Back in September of last year (2013) the government announced that they were introducing new guidelines with regard to fraudulent benefit claims across England and Wales. The guidelines, brought in by Keir Starmer QC during his time as the director of public prosecutions, urged prosecutors to charge all cases under the Fraud Act rather than social security laws as they have in the past. It was hoped that the potential maximum sentence of 10 years in prison that the Fraud Act allows would act as a deterrent to future fraudsters looking to rinse the government coffers – increasing the already monumental annual cost that the crime takes from the country each year.
But, some of the statistics regarding benefit fraud are surprising. Despite being constantly told, in a completely non-direct fashion of course, that benefit fraud prosecutions are on the increase, the actual figures tell a different story. According to the Fraud Offences Sentencing Data, which was compiled in June 2013, the figures for benefit fraud in 2011 were at their lowest for a decade. In that year, 6,080 offenders were sentenced and only 291 of those were given an immediate custodial sentence. Of all the 6,080 sentenced 17% were fined, 16% were handed either an absolute or conditional discharge and 41% were issued with a community order, serving their entire sentence in the community.
Until the DPP’s intervention, benefit fraudsters were typically charged under social security legislation and the maximum jail term that could be imposed was that of seven years. However, if suspected of a fraudulent claim amounting to less than £20,000, all of the alleged offenders were tried in a magistrate’s court automatically. This meant that the maximum possible sentence available to the magistrate was that of twelve months for multiple offences, and six months for those with only a single offence.
The new guidelines have scrapped the financial threshold altogether, meaning that even the smallest of cases can now be referred directly to crown courts, paving the way for the tougher sentencing and the hoped deterrent to others. Anyone suspected of committing benefit fraud can now be charged under the Fraud Act, placing the crime in amongst the likes of banking fraud and money laundering.
So, are these new measures making any sort of a dent in the £1.9 billion spent on benefit fraud each year? Well, the truth of the matter is that it is still too early to tell for certain, but it is thought that they will, in fact, have very little effect on slowing down the tide of fraudulent claims. As with so many other things, namely tax evasion, the problem lies with the larger culprits rather than the smaller fry that these guidelines seem to be targeting. Maybe it will put off a few individuals who might have taken the odd risk or two in the past, but is that really going to have the desired effect? Meanwhile, the organised crime rings that are behind the bulk of the dodgy claims will most likely continue unabated.