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3 Feb 2015

Benefit cheats cost Hartlepool £400,000

Benefit fraudsters cost Hartlepool taxpayers more than £400,000 last year.

That is how much people illegally claimed from the council and the DWP.

In 2013-14 the council’s Benefits Investigations Team investigated 511 cases of benefit fraud which resulted in overpayments of £418,000.

Eight people were taken to court, seven were fined and 28 offenders were cautioned.

Why the difference in the number of cases?

It covered money that claimants were not entitled to for help with housing and council tax.

The fraudulent claims resulted from a mix of sources such as tip-offs from the public, and irregularities noticed by benefit assessment staff and in computer systems.

But council leader Christopher Akers-Belcher said the figure represents a tiny fraction of the millions paid out in benefits by the council and the authority does everything it can to reclaim the cash.

That's the figure of the fraud identified.

John Morton, the council’s assistant chief finance officer, added: “The council is committed to supporting vulnerable households across welfare benefits they are entitled to receive. Equally, the council is committed to preventing fraudulent claims and protecting public resources.”

Coun Akers-Belcher added: “In the grand scheme of things the council pays out around £50million in housing and council tax benefit over the year. As an authority we collect over 99 per cent of council tax. The overpayments are not written off. If an absconder leaves the system and they reappear the money they owe is written back in. It is never completely written off.”

From July 1, the Department Work and Pensions (DWP) will investigate housing and council tax benefit fraud through the new Single Fraud Investigation Service (SFIS).

The DWP has approached the council about identifying benefit investigation staff to transfer to the new national service. But the council has refused to transfer its two investigation officers because the SFIS will not probe abuses of the Local Council Tax Support Scheme. The scheme sees the council pays out £11.7million a year to 14,500 people to limit cuts to their council tax benefits.

Mr Morton said: “It would create a risk of criticism to the reputation of the council and potentially lead to an increase in attempted fraud activity against the council tax support scheme.”

Coun Akers-Belcher added: “It is really important to keep a counter fraud presence in our own establishment rather than rely on the DWP to deliver services. We would also be reneging on our responsibilities under the Local Government Act.”

In another DWP scheme, the council will be financially rewarded for helping to reduce housing benefit fraud as part of the Fraud and Error Reduction Incentive Scheme. It will be up to the council, which will receive £14,000 start-up funding, how it goes about uncovering fraud and errors by claimants.

But Fens and Rossmere Labour Councillor Alan Clark said there was a misconception among the public how much benefit fraudsters cost the country compared to big business tax evaders. “I read that there are 400 tax inspectors going after tax evaders and 14,000 going after people committing benefit fraud,” he said. “I think that is the wrong way around.”

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