New guidelines means benefit cheats could face up to ten years in prison
Benefit cheats could face up to ten years imprisonment if convicted under new guidelines, which will treat individuals deceiving the welfare system as harshly as bank defrauders.
Until now benefit cheats risked a maximum seven-year sentence when charged under social security legislation. The new guidelines will see welfare scammers tried under the Fraud Act, which carries a possible maximum sentence of ten years.
With tax credit and benefit fraud reportedly costing Britain £1.9 billion a year, head of the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), Keir Starme, said it’s time to take a “tough stance” on those that seek to illegally profit from welfare.
“It is a myth that ‘getting one over on the system’ is a victimless crime: the truth is we all pay the price. But it’s not only the taxpayers that suffer,” said Starme.
”Benefits exist to protect and support the most vulnerable people in our society and, whenever the system is defrauded, it’s also taking money away from those with a genuine need,” he added.
Previously those attempting to defraud the system of £20,000 or less could only be charged with a maximum sentence of twelve months and were tried in magistrates’ courts.
The new guidelines will also dispense with the any financial thresholds, meaning even small cases will be tried in Crown court and carry the possible punishment of a full decade behind bars.
According to BBC legal correspondent Clive Coleman, this means welfare cheating will be treated as harshly as bank fraud and money laundering.
In 2012 the CPS oversaw over 8,600 prosecutions in benefit and tax credit cases, with an additional 4,000 cases during the first five months of 2013.
The current conviction rate is 89.7%, according to Mr Starmer, who urges lawyers to consider the substantial financial toll of benefit cheats.
“The cost to the nation incurred by benefit fraud should be at the forefront of lawyers’ minds when considering whether a prosecution is in the public interest,” stated Starme.
“The loss of money has a significant impact on communities up and down the country,” Starme continued.
The new guidelines come following last year’s merging of Department for Work and Pensions’ prosecutions division with the CPS.