ALMOST 300 households receiving benefits were referred to Wigan Council as potentially being fraudulent claimants last year, according to official statistics.
Local authority officers recovered £578,000 for the public purse as a result of prosecutions for false housing benefit, council tax benefit and income support claims.
Of the 285 referrals last year, 186 were proven as fraud with 20 referred for prosecution. All of the 20 that ended up in court ended in prosecution with the other cases dealt with by a caution or financial penalty.
The previous year a total of 45 cases were referred for prosecution with a total of £690,000 recovered during that 12 months. Wigan Council said the drop in the number of referred cases was due to a policy change.
A spokesman said: “Each case of proven fraud is assessed against a number of factors to determine whether it is appropriate to prosecute. As an alternative to prosecution, offenders may be offered a caution or a penalty. For small value frauds, we will seek recovery of the money.
“So, while a lower number of cases were referred for prosecution in 2013/14 than the previous year, the value of fraud prosecuted was proportionally higher. This reflects our policy to target the biggest frauds. We will continue to investigate housing benefit fraud between now and February, when the government will take over full responsibility for this area.”
A failure by residents to inform authorities of a change in circumstances or simply being dishonest in order to get benefits can result in a fraud investigation.
Marie Jolly appeared before a Wigan court this year having swindled her way to £20,000 worth of council tax support, income support and job-seekers allowance by keeping quiet about new living arrangements over a three year period.
The 38-year-old was ordered to repay the money having moved in with a new partner in 2009.
Jolly, a mum-of-four of Gadbury Fold, Atherton, initially denied the fraud but accepted her wrongdoing and was said to have shown “genuine remorse” for the oversight. She received a suspended jail sentence.
And in July, Lisa Gurein of Oak Avenue, Golborne, was also hit with a suspended jail sentence for claiming £24,627 worth of income support, housing and council tax benefit between February 2009 and March 2014 by claiming she was a single mum. The 31-year-old pleaded guilty to nine charges.
A council spokesman added: “We take a tough stance on benefit fraud and I think these figures show the success we’re having in this area. I’d like to thank our officers for their hard work in pursuing these individuals.
“Benefits are there for people who need them, who depend on them to live – not for those who think that they can get away with fraudulently claiming funds paid for by hardworking taxpayers.”
The Department for Work and Pensions will assume jurisdiction for housing benefit fraud investigations early next year. The two council officers who have recovered more than £1.2m over the last two years will be given new roles within the local authority.