Benefit fraud could lead to 10-year jail terms, says DPP

Prison cell Suspects can now be charged under the Fraud Act, which carries a maximum sentence of 10 years

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Benefit cheats in England and Wales could face longer jail terms of up to 10 years, following new guidance from the director of public prosecutions.

Keir Starmer QC said it was time for a "tough stance" given the £1.9bn annual cost of the crime to the nation.

He urged prosecutors to consider charging under the Fraud Act - rather than social security laws - because of the scope for longer sentences.

The prime minister's spokesman said he welcomed the move.

The BBC's legal correspondent Clive Coleman said the changes meant welfare cheating would now be classed alongside offences such as money laundering and banking fraud.

Cash limit

Benefit fraud statistics (2011)

  • 6,080 offenders were sentenced - the lowest number since 2001. (A total of 16,317 offenders were sentenced for all types of fraud in 2011)
  • 79% of cases were seen at the magistrates' court
  • 41% were given a community order, which means offenders serve their whole sentence in the community
  • 17% were fined
  • 16% were given an absolute or conditional discharge
  • Nearly 5% (291 offenders) were given immediate custody. The average sentence length was seven months, three weeks
  • 54% of offenders sentenced were female (compared with 26% for all fraud offences)

*Due to data classification, not all benefit fraud offences are included.

Source: Fraud Offences Sentencing Data (June 2013)

In the past, benefits cheats were commonly charged under social security legislation carrying a maximum sentence of seven years.

And benefit frauds of less than £20,000 were automatically tried in magistrates' courts, which could only sentence people to up to 12 months imprisonment for multiple offences. For a single offence, the maximum was six months.

This financial threshold has been scrapped under the new guidelines, so smaller cases can be referred straight to crown courts for tougher sentencing.

Suspects can also now be charged under the Fraud Act, which carries a maximum sentence of 10 years, according to the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS)

In 2012, the number of offenders jailed for benefit fraud was 262 and the average sentence length was six months and one week.

Stolen identity

Mr Starmer said: "It is a myth that 'getting one over on the system' is a victimless crime: the truth is we all pay the price. But it's not only the taxpayers that suffer.

"Benefits exist to protect and support the most vulnerable people in our society and, whenever the system is defrauded, it's also taking money away from those with a genuine need."

The DPP said prosecutors should consider a number of factors when deciding how to charge, including:

  • Whether the fraud was professionally planned
  • Whether multiple frauds occurred or a single fraud was carried out over a significant period of time
  • Whether a false or stolen identity was used
  • Whether the perpetrator abused a position of trust in order to commit the offence

The move comes after the CPS merged with the Department for Work and Pensions' prosecutions division last year.

The Independent's Owen Jones: "Paedophiles, rapists and murderers are going to have lesser sentences than people who commit benefit fraud"

Jonathan Isaby, political director of the TaxPayers' Alliance, welcomed it, saying: "This is people stealing from taxpayers - stealing from vulnerable people.

"A message needs to go out that this is unacceptable and increasing sentences will act as a deterrent."

But Labour MP Theresa Pearce, who is a member of the Commons' Work and Pensions Committee, accused Mr Starmer, who is due to stand down from his CPS role in October, of "trying to look tough" on benefit cheats.

"Ten years in prison, really? For something that could be like a couple of thousand pounds. Yes, that's bad and there's a way you should get it back but I just don't understand why this is his priority in his final months," she said.

Earlier this year, MPs on the Communities and Local Government Select Committee called on the government to give a "swift assurance" that the introduction of its new welfare system, known as universal credit, would not cause a rise in benefit fraud.

Universal credit will eventually replace six key means-tested benefits with one payment.

Last year, the CPS saw more than 8,600 prosecutions in benefit and tax credit cases, and 4,000 in the first five months of 2013, Mr Starmer said. The current conviction rate is 89.7%, he added.

The government says it has saved hundreds of millions of pounds by introducing better fraud prevention and reducing errors in the tax and benefit system.

A Downing Street spokesman said: "Benefit fraud is very serious. It's wrong and that's why the prime minister warmly welcomes this announcement."


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  • rate this

    Comment number 887.

    We have a class of people who do not hesitate to break the law in claiming money that is not theirs by right, morally or legally. They lie, cheat and connive: intimidate witnesses and do not heistate to manipulate the truth to ensure that when the light of justice comes their way, it keeps on going. What shall we do with these people?

    Oh, it's the government.

  • rate this

    Comment number 886.

    Rather a lot of the comments here seem to assume that all benefit claimants are cheats.

