Sentencing Guidelines: Fraud (statutory offences) - Justice Committee Contents


Memorandum submitted by the Citizens Advice Bureau

THE IMPACT OF BENEFIT FRAUD INVESTIGATIONS ON CITIZENS ADVICE BUREAUX CLIENTS

A BRIEFING FOR THE HOUSE OF COMMONS JUSTICE SELECT COMMITTEE INQUIRY ON SENTENCING FOR FRAUD (STATUTORY OFFENCES)—APRIL 2009

About Citizens Advice

  The Citizens Advice Bureaux (CAB) network is the largest independent network of free advice centres in Europe, providing advice from over 3,200 outlets throughout Wales, England and Northern Ireland. In 2007-8 16,500 advisers—three quarters of whom were volunteers—provided advice from a range of outlets, including GPs' surgeries, hospitals, community centres, county courts and magistrates' courts, and mobile services both in rural areas and to serve particular dispersed groups.

  The Citizens Advice service provides free, independent, confidential and impartial advice to everyone, about their rights and responsibilities. It values diversity, promotes equality and challenges discrimination. The service aims:

    —  to provide the advice people need for the problems they face; and

    —  to improve the policies and practices that affect people's lives.

  In 2007-08 the CAB service in England and Wales dealt with 5.5 million enquiries in total. Over 600,000 clients were given advice on 1.5 million benefit and tax credit issues. Over 450,000 of these issues were about Jobcentre Plus benefits.

Summary

  Clients who have been called to an interview under caution for an investigation of possible benefit fraud are often uncertain about what they are being accused of. In some cases the call to interview is the first they have heard of the allegation and it is not adequately explained to them why they are being investigated. Some do not realise that they are entitled to be accompanied to the interview.

  The interview itself is the subject of a significant number of complaints. Clients report unprofessional conduct by interviewing officials, who, they say, sometimes pass judgement on their living situations. In addition, clients sometimes feel intimidated during the interviews.

  The policy of suspending benefits while fraud investigations are carried out means that people are forced to rely on friends and family for their basic needs. It can also leave people vulnerable to falling into rent arrears and losing their home.

  The lack of flexibility in the system means that people who have made a genuine error—sometimes due to major upheavals in their lives or because of complex reporting requirements related to some benefits—are nonetheless prosecuted. This is the case even if they have paid back all the overpayment. A common theme in our evidence is that the reasons for a fraudulent claim are complex and sometimes result from a mistake on the behalf of Jobcentre Plus or HMRC. There appears to be no mechanism for these individual circumstances to be taken into account during the investigation process and subsequent prosecution.

  A person whose benefit has been stopped due to investigation may be entitled to hardship payments of income-based Jobseeker's Allowance (JSA). People deemed to be "vulnerable" for example because they are ill, pregnant or have a child in the household, may get a hardship payment more quickly. Other people have to wait two weeks. The hardship payment consists of a reduced rate of income-based JSA. The full-rate of JSA for a single person is currently £64.30 per week. When hardship payments apply, they equate to this amount reduced by 40 per cent (or by 20% for those deemed to be "vulnerable".)

Case Studies

Fraud investigation as a result of mistake by Jobcentre Plus

    A CAB in the East of England advised a woman who had received a letter calling her for an interview in about a possible fraudulent benefit claim. In 2006 she had been in receipt of income support and child tax credit. She visited her Jobcentre Plus to ask how many hours she could work without her benefit being affected. She was told she could work up to sixteen hours a week—which was incorrect. She started work and both her income support and child tax credit was stopped in April 2007. She received a letter saying she was no longer entitled, due to a change of circumstances. She was invited to renew her claim, which she did, including a statement of her earnings for work. She genuinely believed she was entitled to the benefits but now faced a fraud investigation due to poor advice from her Jobcentre Plus.

Vulnerable clients face investigation

    A CAB in the Midlands was asked for advice by a widower in her 80s. She was distressed at being the subject of a benefit fraud investigation. She was financially secure after receiving a compensation payment from the coal board in relation to her late husband. The local council were claiming that she had made a fraudulent claim for council tax benefit of £4000 and were pursuing her through the courts. She did not fully understand what she was being charged with and had offered to pay back any money owed. The bureau adviser commented that it did not seem right that the council was still pursuing this vulnerable lady—who did not have much support—for an offence she did not understand.

    A man with Urdu as a first language approached an East of England CAB for advice as he was facing prosecution for benefit fraud which he may have committed but unintentionally. He was married with four children and lived in social housing. He was facing prosecution for fraud after he failed to inform DWP that his eldest son had started work. When he had a home visit to check his benefit entitlement he did not mention this. He thought it had been taken into account for his calculation because his child benefit and child tax credit had stopped. He subsequently visited the bureau to get some debt advice and the adviser noticed that there was no non-dependent in his housing and council tax benefit. He was advised to contact the council and he was now being investigated for fraud. The client was already struggling to pay off his debts. He was mortified to be branded as dishonest and his wife's health had deteriorated as a result of the stress caused by the court case.

    A CAB advised a woman who recovering from drug addiction and was facing an investigation for benefit fraud after she failed to give sufficient information to Jobcentre Plus regarding her new job. She had trained as an animal carer and had started a job with a pet care company. When she started the job she informed Jobcentre Plus who said she must provide a medical certificate showing that she was fit for work. She did not provide one as she thought this must be a mistake, since she had only heard of a certificate that you were unfit for work. She was subsequently investigated for benefit fraud and had agreed to pay back £40 per month, but the investigation continued. She was very stressed and on anti-depressants.

