Shock rise in benefit cheats in Sheffield

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SOARING numbers of Sheffield benefits cheats fraudulently claimed nearly £1 million of payments in just 12 months - while honest cash-strapped householders struggle in the recession.

Sheffield Council is cracking down after losing £907,000 to council tax and housing benefit fraud in 2010/11.

Investigations identified 312 cases, 108 of which resulted in prosecution. A further 141 offenders were cautioned, and 63 dealt with through ‘administrative penalties’ - fines rather than full legal prosecution.

Some 327 cases involved people illegally claiming single person’s discount on their council tax, costing the authority £39,537.

Officials found six cases of housing tenancy fraud, where council houses are occupied by people who have no right to the homes.

Furious community representatives said today they were angered by the scale of the problem.

Stephen Rich, secretary of Greenhill and Bradway Tenants’ and Residents’ Association, said: “The amount of fraud shocks me - just think what the money could be used for.

“The council is telling us there’s no money to celebrate the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, no money for local festivals or pensioners’ groups.

“The money being fraudulently claimed could also be used to build new homes.”

Sharon Ashton, a former member of Foxhill TARA who is now with the Southey and Owlerton Area Regeneration association, added: “Fraudsters are taking money off everyone else.”

The number of cases in Sheffield rose from 2009/10, when 305 were identified, 113 people prosecuted, 128 cautioned and 64 given administrative penalties.

Laraine Manley, council executive director of resources, said the council has a ‘zero tolerance’ policy on fraud.

Nationally, benefit fraud went up by more than a third on the previous year, with 121,000 cases detected by councils across the UK involving £185m. The true problem is estimated to be far greater, with the National Fraud Authority estimating councils lose a total of £2 billion.

The Audit Commission, which revealed the figures, said: “The impact of the current economic climate is putting more pressure in individuals’ finances and tempting people to commit fraud.”

Sheffield Council said it takes a strong position. People can report benefit fraud by calling the council’s Benefit Fraud Line on 0800 083 7060 or emailing benefits@sheffield.gov.uk with ‘Counter Fraud’ as the subject.

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Examples of successful prosecutions:

One benefit claimant received a 24-month conditional discharge for a benefit fraud totalling £66,000 in housing benefit, council tax benefit and DWP benefits. The fraud related to living together with an undeclared partner.

Another benefit claimant received a nine-month sentence, suspended for two years, for a benefit fraud totalling £41,607 in housing benefit, council tax benefit and DWP benefits. The fraud related to an undeclared change in income.

The council revealed it has also investigated internal fraud, detecting one case of procurement fraud during 2010/11. Details have not been disclosed.