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17 May 2018

Immigrant took council flat when she owned a property

A self-confessed cheating council tenant who raked in £31,000 renting her private flat claims she will be made homeless - because she has to pay it all back.

The News caught up with Irina Serstena after she appeared before Peterborough Crown Court for the outcome of a Proceeds Of Crime Act application.

The 41-year-old, who is from Latvia, had been renting out a flat she owned while living in a coucil property in St Neots.

Serstena, who now lives in the flat she owns in Gabriel Court, Peterborough, was living in the council flat in Loves Way.

She pleaded guilty to two offences under the Fraud Act 2006 by applying for social housing when she already owned a property.

Huntingdonshire District Council’s Corporate Fraud Team discovered Serstena bought the flat in August 2011 and failed to declare this to the council while applying for social housing.

She continued to bid for social housing and in October 2011 successfully and illegally bid for the Loves Way property, moving there in November 2011 while renting out the flat she owned for the last six years.

Serstena originally appeared at court on December 15, 2017 and, as a result of pleading guilty, was sentenced to a 12-month community order concurrent in respect of each offence with a requirement for 150 hours unpaid work.

She did her community service in a charity shop.

She told the News: "I was thinking at the hearing that no one listened to my story or even asked about it. What I have done is wrong and I feel terrible about that and I regret it but there is another side to the story.

"When I arrived in the UK after Latvia joined the EU in 2004 and I came to this country to seek a better life. To start with I did what they said with all the immigration rules and signed up for the working scheme and spent years before I could apply for the residents' permit.

"It took six years before I could get leave to remain. We were not allowed to ask for benefits or apply for a council property and i lived in shared houses and worked hard."

She said: "I was struggling and someone said the council would help and I applied to get on the waiting list. I was on it for five years and nothing happened. I did bid for several flats but didn't get them. I thought I'd never get one.

"I moved into a one bedroom maisonette and was working in a supermarket but after rent and bills, I had nothing left. I would have no money five days after I was paid and I asked the council for help but they said they couldn't help me.

"I moved in with friends and let the council know. The friends had to leave the flat and so did I and I told the council I was being made homeless. I asked again for help twice and they didn't help.

"Then I asked my mum for help. I had been sending money home to her in Latvia and she had saved it all up. She gave it back to me and that's when I put the deposit down on the flat in Peterborough.

"I forgot to notify the council and I really didn't think it mattered as it had never offered me a flat. The property I bought looked good at first but was in a bad state and I had to spend a lot fixing it up.

"Then out of the blue the council called me up and asked if I still needed a flat - I stupidly said yes I need it. So I moved into the St Neots property and started renting the Peterborough flat as I wasn't working and had no money.

"I thought I'd give up the council property when I can move into the Peterborough flat but had a tricky time with the tenants and the flat flooded and I had to wait for the insurance money to totally refurbish it and that's when the problem started because I was caught by the fraud team and taken to court.

"I now have to pay back £33,000 and will have to sell my flat to do it and then will probably be homeless and have to apply for another council flat.

"I am a taxi driver and work 60 hours a week but my last year's wage was £14,000.

"It wasn't my intention to cheat someone. To survive as a single person is tough. I can apologise but do not judge me or you will be judged because you don't know what's going to happen tomorrow and I cannot change what has happened."

On April 13, His Honour Judge Lowe made a confiscation order for Serstena to pay £31,184.62 in full within six months or face a one year prison sentence. Costs of £1,200 were also awarded to the council.

She said: "I have put the flat on the market as I have to pay back the £33,000 by October. If I don't sell the flat I don't know what I will do and my accountant says I may only have £5,000 left after selling the flat and paying the money back."

Oliver Morley, the council's corporate director of services, said: "We work hard to ensure cheats are not going to get away with it in Huntingdonshire. We take housing those that need it very seriously and, as this case shows, we use all powers at our disposal to pursue those that illegally claim help they are not entitled to.”

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