More than £1.8m was “stolen” from Blackpool taxpayers last year through fraudulent benefit claims, new figures reveal today.
The total represents overpayments identified by Blackpool Council’s Benefit Fraud Team working alongside investigators from the Department of Work and Pensions in some cases, and is up from £1.2m the previous year.
During the last financial year (2013/14), the team uncovered housing benefit and council tax fraud amounting to just more than £1.2m, while joint inquiries with the DWP accounted for £600,000 of other benefits which recipients were not entitled to.
A report to councillors said the figures were “a strong indication that benefit fraud continues to be a problem in Blackpool.”
Formal action was taken in 294 cases on different levels, including 80 completed prosecutions.
In 2012/13 an estimated £1.2bn was lost in benefit fraud nationwide.
Blackpool Council’s Benefit Fraud Team will join the Department for Work and Pensions as part of the Single Fraud Investigation Service from April next year.
Recent cases in Blackpool include DJ Paul Holt who made false claims over a four-year period while working as an entertainer at the Hacketts York House Hotel, on Queens Promenade, Bispham.
He had legitimately claimed a number of benefits from 2001 – after suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a result of being caught up in the Bradford City stadium fire in 1985 which left 56 people dead.
However, after returning to work at the hotel in April 2010 he neglected to tell the authorities of the change in his condition and continued to claim income support, disability living allowance, housing and council tax benefits.
He was jailed for six months at Preston Crown Court after racking up almost £57,000 in false benefits.
Also in January, a grandfather who said he was so disabled he spent all day in his dressing gown was caught out after it emerged he was working three different jobs. He appeared before magistrates in January for defrauding the public purse of £12,000, and was jailed for 56 days.
In February this year a former soldier who failed to mention he was in receipt of an Army pension when he started to get Jobseekers Allowance, was fined £300 after magistrates heard that as a result he was overpaid £4,183.
Mick Stott, assistant secretary at anti-austerity pressure group Blackpool Against The Cuts, said: “We’d never condone benefit fraud, all kind of fraud needs to be condemned.
“It’s public money and we believe in the idea of collective social security.
“People who abuse the system are abusing other benefit claimants as well.
“However, the Government make a big issue of benefit fraud while at the same time allowing the very rich to get away with tax avoidance and tax fraud.
“We should pay a lot more attention to that because it’s a lot more lost to the Exchequer and the country as a whole.”
Welfare Reform Minister Lord Freud (pictured) said: “Our fraud teams investigate suspected cheats and we have toughened the rules to ensure that convicted fraudsters don’t just face criminal prosecution, but that we make sure stolen money is paid back in larger amounts so we recover it more quickly.”
Resort’s MPs today both condemned people who deliberately try to cheat the system, but said some overpayments were also a result of mistakes in the system.
Paul Maynard, Conservative MP for Blackpool North and Cleveleys, said: “I do understand people get very angry when people get money they are not entitled to,
“It increases the cost of administering the benefits system which means there is less money to assist those who are in most need.
“Unfortunately there is always going to be some level of fraud and the objective of everyone involved in the system must be to minimise that.”
Gordon Marsden, Labour MP for Blackpool South, said: “Of course, if people are making fraudulent claims that is always something that should be dealt with very strongly.
“But very often overpayments may come as a result of failures and errors in the benefits system which is largely administered by central government.
“The majority of people who come into my office with issues of overpayment are people who were not even aware they were overpaid until it came to light at a later date.”
Figures for previous years show benefit fraud uncovered by the Blackpool team totalled £1.1m in 2010/11 and £1.5m in 2011/12. Blackpool Council bosses today refused to discuss the issue further.
In April this year the Government introduced new rules aimed at deterring benefit fraud.
These include that up to 40 per cent can be deducted from benefits payments so money is returned more quickly, an increase in financial penalties from £2,000 to £5,000, and using bailiffs to confiscate high value possession from convicted benefits cheats.