Council recovers £3m in benefits

ALMOST £3 million in overpaid housing and council tax benefits are currently being recovered by council benefits enforcement teams.

The teams investigated almost 1,000 potentially fraudulent claims last year, the authority’s second annual fraud report has revealed.

There were 38 prosecutions for benefit fraud and 144 cautions and penalties were issued to benefit cheats.

The council paid out over £106m to housing and council tax benefits claimants during 2010/11 and a report to councillors said that overall, instances of fraud were low with most over-payments as a result of error, rather than fraud.

However, Colin Earle, head of the council’s internal audit department, said in his report to last week’s Audit Committee: “In the current economic climate we might expect to see an increased risk of losses through fraud and corruption as individuals and organisations look for ways to alleviate their financial difficulties.”

The £2.83m of over-payments that are being recovered include £933,000 of over-payments in council tax benefit, which has been re-charged to council tax payers and £1.83 million in over-paid housing benefits, which is being recovered through adjusting benefits paid, billing former claimants and, where appropriate, legal action.

According to Mr Earle’s report, the council recovered three-quarters of benefit over-payments during the course of the year. Penalties amounting to £18,670 were doled out to false claimants.

The council also received Government subsidy totalling £1.34 million as a result of it identifying over-payments.

Of the fraud committed, most - 74 per cent - related to failure to declare income. The next biggest area of false claims was failure to declare that the claimant was living with someone.

Most referrals for investigation of potential fraud came from the Housing Benefits Matching Service (38 per cent), but 24 per cent of the 1,345 fraud referrals last year came via staff referral.

The number of sanctions, including formal cautions, administrative penalties or successful prosecutions, was 182, down from 221 in 2009/10.