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23 Jan 2019

Long delay in benefit fraud prosecution

Benefit cheat Mark Weston claimed more than £54,000 he wasn't entitled to - before investigators used Facebook to rumble him.

The 58-year-old had received council tax discounts, housing benefit and income support on the basis he was living alone.

But for part of that time, Weston had in fact been sharing his home in Cobridge with his wife.

Stoke-on-Trent Crown Court heard investigators found she had been using the address for correspondence, listed Weston as next of kin, and had been posting about the defendant on Facebook - including a birthday and anniversary greeting.

Now Weston has been handed a suspended prison sentence and hit with a curfew.

Richard McConaghy, prosecuting, said the defendant had received more than £16,000 from Stoke-on-Trent City Council for council tax and housing benefit, with the majority - just over £37,000 coming from the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).

Mr McConaghy said: "In September 2013 the defendant completed a document and he failed to update any information about his household - particularly the presence of his wife.

"In late 2016 the DWP received an allegation about his circumstances and commenced their investigation.

"An early morning drive-by revealed a car registered to the defendant's wife was at the address and on the drive. Inquiries were made with various organisations including Stoke-on-Trent City Council who were the victims of two counts. His wife had provided it as her home address and he was her next of kin. Further inquiries were made that she she was using the address for a considerable period of time."

The investigators also used Facebook to prove that Weston was cheating the public purse.

The prosecutor said: "Her Facebook page was looked at and showed multiple references to the defendant where she wished him a happy birthday and wished him a happy anniversary and spoke of 24 years. She also wished him a happy 50th birthday and referred to him as her 'hubby'.

"He was interviewed in February 2017, over what had happened and he initially denied she had moved back in with him. He spoke of a fall he had suffered and said she was staying two to three nights a week to help him recover. He was shown documentary evidence showing she had used the address and he admitted she moved back in to the home in May 2012. He accepted he had been dishonest. He was not charged until the latter part of 2018."

Weston, who has no previous convictions, pleaded guilty to dishonestly failing to notify a change in circumstances in relation to council tax benefit, housing benefit and income support.

Neil Gerrity, defending, said Weston is in poor health and is suffering a high heart rate. He said: "He is still in receipt of benefit and is having a reduction from them. He is now living on his own and his wife has moved out."

Judge Paul Glenn sentenced Weston to a 14-month prison sentence suspended for 18 months. He will also have a nine-month electronically monitored curfew between 9pm and 5am.

The Judge commented that
The length of time is aggravating but the delay in this case is unexplainable and that constitutes some form of punishment.
A Department for Work and Pensions spokesman said: “Only a small minority of benefit claimants are dishonest, but cases like this show how we are catching those who cheat the system and divert taxpayers' money from the people who need it. We are determined to catch those we suspect of fraudulently claiming benefits by following up on tip-offs, undertaking surveillance and working with local councils.”

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If the DWP were serious about catching as many benefit cheats as possible, it would not tolerate these delays.

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