Czech gang flew in 'benefits tourists'

Photos from outside the courtroom

A Czech family has been found guilty of fraud, after running a benefit tourism scam and stealing £535,000 from HMRC over two years.

So how did they do it, and how much of an issue is benefit tourism?

The scam

The Telegraph reported that Alena Lakova (39), her husband Jan Lacko (29) and their nieces Iveta (32) and Magdalena Ferkova (33) were found guilty of conspiracy to commit fraud by making false representations, at Nottingham Crown Court. Julius Ziga (34), Magdalena's former partner, pleaded guilty to conspiracy.

According to the Daily Mail, the gang worked the scam from January 2008 to April 2010. They posed as interpreters for workers from Slovakia. They would fly them over to the UK, and set them up with accommodation and a low-paid job. They took the workers to HMRC, banks and job centres and helped them claim tax credits - then they arranged for the credits to be paid into a bank account that was controlled by the gang.

Once the system was set up, the workers returned to Slovakia, and the gang continued to claim their credits. HMRC said there were 124 bank accounts for 77 false tax credits.

Different members of the gang were said to have different levels of involvement. They will be sentenced on 4 November.

Benefit tourism

It's a horrible tale of benefit tourism being used to rip taxpayers off, but it's far from the only warning we have had about the UK as a haven for benefits tourists. In March Iain Duncan Smith was sounding the alarm over the EU benefit tourists 'crisis'.

Much has been made politically of the need to clamp down on benefit tourists, and stop a flood of people coming to the country purely in order to live off the state. So is there a crisis?

Figures from the DWP show there are about 90,000 people from the EU claiming an out-of-work benefit in the UK. That's around 5% of all the non-British Europeans living in the UK - compared to 13% of those born here.

In fact, it's not easy for migrants to claim benefits in the UK. Employed or self-employed migrants from the EEA can claim the same benefits as UK citizens - regardless of how much work they do or how well it is paid.

However, unemployed migrants have no right to benefits from day one. They have to stay for a few weeks to prove their intention to stay, at which point they can claim some benefits. However, they still have no right to Income Support or (initially) Employment and Support Allowance. Their claim for Jobseekers' Allowance, meanwhile, can take months, as they have to prove their right to reside.

The incentive to come to the UK to take advantage of the benefits would surely be hampered by the fact that you could be waiting for months for any payments at all - a situation that is likely to be far worse than the one they left behind.

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