    Also many comments saying that 10 years in prison is too long.

    All that has been proposed is that longer sentences are made available.

    Nothing says they will be used, and since the courts generally seem to hand down minimal sentences in most cases, one wonders if anything will actually change.

  • rate this

    Comment number 885.

    The long term unemployed are associated with the Labour Party, well not the same Labour Party I am a member of.

    We dont want you, we are a party for works not skivers, we join the party for common good achieved through work not parasitic behaviour.

    Sort out this problem by:

    Throwing out unemployed migrants
    No right to vote
    Declare to their community their position
    No more than 2 kids
    No pets

  • rate this

    Comment number 884.

    Do those posting outrage seriously think they'll be banging people up for 10 years for this? Really? Of course not. So let's not overreact and just see it for what it is: a bit of macho posturing. And shouldn't we be happy if it helps send a message to those stealing from the rest of us that this isn't a victimless crime: they are taking from friends, neighbours, family and strangers alike.

  • rate this

    Comment number 883.

    832 JTH 'just a few extra quid" googled this I quickly found loads of benefit fraud cases for sums between £50k and £150k often punished with community service. The objective of jailing a few folk for this type of offence is deter others and yes we should have sent a few MP's and Banksters to jail as well.

  • rate this

    Comment number 882.

    Make it worth working.
    Pay workers a decent wage.
    The greedy bosses are encouraging people to choose between work or benefits.

  • rate this

    Comment number 881.

    Hopefully this will act as a deterrent to any future would be benefit cheats! People are right this probably will end up costing the country more but who cares this is about rebalancing the work ethic in this country!

    This country has created a lazy underbelly that expect everything to be handed to them on a plate!

  • rate this

    Comment number 880.

    'Longer sentences = reduce fraud' is usual Conservative build-up to Conference. Systematic criminal benefit fraud is already handled seriously, most applicants are honest - but errors are inevitable: I requested council officer help to complete a 26-page form replete with obscure terminology, and I'm a 1970s graduate an' all. The Treasury might gain, but benefit payouts, set by law, won't change.

  • rate this

    Comment number 879.

    re 864.darren

    Nice try!

  • rate this

    Comment number 878.

    MPs' fraud is just a minor "fiddling" of expenses, of course.
    Anyways, figures show the amount lost by fraud is neglible when compared with the amounts saved by benefits not being claimed by those entitled to them.

  • rate this

    Comment number 877.

    Anyone lend me a Hero outfit :-) Some cool gadgets, a trick car that is a plane that is a boat? PLEASE

  • rate this

    Comment number 876.

    Well that's most of our MPs banged up then !

  • rate this

    Comment number 875.

    And how long did the casino bankers get?

  • rate this

    Comment number 874.

    "The government has claimed to have saved hundreds of millions of pounds..."

    Is this another of those claims from IDS that has no factual evidence to back it up but because he believes it to be true and it cannot be easily disproven he states it as fact.

    When is IDS going to be prosecuted for paying his wife a £15,000 tax payer funded salary for doing a job that she obviously did not do.

  • rate this

    Comment number 873.

    If you break the law you deserve to get punished. 10 years will hopefully put people off doing it. This is not hitting those hardest off its hitting the people who take more than they need so they can buy extra houses and big tvs things they don't need to live.

  • rate this

    Comment number 872.

    There are several notorious "benefit cheats" who were found guilty of fiddling their expenses at the tax payers expense currently sitting in the House of Lords for which they receive £300.00 per day.

    No chance of them being subject to the same sort of justice is there?

  • rate this

    Comment number 871.

    Can we all get one thing right. Defrauding the benefits sytem of £1.9billion a year is a criminal offence.
    Tax avoidance is perfectly legal, may be immoral, but it is not a crime.
    Now the govt is working on closing the legal loopholes Starbucks et al take advantage of. So why not hit the other criminals as well?

  • rate this

    Comment number 870.

    Not sure prision for benefit fraud is the right way to go (unless, prehaps, for the organised crime version of it). Maybe the individual in question is put on a "benefits blacklist" and any future claiming is heavily monitored, a fine, which is taken from "souce"//i.e linked to any earnings/furutre earnings and community service i.e defraud 30K = 300 hours community work.

  • rate this

    Comment number 869.

    To all MP's that got caught fiddling the system you should all be in jail yet your still out there, WHY and Mr C take a look in your own back yard and clean it up plus all MP's should not get paid for a second home, i dont and capping benefits at £26000 is still more than a lot of us get paid
    Get it sorted and keep your hands out of the workers pocket
    Rant over

  • Comment number 868.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.


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