Suffolk: Councils chasing £15million of false housing benefit

Benefit fraud

Benefit fraud - Credit: Eastern Daily Press � 2008

Councils are chasing £15million of falsely claimed housing benefit – but gave up on almost £500,000 of it in just six months.

Ten councils across Suffolk and Essex have built up the bill over a number of years, with huge differences between each councils’ debts.

Colchester Borough Council has been the biggest victim of benefit cheats, innocent mistakes from claimants and other administrative errors, with £2.9m of outstanding payments. Paul Smith, Colchester Borough Council’s portfolio holder for business and resources, said the figures were not surprising given Colchester is the largest council on the list, but added it has a clear strategy to recouping extra money.

He said: “We would always like to recover as much as possible. Our approach in Colchester is to try to separate the can’t pays from the won’t pays. When we have someone that can’t pay, we’ll write that debt off quickly, so we can focus our resources on those who can pay, but don’t want to – that might differ from some councils.”

Waveney Borough Council has also been hit hard, having racked up £2.4m of bills, while it wrote off £130,000 of false claims in the first half of the 2012/13 financial year – the most of any council in the area.

A spokesman said the council “pursues all methods of recovery”, adding: “The council only writes off overpayments where the debt cannot be recovered despite attempts to do so. It is not the policy of Waveney to write off fraud overpayments.”

Housing benefit comes in two forms – a rent allowance for private sector or housing association tenants, and a rent rebate for those living in council accommodation.

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Tendring and Ipswich councils were the most successful at clawing back claims in the first six months of the last financial year, recouping more than £1.3m between them.

An Ipswich Borough Council spokesman said: “Our policy is always to seek to recover any owed moneys wherever it is possible and financially sensible to do so.

“The council’s fraud team has an excellent record against those who try to cheat the system and continues to secure successful prosecutions.”

The DWP statistics, which are released twice a year, also revealed the area’s 10 authorities had identified more than £5.6m of housing benefit overpayments in the first six months of the last financial year alone.

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