    A CAB in the South East advised a man with mental illness was being prosecuted for benefit fraud. He had been receiving income support at the time when his parents died and he inherited a property plus £18,000. Due to his illness he did not notify the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) of his change in circumstances. When DWP discovered his undeclared income/ property they took him to court. He was found guilty of benefit fraud and ordered to repay the money. He had been doing this since but was then summonsed back to court and told to repay £14,000 as a lump sum within three months. He felt that it was unfair to give him a criminal record for an unintentional mistake and also to require him to repay such a large amount within three months.

    A Midlands CAB advised a woman was accused of benefit fraud following the death of her husband. She had five dependent children and her husband had taken care of the finances and paperwork. She had been gradually sorting out benefits, probate, pension, funeral arrangements etc over the last few months. She had been called to an interview under caution because she was accused of not informing the council of early enough about the pension income from her husband. This means she had incurred overpayments of housing benefit and council tax benefit. She says that she was not given a chance to explain before the interview. She was now waiting to hear if she would be prosecuted, which was adding to the stress of an already emotional situation.

Insufficient information prior to interview

    A Midlands CAB advised a man had been called to an interview under caution by the local council but was unsure what he was being investigated for. The council had not specified which benefit the interview related to, the amount of the alleged benefit fraud nor what year it related to. He therefore had to go to the interview unprepared and without the opportunity to defend himself properly.

The interview process

    A London CAB advised a young pregnant woman with three children was called to attend an interview at her local Jobcentre Plus. She thought this was a result of two previous missed appointments. She said that the interviewing officer was very rude and aggressive. When she told him she did not have a partner living with her, he did not believe her and persisted, saying "Why have you got three kids and you pregnant again?" and "It doesn't look like you're a single parent". The client was alone with the interview officer and the interview was not recorded. She was informed later by a friend working at the Jobcentre Plus that the interviewer was a fraud officer but she was not informed of this at the time. She was upset by the manner of the interview, the insinuations of benefit fraud, and the judgements he made about her being pregnant.

    A CAB in the North West advised a single mother of two had been subject to an interview by a benefits officer which she felt was inappropriate. The father of her children had become unemployed recently and consequently had been visiting the house more often. She was in receipt of income support, housing benefit and council tax benefit. A benefits officer had visited the client when the father was present and said that allegations had been made which could imply that the couple were cohabiting. She assured the officer that they were not and was then told that the father seemed to be there a lot of the time and made a personal remark about the tattoo on his arm. She was asked to sign a statement but was not given a copy herself and no contact details of the benefit officer were given to her. She was concerned that she would lose her benefits.

    A CAB in the East of England advised a man in his seventies who was angry at the way he had been investigated for fraud. The council suspected that he and his partner had two different bank accounts, one of which had not been disclosed when they applied for council tax benefit. The client said this related to an internet account which had been closed in 2006. They had explained this to the council and written to the legal department, but received no reply. An interview was arranged which took place at their home. Only one partner was interviewed but they claimed council tax benefit as a couple. Several weeks later they had not heard anything, despite being told that the process would be completed quickly. The council had been obstructive to attempts to get information. The client felt strongly that the council were accusing them wrongly and wanted to pursue legal action against the council. He felt they had been treated in a heavy handed manner and the council had acted improperly by doing the interview under caution before any less formal communication.

    A CAB in the Midlands advised a woman in her sixties who was called to a meeting "under caution" as she was suspected of benefit fraud. However, prior to the interview she was not told the nature of the allegations and was not made aware that she was entitled to legal representation at the meeting. She was feeling very shaken by the allegations of fraud.

    A CAB in the South East advised a woman who was unhappy with the way an investigation into possible fraud had been carried out. She had been visited by an official trying to discover whether she was living with her partner. During the interview the official wrote a statement for the client and persuaded her to sign it. The wording was prejudicial to the client's case and the words used were significantly different from those used by the client. During the interview she felt intimidated by the way the official spoke to her and felt the official was trying to prove cohabitation. She was asked to pay £1,500 and threatened with prosecution.

    A CAB in the South West advised a woman who had made a mistake claiming council tax benefit had faced a very aggressive fraud investigation. She sent a letter to the council informing them that her husband had moved from being unemployed to being self employed. She did not hear anything back and did not realise that she needed to keep the council informed of all the changes in income as fluctuations are the nature of self employment. She then faced a fraud investigation which went straight to an interview under caution—there was no informal interview first. It was decided that it was fraud but they were prepared to offer a formal caution and not prosecute.

Hardship as a result of benefits being stopped

    A CAB in the East of England advised a single mother who had her benefits stopped while she was being investigated for fraud and was consequently suffering extreme financial hardship. Her income support and housing benefit stopped so she had to manage on £67 per month. She did not have enough money for food and was relying on family and friends for support. She said that her next DLA payment would have to go on gas and electricity. Her landlord only became aware that she was on housing benefit when the benefit was stopped and at this point said that he wanted her to move out. The client was being investigated for fraud due to suspicion that her ex-partner had been living with her, but she denied that this was the case although her ex-partner did visit to help with household tasks as they are still friends. The investigation began in January but she did not hear anything else until June.

    A CAB in the North East advised a woman who was being investigated for fraud had her income support and council tax benefit suspended. She was living with her mother in her brother's house and had been staying a few nights with her sister. She had been without any benefits for three months and Jobcentre Plus had refused to give her hardship payments or a crisis loan. She was falling into debt.

April 2009





 
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