping centre unaided, the court heard.

She pleaded guilty to three counts of failure to notify in change of circumstances - and was handed a four-month suspended jail term and 150 hours unpaid work.

Pinchen is also paying back the money she fraudulently claimed in instalments of £18.25 a week.

Speaking outside court, the woman said claims she was walking the Great Wall were 'a load of rubbish' - and said she was just visiting the landmark.

The court heard how Pinchen was legitimately claiming benefits from 1994. Between December 2007 and January 2013 Pinchen’s circumstances changed - but she continued to claim and was given a total of £35,601. Fraud Investigation Officers begun observing Pinchen’s movements and she was soon spotted strolling into and out of her local shopping centre with no aid.

In early 2010 Pinchen’s husband earned a large amount of money selling websites and then transferred the income into her bank account. As a result, in 2011, the couple had the money available to travel 5000 miles for a 10-day sight-seeing holiday in China. Pinchen then posted photos from the holiday on Facebook, including a snap of her on the Great Wall of China. Investigators were able to press charges after gaining this crucial evidence to suggest she was physically and financially more stable than she claimed.

Alec Burns, prosecuting, told the court: 'On the social media website, Facebook, Mrs Pinchen posted photos of her and her husband on holiday in China. There was a photo of her stood on the Great Wall of China. She had also been observed walking from her car into Manors Walk Shopping centre in Cramlington, Northumberland, and walking from her car into and out of her local ASDA supermarket with a trolley. On all occasions she did this with no aid at all. There was no sign of a walking stick or frame.'

Judge Penny Moreland QC told Pinchen:
Benefits are for those who need them and for those entitled. People like you, dishonest people, give those with honest claims a bad name and it is wrong.
Tony Cornberg, defending, said: 'There was some entitlement though we are not sure what that might be. Mrs Pinchen is still having spinal treatment. She is by no means a regular holiday maker. She has been sitting there watching life happen to everyone else.'

9 Apr 2014

Govt announces new powers against social housing fraud

Councils have been given the power to access personal information about people suspected of tenancy fraud. The new measures will allow councils to access information from banks, building societies, utility and telecommunication companies to identify if someone is committing social housing fraud.

Housing minister, Kris Hopkins, said:
Anyone who is committing social housing fraud should know that the net is closing in on them. These new powers will help expose the cheats conning councils and ripping off taxpayers and free up more homes for the families that really need them. This government is taking the fight to fraudsters. We have already given councils £19m to root out tenancy fraud, more than doubling the annual number of social homes recovered and we have made sure that rather than getting a little rap on the knuckles these fraudsters could face time in jail.
With estimates showing 98,000 social homes are unlawfully occupied in England, the Government has also introduced tougher penalties for those found guilty of tenancy fraud. The Prevention of Social Housing Fraud Act means those found guilty of illegally sub-letting a council home could face a prison sentence of up to two years and a fine.

A new £16.6 million fund has also been launched to tackle fraud in local government. The money will help fund an additional 270 government investigators across England and will help the Single Fraud Investigation Service and councils to share data.

A commentator writes
My brother-in-law has worked in fraud prevention for one of the largest social housing providers in the country. When he audited the names on the tenancy agreements against the electoral roll and other data, over 8% of tenancies were suspect. One of the most blatant examples was a Polish woman who he tracked down to Germany, where she was living with her mother. She was charging the three Polish builders who were living in her UK house three times the rent she was paying to the housing association.

The problem is that these housing associations have stock scattered over all the country, and do not inspect their properties every few months like a small private landlord would do. Their whole setup in completely exposed to fraud: the bargain subsidised rent is always paid, everything looks normal, but the houses are being sublet at vast profit to sharers, gangmasters and so on.
Social housing fraud is the most immoral type of welfare fraud. It's not just the money. If those estimates are right, nearly one hundred thousand families are deprived of decent accommodation and any sense of settled permanence. In the nature of such estimates, it may be many more.

The government should blitz a few neighbourhoods, to see if there should be a greater national effort.

8 Apr 2014

Of course this benefit fraudster was guilty

A globe-trotting benefits cheat who travelled the world while claiming she was agoraphobic and housebound has been told to expect jail.

'Agoraphobic' Tracy Johnson claimed to be so unwell that she could not leave her own house or walk more than five metres without help.

But the 52-year-old mother, from Frome, Somerset, was actually enjoying a 'champagne lifestyle' while writing travel guides, cookbooks and steamy novels as she falsely claimed benefits of around £50,000.

As well as a four-month stint in India, Johnson travelled on shopping sprees in New York and Madrid. A court also heard she spent six months working in Argentina as a tour guide while receiving cold winter payments. And the day after telling benefits officials she could not walk more than five metres (16ft) without help, Johnson went on a two-day trip to central London.

She told the jury during the trial: 'I think I'm entitled to go and sit on a beach in Goa. But you can sit on a beach in Goa watching the sunset and still be in a pretty desperate state.'

A jury at Merthyr Crown Court convicted the defendant of 13 charges - including fraud, dishonestly making a false representation, and dishonestly failing to notify a change in circumstances between January 2008 and July 2012.

Recorder Andrew Crabb warned Johnson to expect a custodial sentence. He said: 'A period of custody is likely to follow. How long that will be I could not say at this point.'

Joanna James, prosecuting, earlier told the oourt:
Tracy Johnson was living the life that honest, decent, hardworking taxpayers could only dream of. While workers were going out to do their daily grind, she was shopping in New York or having a few days in Madrid. She said she was unable to live on a day-to-day basis because she was agoraphobic, suffered depression, hallucinations, anxiety, blackouts and post-traumatic stress disorder. But while submitting claim forms telling the authorities that she was unwell, she was travelling the world on taxpayers’ money.
The court heard how Johnson, of Frome, Somerset, had changed her address to her mother’s home in Builth Wells, Powys, for the purpose of claiming benefits. She was arrested when she tried to renew her benefits claim in June after she returned from India.

Miss James said: ‘In 2012 she decided to use taxpayers’ money to have a four-month trip around India.' When police searched her home, luggage tags were still on her suitcases.

The jury had heard she had described herself as a 'spoilt girl' who travelled the world sipping pink champagne worth two weeks of a local's wages in a Himalayan spa, trekking in South America where she ran a tour guide business, shopping in the States and sunning herself on Indian beaches. In one year alone between 2011 and 2012, she spent just one month in the UK spending time in America and Argentina, where she worked in both countries as a tour guide, returning from a four-month holiday to India and Goa in April 2012.