17 Sep 2013

Benefit fraud enforcement needs to be streamlined

One theme of this blog is that the sheer numbers of offenders would overwhelm the system if they could all be pursued. Streamlined it isn't. Take Robert Wills, who has been jailed for six months.

He had denied charges of being in possession of capital in excess of the threshold for claiming benefits. But the jury, following a 13-day trial, found him guilty of all four charges. The authorities say that, from the outset of the investigation, Mr Wills failed to engage with their investigators either at home or when he was arrested over the fact that he had £123,000 in bank accounts. Wills had obtained housing benefit of £11,693 and council tax benefit of £418 from both councils, and income support of £10,781 from the Department for Work and Pensions to which he had no entitlement.

Summonses were issued but Wills failed to attend court in February last year. He was arrested again, and brought before a court in April last year when he entered not guilty pleas to all charges. A committal hearing was arranged for June 2012, at which Mr Wills failed to agree over any of the evidence put to him and said he was going to call Work and Pensions Secretary Ian Duncan Smith as a witness. At his trial earlier this year, Wills had to be arrested to attend court, claiming he was too weak to walk from the police car to the court room. He sacked his defence solicitors during the trial, absconded mid-trial to Bath (where he also lived), and had to be re-arrested in the city and brought back to Oxford.

A restraint order is now in place on Mr Wills’ accounts and a confiscation hearing will be held to access his savings.

This may be unusually colourful, but as usual in assets frauds there will have to be this separate confiscation hearing before taxpayers can get their money back. All this takes time and adds to costs.

From assets frauds to single person frauds. Isabelle Farmer fraudulently claimed £36,000 of benefits over nearly five years, saying she was no longer living with her lover Christopher Wicks. Officials became suspicious and she was only caught when undercover benefits officers staked out their home for four months in 2011 and spotted her partner coming and going there on 17 separate occasions. Even then she lied about the fact they were living as a couple.

Again, all this takes time and adds to costs. (For more examples of longwinded process, click on the "slow administration" label at the end of this post.)

Will the new increased maximum sentences have much effect? Probably not. They are likely to apply only to organised professional criminal fraud, rather than to individuals like Isabelle Farmer or Robert Wills, who make up the vast bulk of offenders.

So what can be done? First, deterrence. Benefit thieves do it for the money. They should have to pay back twice what they stole. They should not be eligible for any benefits until they have, and they should have to do some unpaid work every week until the debt to society is cleared. That would be a deterrent. Any confiscation order should be made immediately.

But the whole process of detection and prosecution needs to be streamlined. Hit squads are supposed to have been sent into particular areas. Let's see the results, and draw conclusions from those.

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