Benefit fraud: tough new sentencing guidelines
Fraud Act will now be used to charge benefit cheats, meaning longer custodial sentences
BENEFIT fraud will be punished more severely, with longer custodial sentences, under new guidelines announced today by Keir Starmer, the Director of Public Prosecutions.
All benefit fraud will now be charged under the Fraud Act, which warrants a maximum custodial sentence of 10 years for those found guilty. In the past, it was common for the charges to be brought under social security legislation, with a maximum of seven years.
At the same time, Starmer has announced an end to the £20,000 threshold. Previously, frauds below this figure were automatically tried in magistrates' courts, meaning a maximum sentence of just 12 months.
Jonathan Isaby, political director of right-wing campaign group the TaxPayers' Alliance, welcomed the news. He told the BBC: "This is people stealing from taxpayers - stealing from vulnerable people. A message needs to go out that this is unacceptable and increasing sentences will act as a deterrent."
Some commentators, however, questioned whether the measure would be cost-effective, given the high price to the taxpayer of a custodial sentence.
Others felt the government was going after the wrong target. The Guardian's Michael White summed up the reaction of many Twitter users succinctly: "Ten years jail for benefit fraud? We might be more impressed if bankers occasionally went to jail for even costlier banking fraud."
The head of the Citizens Advice service, Gillian Guy, said she accepted it was "absolutely right" that cheats are punished but pointed out that "almost as much money is lost to error as is lost to fraud [because] the current benefits system is fiendishly complicated".
She added: "Prosecutors must make sure that only fraudsters are punished and hard-up people who have made an innocent mistake are protected."
Writing on The Guardian website, Mona Chalabi said the data needed to decide whether the new approach will have any real impact is simply not available - we don't know the average custodial sentence of those convicted of benefit fraud, or how much they have fraudulently claimed.
"Without those numbers," she concluded, "we're left wondering whether the new measures are more 'gimmick' than 'get tough'" ·