Face of hospice is accused of benefit fraud
A Wigan and Leigh Hospice worker, who drove around in a BMW convertible paid for with state benefits awarded for walking difficulties, was seen dancing, talking part in charity walks and carrying heavy items unaided, a court heard.
Maxine Armstrong, who worked for the organisation initially as a volunteer and later as a paid fund-raiser, had netted £15,000 before DWP investigators caught her out, it was alleged.
The 48-year-old, of Bankhall Close, Hindley Green, who is using two crutches, is on trial at Liverpool Crown Court denying an offence of dishonestly failing to notify a change in circumstances between May 2009 and October 21, 2014.
David Birrell, prosecuting, has told the jury that she was awarded Disability Living Allowance after claiming in 2003 because of pain when walking and saying that it took her ten to 15 minutes to walk 100 and 150m.
During the period of the alleged offence she converted her disability payments to benefits under the Motability scheme, receiving about £200 a month which latterly went towards a BMW convertible.
The DWP began investigations in the summer of 2014 and covert surveillance resulted in video recordings including one showing her lifting heavy bottles of water out of the back of a van and she was also seen strolling around a supermarket “without any apparent concerns,” alleged Mr Birrell.
She as also photographed taking part in charity fund-raising walks, including one in 2012 and taking part in a Zumba class before it. When interviewed, Armstrong said her condition had not improved but her ability to cope with it had and she agreed she had not reported that change in her circumstances, he added.
The court heard details about her medical records which repeatedly told of her complaining of pain in her knees, feet and ankles and she has undergone various operations and medical procedures including having an ankle fused and a partial knee replacement.
The jury was told that an improvement in mobility and ability to manage pain were circumstances that should have been notified to the DWP. By 2014 video footage showed her walking from a supermarket at normal speed and covering more than 250m.
The judge, Recorder Rachel Smith, told them that the “real issue” for them to consider when they retired today was about “dishonesty.”
“She said she did not believe it was dishonest to fail to declare a change in her circumstances. You have to be sure her behaviour was dishonest by ordinary standards of honest people. If so you have to ask if the prosecution have made you sure that the defendant must have realised it was dishonest by those standards.”
Mr Birrell pointed out to the jurors that it was only today while giving evidence that Armstrong claimed for the first time that she may have said something in a telephone call to the DWP about an improvement in her condition.
“I suggest she never told anyone her condition had improved. There is no record of it and she continued to receive benefit and she never mentioned it in interview,” he said.
Martyn Walsh, defending, said Armstrong has no previous convictions. Colleagues spoke of her using crutches or sticks and there was no dispute that she has health problems.
Armstrong, repeatedly described by people as ‘resilient’, had been at fundraising events but she had not participated in them, he said. “She is an honest person who made a mistake.”