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 1547.

    So message is carry on Thieving .. sorry hard working tax payers. but then you already know that you are nothing more than a cash-cow to be bled dry. a loathsome creature fit only to be abused robbed and punished. You do not seem to understand how lucky you are to be working and having the bulk of your income confiscated. you are second fiddle no pun intended, to the thieves amongst us..

  • rate this

    Comment number 1546.

    The average person convicted of murder serves 14 years of their 'life' sentence. 10 years for benefit fraud, you'd serve less time for Rape - seems a bit odd to me.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1545.

    I would love to see similar penalties for tax evasion, including changes in the law protecting chairmen and directors so that they have to face the full consequences of their actions.

    So for example if a benefit fraudster say got ten years for netting £50,000 illegally then a tax fraudster should expect a similar sentence in proportion to the size of the fraud.

    After all we are in it together.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1544.

    This government really makes no attempt to hide its hatred of poor people. I wish they would put similar effort into clawing back the billions of pounds hidden by the rich in offshore bank accounts. The country would come out of recession overnight.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1543.

    1516, theoldmoaner

    jail costs more than the fraud..... so what money would be saved? none. Even less for the non-fraudsters then.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1542.

    Make employers pay a living wage and benefit fraud will cease to exist.

    'Any business which relies upon paying it's workers less than a living wage, has no right to exist in this country'

    He may have been speaking about the USA, the land of capitalism, but that's even more reason it should be less acceptable here!

  • rate this

    Comment number 1541.

    1523.Toxic Tel
    Now can we have ... fraudulant MPs expenses treated the same. They do not seem to be classed as crimes.
    Did you miss the news about several MPs going to prison?

  • rate this

    Comment number 1540.

    "....... crime to the nation....." What about MPs? Theirs' is a bigger one, surely? Pot, kettle, black .......

  • rate this

    Comment number 1539.

    "You answered it yourself, it is national INSURANCE, having paid in you should receive from it. To expect it to pay out without having paid in is something else however."

    Ed Milliband says that those who pay in the most should receive the most. Seems the bankers will get the best benefits under Labour. Another policy well thought through.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1538.

    Those who suggest that the amount claimed should be repaid. With what?
    Unlike the spin that the tories are putting on this, anyone who fiddles their benefit does so out of pure need, not greed. The desperation of a parent whose kids are going hungry is a massive incentive. Yes, I know. There ARE cheats, but not as many as they tell us, and not as many as there are in Westminster. Divide & rule.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1537.

    1512. Truth logic sustainability the final frontiers
    it will be liable to judicial review. Benefit laws are specific to benefit crimes.


    It won't and no they're not. The Fraud Act '06 is drafted vaguely enough to cover a wide range of scenarios, including benefit fraud. The CPS already have guidelines on using the Theft Act '68.

    The SSA Act '92 should only be used for minor benefit fraud.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1536.

    @1501 10 years is the new maximum sentence, not a manditory minimum, try getting these basic facts correct. This now means it comforms with sentencing guidelines for fraud. All of which is in the article if you bothered to read it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1535.

    Owen Jones BBC??? Seriously?

  • rate this

    Comment number 1534.

    Well, under this Government also are a planned mega prison. So, see you there chaps :-) Only a matter of time before us Mr MuMs are wiped up. Then again with sky,pool,free healthcare,plenty of sex,drugs,terrorist training,law bending under my belt, i will be set for life when i am free having learned a valuble lesson. I am joining Islam and voting Labour

  • rate this

    Comment number 1533.

    It is clear that some posters are totally against welfare altogether, others believe it should only be for people wearing sackcloth while watching a black and white TV. I along with most do not agree with fraud but those trying to focus on welfare fraud while not addressing tax evasion and avoidance, irresponsible bankers, corrupt politicians etc cannot claim to represent the views of the majority

  • rate this

    Comment number 1532.


    I can take it, then, that you would fully support legislation ensuring more and tougher custodial sentences for white collar crime.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1531.

    Don't see MP's expenses included in this.How many have ripped off the taxpayer and got away with it? A joke in all but name.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1530.

    If you're born into, and raised in, a society only to find that by sticking to the rules then no matter what you do you're unable to provide a decent life for your family, should you stick to the rules? I mean, if the social contract (T Hobbes) is broken why should you stick to the rules? After all, a contract, social or not, is a two way thing. Just a thought.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1529.

    some get too much. simple as that and they need to be checked more and illegal immigrants are only stopped if you report them or a home office officer spots them which is unlikely just an example which shows there are more problems than just benefit cheats-- it comes down to a complex wider society problem where there are too many people, rubbish, no jobs, no housing, , etcetcetctecte

  • rate this

    Comment number 1528.

    How about ten years for tax avoidance, politicians claiming false expenses or stealing a person's identity and using it to get credit ?
    What's a good deterrent for one crime is also a good deterrent for the other crimes.


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