29 Jun 2015

Nearly £2m wrongly claimed in benefits from Bristol City Council last year

Fraud investigators uncovered more than £1.7million of benefits which were incorrectly claimed from Bristol City Council last year. The council's benefit fraud team investigated 745 cases in the 12 months up to March. This led to 130 people being prosecuted or sanctioned.

Three of them were sent to prison while 13 were given suspended sentences.

Curfew orders were placed on a further 14 to restrict their movements while 36 were given a total of 550 days of community work and had a range of fines imposed.

More than £700,000 can be retrieved if subsidy payments are collected.

A further £440,000 in fraudulent claims has been stopped by the team.

In addition, the team secured:

+ £26,600 in court costs;

+ £8,500 in compensation awards;

+ £14,600 in admin penalty fines imposed on claimants;

+ £82,800 in Proceeds of Crime Awards.

Benefit fraud is one of the highest risk areas for the council and employed its own investigation team until March. Since then, housing benefit fraud has been handled by the Government's Department for Work and Pensions as a result of welfare reforms. The change led to the council's team transferring to the Government department.

The report points out that the council still has a duty to pass on information to the department to make it easier for benefit scams to be uncovered. It adds that despite the staffing changes, the team continued to focus on more complex and high-value cases. They consistently met prosecution targets which are needed to deter scammers from falsely claiming benefits.

The report says: "The council has been well-served by the team - a highly regarded, professional and successful unit prosecuting or sanctioning more than 1,500 individuals during the last ten years following criminal investigations undertaken by them. The team worked continuously to deter benefit fraudsters by ensuring that this type of fraud was identified and stopped and to ensure offenders do not gain from defrauding the council or the welfare system."

Two members of the team have remained with the council and have now joined the internal audit's corporate investigations team. This will mean the team will have the experience to continue its own work on benefit fraud.

There will be regular meetings with investigators from the Department for Work and Pensions so there is a regular exchange of information.

Case study 1: A joint investigation uncovered Mr and Mrs C who had fraudulently claims benefit from both Bristol and South Gloucestershire councils. Mr C had been working as a self-employed builder during the time that benefits were claimed. The couple received more than £21,000 in payments and went on several foreign holidays during the period they claimed. They were sentenced to 16 weeks' imprisonment and made an arrangement to pay all of the money back.

Case study 2: A fraud investigator spotted that a landlord was claiming housing benefit at an address he had previously left. He had then sub-let the vacated property and claiming £8,122 benefit that he was not entitled to. He initially pleaded not guilty but the fraud team found several witnesses which made the landlord change his plea. He was sentenced to 200 hours unpaid work and ordered to pay £3,000 costs.

Case study 3: Mr R was privately renting property in St George but when he left, his housing benefit claim was checked. It was found that he had failed to notify the benefits service that he had found a job and his jobseeker's allowance had ended. This resulted in benefits overpayments from the council of £3,226. Mr R declined to be interviewed under caution and the case was taken to court where the magistrates found him guilty and sentenced him to 80 hours unpaid work and ordered to pay costs to the council.


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