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31 May 2013

Some Yorkshire authorities spurn Proceeds of Crime Act against benefit thieves

Fewer than half the councils in Yorkshire are using tough anti-fraud powers to claw back money for the taxpayer from benefit cheats, despite being urged to do so by the Government.

Research conducted by the Yorkshire Post found only nine of the region’s 21 local authorities have used Proceeds of Crime legislation in the past five years to force benefit cheats to hand back money they collected fraudulently from the taxpayer.

Communities Secretary Eric Pickles has told the country’s increasingly cash-strapped councils they should be using the 2002 Proceeds of Crime Act to confiscate every penny possible from benefit cheats in order to boost town hall coffers.

Those councils in Yorkshire which have done so have often collected significant sums. In one single case, Scarborough Council – working alongside police and other agencies – clawed back more than £500,000 for the public purse.

Others have secured tens of thousands of pounds in the courts from people claiming benefits illegally.

But most authorities said they have not used the legislation at all in the past five years.

Selby Council said it “does not use” Proceeds of Crime legislation. Doncaster said it “does not employ” financial investigators and has not used the Act in the last five years, although it added in a statement that it works closely with police and Government officials wherever necessary.

Rotherham Borough Council said that despite a number of successful cases during the 2000s, it cut back its financial investigation team in 2009 and no longer conducts investigations using Proceeds of Crime laws.

A spokeswoman for Rotherham said: “Unfortunately, the highly-trained resource did not justify the results, which were not as successful as anticipated.”

The Government however, has made it clear it expects councils to do everything in their power to win money back in fraud cases.

Local Government and Communities Minister Baroness Hanham said:
Fraud costs this country more than £73bn a year – over £2bn of which is lost to local government. This is a complete waste of taxpayers’ money.

It is essential councils do everything they can to not only prevent fraud, but recover lost money and pursue fraudsters in court.
Responses to Freedom of Information requests made by the Yorkshire Post suggest there is no correlation between the size of a council and its success at clawing back funds from criminals.

Some of the region’s largest city councils including Sheffield, Bradford, Hull, Barnsley and York, said they have not used the legislation over the past five years. By contrast, tiny Ryedale District Council in North Yorkshire clawed back £55,000 earlier this year from a benefit claimant 
who failed to declare she owned multiple properties outside the district.

Scarborough has had a series of high-profile successes, banking more than £100,000 for local taxpayers since 2008.

Many of the North Yorkshire authorities use a shared fraud investigation service based in York, called Veritau, to conduct investigations on their behalf.

Clare Slater, head of corporate services at Ryedale Council, said:
Benefit fraud is taken very seriously by Ryedale, and we endeavour to ensure that all possible action is taken to bring to justice those who defraud the system.

We have an excellent relationship with our anti-fraud partners, Veritau, and together in the interest of taxpayers in Ryedale we will continue to actively investigate and prosecute those who defraud the public purse.
Wakefield Council has confiscated £33,000 from three benefit cheats over the past four years. Kirklees clawed back £64,000, sharing the money with the proceeds with the Home Office and courts service.

Last year the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) produced a list of 50 ways it believes councils should be saving money as the public spending squeeze continues.

The list included using Proceeds of Crime legislation to claw back extra funds, citing the example of a council in London which won more than £400,000 in a single case last year.

A DCLG spokesman said: “The National Fraud Authority has estimated that councils could save £2.2bn a year by cracking down on fraud and improving their prevention, detection and recovery of council fraud.

“Councils cannot afford to have resources meant for vulnerable people and front line services being stolen by fraudsters.”

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