24 Sep 2013

We need tougher sentences for benefit thieves

Benefit thief Cleo Embley features widely in today's papers. She was jailed for 22 weeks after stealing £94,000 in benefits through a typical single parent fraud. If she had told the truth about living with her partner, she would instead have been paid £50,955 in tax credits - she has seven children, though she can't afford them. So she needs to return around £43,000.

So far so routine, sadly. However, when her lawyer said she ‘knows she is going to have to pay the money back’, Judge Beverley Lunt interrupted:
But she isn’t – the taxpayer is going to have to pay it back! She has defrauded all this money but is entitled, from the state, to more money! So the state will receive the money, from the money the state is giving her!
And of course the repayment rate will be tiny and of course she will not be charged any interest.

This is not justice. So what is to be done?

Benefit thieves should not be eligible for any more benefits until they have paid back what they stole, and they should have to do some unpaid work every week until their debt to society is cleared.

Now that would be a big change from the current mild punishment régime. So the new arrangements should be announced well in advance.

For instance, if the change was announced today, it should only take effect from the start of 2015. That would give plenty of time for benefit thieves to confess, and to be dealt with under the present arrangements. From the start of 2015, the new arrangements would apply.

The change would save a lot of money, as more people would be deterred from stealing from taxpayers in the first place. Official estimates of the cost of benefit fraud have edged up to £1.9bn a year - but the real benefit fraud figure is closer to £6bn.

Local communities could also benefit as more unpaid work was done for community benefit.

And finally, such a change would be popular politically. Opinion polls regularly show voters want tougher action against benefit thieves.

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