A terrible example. The case took ages to come to court, and then ... effectively nothing.
A benefits cheat mother-of-four who swindled taxpayers out of £140,000 has avoided jail and will be allowed to pay it back over 27 years.
Zoe Phoenix, 41, claimed handouts for nine years based on her being an unemployed single mother - but she failed to declare that her partner Peter Sims, 50, had moved in with her.
The beautician from Manchester, who has four children aged ten, 16, 20 and 23, was fraudulently claiming housing benefit and income support as well housing tax support.
She fraudulently claimed £144,364.69 from 2005 to 2014, but walked free from court with a 12-month suspended sentence and a requirement to do 200 hours of unpaid work.
Phoenix admitted three counts of dishonestly failing to notify of a change in circumstance but she said she was now working as a beautician and was paying back around £100 a week. She was overpaid so much that it will take her more than 27 years to pay it back at her current rate - without counting any potential interest.
An investigation found that her partner Mr Sims had been seen taking the children to school, carrying groceries into the house and a car registered in his name was outside regularly. Her social media accounts contained dozens of photographs of her enjoying the high life on nights out and posing in revealing dresses.
Richard Littler, prosecuting, told Manchester Crown Court: ‘Zoe Phoenix claimed benefits as a single parent from March 16, 2000 to 2014. She claimed for four, three and two dependent children and made the claim on the basis that she was single and had no other income apart from child benefits and tax credits. The money was transferred into a bank account. She was sent letters reminding her to notify of any change of circumstances. She had lived with her partner, Peter Sims, from at least July 2005 until the case was closed in July 2014.
‘On January 14, 2008 and January 23, 2009 visits were made to her address to check her circumstances were unchanged and she remained an unemployed single parent. By her own admissions she was already living with her partner but didn’t declare this at the time. In July 2014 she was asked whether she understood the roles and factors that might affect them (benefits) and she demonstrated a clear understanding.
‘She admitted that Peter Sims had lived with her since July 2005, the date shown on Mr Sims’ bank details. Her son was born later that year, the second child of a relationship with Peter Sims.
‘A period of surveillance was carried out in 2013 and during that period he was seen to enter and leave on at least 49 occasions, driving the children to school and carrying groceries into the house so it would appear that he was clearly a resident at that address. Two vehicles were also routinely parked outside, one which was registered to Mr Sims.’
The surveillance was over-long and therefore dearer than it need have been. And it still took them years to get the case to court.
What was enforcement doing?
The court heard Phoenix was not fraudulently receiving the money from the outset of her claiming history because when she first begun receiving state handouts, she was doing so legitimately.
Alex Langhorn, defending, said Mr Sims was living at the house but not financially contributing. He added: ‘The reality of the situation is that this is a woman who, having claimed benefits, buried her head in the sand and thought this was the way to deal with things. She has four children who are ten, 16, 20 and 23. They were far younger when this started. When Mr Sims would come and go he would not provide anything for them. He was present in the physical sense. He occasionally helped out with the utilities but that was the extent. This is a lack of consequential thinking rather than an attempt to defraud the state.'
Mr Sims said she had expected an immediate jail term and that her mother, father and eldest daughter were going to have supported her younger children should this have happened.
Sentencing her, Judge Andrew Jefferies QC, said: ‘You’re now 41 years of age and a woman of good character [actually a long term thief] who for the last ten years has been receiving income support, council tax and housing benefits. Your circumstances changed and you didn’t notify the relevant authorities. It’s the people that do this that give the people that need benefits a bad name.
‘The amount of the claim is a little short of £150,000 over a ten-year period but recently you have started to pay back those benefits and I’m impressed that’s something you have done before coming here today. You have four children, three of which you are still responsible for. I’m persuaded that this is a case I can suspend.'