Benefit Fraud Leaps by £500 million in Just a Year: The ins and outs of benefit policy

Our last post on the current situation with benefit reform left many people staggered. As regular readers may remember, the National Audit Office (NAO) recently released a report which stated that current benefit underpayments are “unacceptably high”.

According to the reports that followed, Sir Amyas Morse, the Comptroller and Auditor General for the NAO, claimed that he could not sign off the accounts of the Department for Work and Pensions, as the level of fraud and error was still too high.

The NAO also warned about the absence of up-to-date data; for example, disability living allowance accounted for £13.3 billion of total expenditure, and has not been measured for fraud and error since 2005. According to the NAO, this “creates a risk that the Department is making decisions based on out-of-date measurements”.

As your go-to legal experts, we know you’ll be wanting to know of any progress with this story, and any developments, so we thought we’d put together today’s post on the latest news. While it seems that politicians continue to display the best intentions where benefits are concerned, there still seems to be a very serious problem, literally millions of pounds each week are lost to benefit fraud.

What’s the latest news?

The current benefits and tax credit system is undergoing a major period of transition, as you’ll know from our previous post on the universal credit roll-out. However, it appears that all this reform has been overshadowed of late by the release of various reports that condemn the overpayments, underpayments and incorrect payments made by the government.

So far, this month has been no different, as the Daily Mail recently published findings from the accounts of the Department of Work and Pensions, this time focusing on the fact that benefit fraud has jumped by £500million in just a year, despite various minister pledges of a crackdown in policy and action against fraudsters.

These accounts contained figures that demonstrate how fraud has risen from £1.1 billion in 2014/5 to £1.6 billion. It is a shocking statistic indeed to discover that, today, more of the taxpayer’s money is now lost to fraud than the entire Foreign Office’s entire annual budget of £1.1 billion.

What’s going on in Northern Ireland?

Just as this news broke in the UK a couple of weeks ago, it was then discovered that in Northern Ireland, it is currently costing taxpayers more in salaries than they are able to recover just for these benefit fraud investigations. Reports stated that almost £4.6million was recovered from investigations over two years, while £5.3million was paid out in salaries.

These figures were released by Communities Minister, Paul Givan, in response to an assembly question by Green Party leader, Steven Agnew. Again supporting current debates going on in the benefits world, Steven Agnew stated that while the vast majority of welfare claimants are genuine, the “real issue is the amount of error made by the department, leading to people receiving money they are not entitled to. That this money then has to be claimed back is inefficient and stressful for those who rely on the income.

“Of course fraud must be discouraged, but mistakes in the system must be minimised. The salary costs provided do not reflect the total cost of welfare fraud investigations, meaning the total cost will undoubtedly be higher.” Clearly, most agree that change is needed, but who exactly is it that is encouraging such a stringent process being put onto benefit claimants?

Who’s raising the figures?

In our most recent blog post relating to benefits, you will also have read about the infamous case of Melanie Edwards, who managed to fraudulently claimed more than £150,000 in benefits, by pretending to be single. In this instance, the 40-year-old mother was spared jail mainly due to her children and their current circumstances.

This was said to be worrying, as it would surely create a dangerous precedent for others to follow suit and use their children to avoid jail. As it happens, another story has recently hit the headlines to prove just how willing people are to exploit the system, and their families, for commercial gain.

In a recent article, the Telegraph described how a mother forced her children to undergo painful gastric surgery, in order for her to claim £375,000 worth of benefits. As unnerving as it is to think that people would go to such lengths to gain extra money from the Government, the court heard how the 43-year-old parent (who cannot be named) claimed her children were suffering from a number of serious health conditions.

Her young son and daughter underwent several kinds of invasive and unnecessary treatments, including operations to have gastronomy tubes fitted to their stomach, despite everything functioning normally. She also presented her children to doctors as having asthma, autism, urology and gastric conditions, teaching her children how to act these symptoms and fool doctors effectively.

Although the separation of mother and child is painful, such cases as these demonstrate just how far certain people are willing to go, and therefore something must be done to ensure that these cases are stopped, and subsequent funds can be diverted to those who really need the help.

What does all this mean for me?

These kinds of extreme cases are painful for people to watch, but they’re also incredibly rare. It’s true that as the Government tries to get tougher on benefit fraud and overpayments, more of these cases are likely to spring to the fore as they are interesting to the press and shocking for all others. It also means that for those individuals who make simple mistakes or who innocently over claim by low sums, they all run the risk of being prosecuted in order to serve as an example.

It’s true that the majority of people claiming benefits are decent people who are just trying their best to make ends meet each month. Thanks to the overstretched benefits system that is creaking under the strain of those who care little for others’ well-being, and the constant pushes for reform, it is easy to determine that the main problem here rests with the Government rather than the claimant in the majority of cases.

More often than not, it’s also these people who find themselves the victims of mistakes and subsequent investigations. It is for this reason that Hylton-Potts was set up, and has become a market leader in terms of helping to ensure that those people who find themselves in these situations have a voice, and do not simply become a Government statistic.

These days, the legal proceedings relating to benefits seems to change every day, but we at Hylton-Potts are always here to calmly explain the process and what is expected of you. If you’re confused about your benefits, or if you think you’ve made a mistake on your forms, the best thing to do is get in touch with the professionals; you can call us on 020 7381 8111, or via email at [email protected].

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