Maria Harrison pleaded guilty to 14 counts of fraud against Scarborough Borough Council and the Department for Work and Pensions, committed over a 12-year period.
She was given a 14-month prison sentence, suspended for two years, and was ordered to carry out 300 hours of unpaid work in the community. Harrison, who had started paying back the overpaid benefits prior to her conviction, was also ordered to continue paying back the money.
At York Crown Court, Judge Clark said stealing from the public purse was “disgraceful” and said Harrison had escaped an instant custodial sentence “by the skin of her teeth”. He said custody would have had a terrible effect on her four children and her husband would have to give up his current job as a HGV driver to look after them, meaning it would take longer to pay back the benefits.
The fraud was discovered in February 2011, following information passed on to the council which suggested Harrison was claiming benefits, even though she was living with her husband at the address in Reighton; and at the time they both worked.
An investigation revealed she stated she had been living with her children as a single adult since January 1998 and from that time she had claimed various benefits she was not entitled to receive, including child benefit and council tax and housing benefit.
Scarborough Borough Council’s Head of Finance and Asset Management, Nick Edwards, said:
This was a calculated fraud against the council and the Department for Work and Pensions which took place over a prolonged period. Harrison was fortunate not to lose her liberty. We are pleased the Judge has recognised the seriousness of the offences in his sentencing decision.Clearly he thought the thief's family was more important than a proper sentence.
Residents who suspect someone of benefit fraud can call the council’s dedicated hotline number, 0800 0568154, which currently gets around 200 calls a year.
- If I were the local authority I would be disappointed at this ridiculous sentence.
The sentencing guidelines state three years' imprisonment with the judge given discretion to vary between two and four. As the overpayment was £123,000, not the £300,000 stated in the guidelines, the judge indicated that it would be towards the lower end and then gave credit for her pleading guilty at the first opportunity. This took it down to 14 months and as it was now below two years the new guidelines allowed him to suspend it, which is ludicrous. He was clearly straining every sinew to avoid sending her to prison despite the amount of the fraud.
It is not a good principle of criminal justice that mothers can get away with crimes.
Because she didn't go to jail the local paper didn't run the story, there was just the press release from the council. So no publicity to act as a deterrent.
If a serious fraud like this with dishonesty from the outset is not punished adequately, then one of the reasons for a council having a fraud team is taken away. The council has to pay for the prosecutions out of its own budget, and despite asking is often not awarded costs at court. With finances generally getting tighter, you could understand some councils wanting to disband their fraud section.
The council's press release tells us they get some 200 tip-offs a year. Is Scarborough able to investigate them all, as well as start its own investigations?
Are local councils' fraud units sufficiently funded by the government? Should the government ensure funds to fight fraud are ring-fenced so that they can't be cut? If they were serious about fighting fraud they would.
This case confirms the blog's view that benefit fraud prevention is a figleaf.