Councils count cost of benefit fraud

CASH-STRAPPED councils in Suffolk are battling with benefit fraud worth hundreds of thousands of pounds.The figure was revealed as local authorities struggle to keep their costs down in a bid to stop inflation-busting council tax rises this year.

CASH-STRAPPED councils in Suffolk are battling with benefit fraud worth hundreds of thousands of pounds.

The figure was revealed as local authorities struggle to keep their costs down in a bid to stop inflation-busting council tax rises this year.

Ipswich Borough Council has launched a crackdown on benefit fraudsters as it emerged it investigated about 270 cases in the last 18 months.

It identified more than £100,000-worth of recoverable overpayments in housing and council tax benefits.


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There were 21 successful convictions, one resulting in imprisonment, and there are currently several more cases awaiting trial.

The council also dealt with another 51 offenders by other means, such as cautions or administrative penalties.

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Paul West, portfolio holder for communities, said: "The final message, as we tackle fraud, is that Ipswich Borough Council takes it very seriously.

"The message to anyone thinking of doing so is 'do not mess with Ipswich Borough Council, as we will catch you and you will be taken to task for doing that'."

Mr West added: "There will always be the hard-core fraudster who believes they are immune from detection.

"This may have been the case several years ago but, due to the introduction of new investigatory powers, the avenues of deception are slowly but surely becoming narrower."

In the last 18 to 20 months Babergh District Council has recovered £93,000 from people committing benefit fraud. There were 34 prosecutions and 29 cautions.

Bob Southgate, head of revenues at the council, said 50% of the offences were carried out by people not declaring a change in circumstances, such as employment, while the other half was committed by people who had deliberately omitted information from their claim forms, such as savings accounts.

He said: "It is a clear commitment of the council. It is simply about saving public money. Identifying fraud, prosecuting and stopping it also makes savings further afield than just Babergh District Council."

St Edmundsbury Borough Council carried out 739 investigations into benefit fraud and brought 20 successful prosecutions with 39 sanctions in the last 18 months.

According to provisional figures, the overpayments amounted to £217,935 in housing benefits and £83,713 in council tax benefit. The council had no information on the amounts that it recovered.

Sara Mildmay-White, responsible for resources, said: "We have always taken a robust attitude to fraud and our officers are trained to try and identify any cases that are suspicious."

At Mid Suffolk District Council there were 116 investigations in the last 18 months, with six prosecutions, six cautions and 18 administrative penalties.

The value of the fraudulent overpayments between April 1, 2003, and September 30, 2004, was £122,693, which represents 0.6% of the total benefit expenditure of the council at £20.9million.

Chis Lawrence, portfolio holder for finance and resources, said: "It is very important that people do not take advantage of the rest of society. Our benefits collection rates are good and we have a commitment to tackling fraud."

The fraudulent overpayments at Forest Heath District Council amounted to £32,900.

A total of 116 investigations were carried out between April 2003 and September last year for the council, which is part of the Anglia Revenues and Benefits Partnership. It brought 10 prosecutions, with eight successful convictions, seven cautions and two administrative penalties.

John Alexander, strategic director for resources, said: "We are doing all within our power to detect fraud and take appropriate action where necessary."

In the last 18 months, £255,000 in housing and council tax benefit has been fraudulently claimed from Suffolk Coastal District Council.

It undertook 285 investigations and 25 prosecutions, with 19 people given sanctions and three people imprisoned.

Chris Slemmings, cabinet member with responsibility for housing and benefit, said: "Benefit fraud is taken as a very serious issue in our benefits department and the council in general because of the effect it has on other people."

Meanwhile at Waveney District Council there have been 520 cases of benefit fraud investigated in the six months between April 1 and October 31 last year, with the cost of the over-claiming being about £100,000.

There were 24 prosecutions brought against people who had fraudulently claimed benefits, with 22 cautioned by the council and two successfully prosecuted in court.

Stephen Chilvers, portfolio holder for housing and social inclusion, said: "This money comes in a way from the taxpayer. It is not right to expect taxpayers to line the pockets of fraudsters."

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