Convictions against benefit cheats have risen 40% in the last two years - with almost 10,000 people convicted in the last tax year. Ministers have said that people will be made to pay back the money they have cheated from taxpayers. So why has there been such a marked increase?
A new report says that investigators have a set of powerful new tools - which have made a major difference.
New powersA report in the Daily Mail, revealed that the reason for the rise was partly that new powers have been granted to investigators - among the most powerful has been the power to access bank account records, and do credit reference checks to see if someone is earning at the same time as receiving benefits.
The credit reference agencies were brought into the fold in December, after a successful pilot protected more than £16 million of anticipated losses in tax credits. Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury, David Gauke, said at the time: "Working with Experian will allow HMRC to escalate the fight against tax credit fraudsters, helping to ensure that they are caught and punished." And it seems to be the case.
ConvictionsThe newspaper said that the new powers have led to 9,861 benefit cheats being convicted in the last tax year, and another 7,000 receiving penalties. Meanwhile, 16,000 have been cautioned.
Since May this year the Welfare Reform Act means that the authorities have also had the power to fine benefit cheats up to £2,000 (with a minimum of £350), without having to take them to court. The measure will make it more cost-effective to pursue and punish more cheats.
The Department of Work and Pensions said yesterday that money would be clawed back from people who were claiming money they were not entitled to. Welfare Reform Minister Lord Freud said:"We are getting tougher and no one will escape justice with a mere slap on the wrists."
He added: "Benefit fraud is a crime and we are committed to stamping it out. We will catch and punish those who abuse the system and prevent fraud from entering in the first place. Alongside this work at the frontline, we are bringing in the Universal Credit which will simplify and automate the benefits system. This will make it much easier to catch people who make false claims."
Concerns?Clearly there have been major strides in the fight against benefit cheats. However, there are those who are raising concerns: whether these new powers have overtones of Big Brother watching your every step.
So what do you think? Do you think the government should be banned from prying into your personal arrangements, or with an estimated £125 million lost each year through benefit fraud, do you think that these intrusions into peoples financial life are worth it if the criminals are caught? Let us know in the comments.