Benefit cheats in central Lancashire have been ordered to pay back almost £1m in the past year.
New figures show councils managed to claw back £907,595 from fraudsters who claimed more than they were entitled to.
Today Coun Phil Hamman, South Ribble Council’s cabinet member with responsibility for Shared Services and Corporate Support, said: “Benefit fraud is a serious crime that takes money away from hard-working residents who need it.”
Amost 300 benefit cheats were prosecuted or cautioned for trying to fleece the system in the past 12 months.
Preston Council alone claimed back £360,705 from benefit cheats in 73 cases, either through prosecution, cautions or penalties.
Today the man in charge of the council’s finances, Coun Martyn Rawlinson, said: “The money that we pay out in housing benefit and council tax benefit comes from the government.
“It’s the central pot that gets hit when someone commits fraud and claims something they shouldn’t. It does affect everybody. If we don’t have as much money as we should it hits everybody.”
Meanwhile in South Ribble fraud investigators claimed back £178,836 through 47 cautions and seven prosecutions all for benefit fraud.
In Chorley the council prosecuted or cautioned 77 people for housing benefit alone, claiming back £150,294.41
And Lancaster Council’s fraud team took formal action in 69 benefit fraud cases, this being 12 prosecutions, 44 cautions and 13 administrative penalties – they claimed back £189,918.80 in 2013/14.
In the Ribble Valley £15,258.57 was recovered for housing benefit alone and West Lancashire Council recovered £13,032 those prosecuted for benefit fraud.
But the figures could be just the tip of the iceberg. Figures show that more than 4,000 people were actually referred for investigation over housing benefit claims in 2013 and 2014 but just 455 were cautioned or prosecuted.
It is not known exactly why such a low percentage of cases result in prosecution but it could be because of the difficulty in proving someone is cheating the system or because of false allegations made against some claimants.
Coun Rawlinson explained: “Some fraud referrals are made by the public on the public phone line, some will be made by the DWP or partner organisations such as councils.
“The ones from the organisations are more likely to be actual fraud because they have actually found something whereas the ones from the public probably haven’t got the full story when they make the report.
“But I wouldn’t discourage anyone from reporting anyone they think may be defrauding benefits from the public purse.
A spokesman for Preston Council added: “The benefits system is there to help people in need and the council administrates the system in a fair way.
“However benefit fraud is theft and the council has a number of ways of identifying benefit fraud and it is not worth the risk as we will find these people who try to defraud the system and take the necessary action.”
Coun Phil Hamman, South Ribble Council’s cabinet member with responsibility for Shared Services and Corporate Support, said that benefit fraud takes money away from “hard-working residents who need it.”
He added: “We take a tough stance at South Ribble and I think these figures show just how dedicated we are in bringing benefit cheats to justice.”
Meanwhile Coun Graham Dunn, who oversees benefit payments for Chorley Council, explained: “We always take steps to recover in full the overpaid benefits claimed fraudulently.”