£120,000 in false claims

ALMOST £120,000 in fraudulent benefits claims were made by people living in the district over a year-long period.

And, in the wake of the shocking news, a local councillor has hit out at those responsible, saying their actions are taking money out of a system designed to help the most needy.

The figures were revealed following a freedom of information act request by The Detail website, which sought a breakdown of the benefit fraud convictions in the year since the Department for Social Development (DSD) introduced a ‘one strike rule’ in September 2011.

In total, £115,247.91 was illegally claimed by people living in the district, with the vast majority coming from the Banbridge area.

Over £90,000 was claimed fraudulently by people in the town, with seven cases in total going before the courts.

In one case, a 52-year-old woman was convicted of claiming £40,686 in Income Support, Housing Benefit and Carers Allowance. She was given an 11-month prison sentence, suspended for two years and had to pay £1,000 in compensation

It has also been revealed that in the Dromore/Dromara area, £24, 410.83 was unfairly obtained in total from six cases. The most prolific of these saw a 21-year-old woman convicted of claiming £6,993 in Disability Living Allowance while working. She was given a two-year conditional discharge and had to pay £49 in costs.

Meanwhile, in the Gilford area, £795.84 was wrongfully received in three instances. One of the cases involved a 23-year-old male who was handed down a two-month prison sentence suspended for two years following the unlawful encashment of £251.70 in Job Seekers Allowance.

Banbridge Councillor, Jim McElroy, said he was “disgusted” at the figure and called for more to be done to prevent the problem.

He said, “The benefit system is for those in genuine need and those who set out to exploit it need to know their actions will not be tolerated.

“Benefit fraud hits hard-working communities and deprives them of badly needed funds which are used to pay for crucial public services. It is money that is set aside to help the most vulnerable people in the district.

“I would encourage anyone who knows of someone who is committing benefit fraud to get in touch with the Department for Work and Pensions to help ensure a fairer system for all.”

A spokesperson for DSD added, “In addition to the current range of activity, the agency continues to keep measures under review to maintain the momentum and strengthen further the agency’s counter-fraud capabilities.

“The agency will be taking forward measures including increasing the exchange of information, risk-based targeting, tougher fraud penalties and faster rates of recovery.

“Tackling fraud remains a key priority for the agency. Taken together, it is intended that these new measures, including the enhanced powers contained within the Northern Ireland Welfare Reform Bill, will help to build on the agency’s success in reducing fraud and will help ensure the integrity and security of the welfare system.”