Memorandum submitted by the Citizens Advice
THE IMPACT OF BENEFIT FRAUD INVESTIGATIONS
ON CITIZENS ADVICE BUREAUX CLIENTS
A BRIEFING FOR
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 advisersthree quarters
of whom were volunteersprovided 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.
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
The lack of flexibility in the system means
that people who have made a genuine errorsometimes due
to major upheavals in their lives or because of complex reporting
requirements related to some benefitsare 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".)
Fraud investigation as a result of mistake by Jobcentre
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 weekwhich 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
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 ladywho
did not have much supportfor 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
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 cautionthere 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.