22 Apr 2014

Yes, sentences for benefit thieves are light

The Daily Mail here is reporting  on sentences passed on benefit thieves. Really this is no surprise. Newspapers keep reporting that a convicted benefit thief has been "spared jail" when the reality is that prison sentences are wholly exceptional except for the largest amounts.

Just 250 out of of 7,188 benefits cheats were put behind bars in 2012, despite claims from Westminster that a tougher stance would be taken on swindlers.

New Ministry of Justice figures, requested by a Conservative backbencher, reveal that, between 2008 and 2012, the number of benefits cheats taken into custody decreased each year apart from one.

Benefits fraud costs the UK up to £2 billion each year yet just 1,306 out of 32,847 were sent to jail for the crimes.

Conservative backbencher Philip Davies said:
I was very shocked. And I think the public will be very shocked. It brings the benefits system into disrepute. The courts should start treating this crime as seriously as the public. I think it’s a scandal. As far as I'm concerned it's soft justice. The blame here lies squarely on the judges -they are not using the powers that they should be.
The MP for Shipley, West Yorkshire, said that he was planning on writing to Iain Duncan Smith, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, to address the issue. He also said that he planned to write to the Sentencing Council.

Mr Davies said that he believed there should be mandatory prison sentences for those committing benefit fraud. He added: 'It's theft and it's theft of taxpayers' money.'

That's going much too far.

The chief executive of the Taxpayers' Alliance also called for the authorities to 'clamp down hard' on fraud cases:
Individuals committing benefit fraud are not only stealing from taxpayers but they’re also taking money meant for the poorest and most vulnerable in society. Taxpayers want to know that their money is reaching those truly in need, so the authorities must clamp down hard on cases of fraud in order to punish offenders and deter others tempted to play the system. It’s troubling that so few are facing serious sanctions for ripping off taxpayers and those genuinely in need: the consequences of being caught have to be strong enough to discourage others from trying to take taxpayers for a ride.
Commenting on the figures, a spokesman for the Department of Work and Pensions said: "Our teams are now investigating more cases in our work to stop fraudsters who see benefits as a way of lining their pockets. We always push hard for the strongest punishments and we are introducing tougher civil penalties for benefit cheats as well as looking to ensure stolen benefits cash is repaid."

Last year, the former Director of Public Prosecutions said that up to ten-year sentences would be imposed on 'professional' cheats who 'get one over on the system':
It’s not only taxpayers that suffer. Benefits exist to protect and support the most vulnerable people in our society and, whenever the system is defrauded, it’s also taking money away from those with a genuine need. The cost to the nation incurred by benefit fraud should be at the forefront of lawyers’ minds when considering whether a prosecution is in the public interest. The loss of money has a significant impact on communities up and down the country.
Yet last month a former television presented walked free from court with a suspended sentence after she claimed £76,000 in housing benefits in order to pay off her credit card bills. Louise Port, 37, who worked for GMTV, was renting out her Canary Wharf property for £1,000 a month at the time. She was found guilty of 'deliberate deception' over a five-year period.


2012:  Sentenced: 7,188. Jailed: 250. Fined: 1351

2011:   Sentenced: 5,570.  Jailed: 286. Fined: 897

2010: Sentenced: 5,887. Jailed: 208. Fined: 1,057

2009: Sentenced: 6,399. Jailed: 300. Fined: 1,134

2008: Sentenced: 7,803. Jailed: 262. Fined: 1,314

Benefit thieves do it for the money. So hit them in the pocket. It was money that motivated them, and a financial penalty will help to deter them.

Everyone convicted of benefit fraud who doesn't go to prison should have to do unpaid work.

Benefit thieves should also have to repay twice what they've stolen, and should know they won't be eligible for any further benefits – including tax credits - until they have. A confiscation order should be automatic and immediate.

If you don't punish people who are convicted of an easy crime, the offence will continue to look attractive.

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