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29 Nov 2017

Former Labour councillor was benefit thief

An ex-Labour council leader who was secretly filmed building a shed on his allotment while claiming he could walk 'zero metres for zero minutes' has been spared prison.

A judge told Robert Woodbridge that his position as an ex-councillor meant he was 'not your average benefit fraudster' and that he had betrayed the people he once represented.

The 59-year-old, of Kent, received disability living allowance after he stated his pain from inflammatory arthritis was so extreme he needed care seven days a week, could not venture out alone, and even struggled to use a TV remote control.

But with the help of surveillance work by the Department of Work and Pensions, a jury took just 20 minutes to see through his lies.

The undercover footage revealed Woodbridge was not only able to stroll around his neighbourhood, but also push a wheelbarrow on his allotment and saw wood for his shed.

He was also filmed comfortably pulling a vehicle trailer around a parked car and onto his driveway, despite telling the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) he would 'stumble and trip six out of seven days'.

The married father of two was seen walking to and from his vehicle on numerous occasions outside his house, always with a walking stick in one hand but carrying shopping bags, fold-up camping chairs, water containers, a cool box and broom.

Woodbridge also enjoyed strolls along roads and up and down flights of steps, with one solo walk lasting 230 metres.

He denied being a benefits cheat, telling a court the DWP officers had filmed him on 'good days' when he 'overdosed' on painkillers.

But Woodbridge, who once headed Swanley Town Council in Kent, was convicted of dishonestly failing to notify the DWP of a change in circumstances between August 12 2015 and January 26 last year.

Imposing a suspended jail term of four months for a year, Judge David Griffith-Jones QC said his dishonesty was 'quite brazen'.

The judge also dismissed Woodbridge's suggestions he had been always been filmed on good days after taking overdoses as not only an extraordinary coincidence but also 'absurd and fanciful'.

'You were a man of some standing in the local community. You had been a councillor for many years and in your position within the community it may be said that you were, or should have been, something of a role model to others,' added Judge Griffith-Jones.

'By your actions you have betrayed those who were entitled to look up to and respect you.'

Maidstone Crown Court in Kent heard he first started claiming DLA in 1997 but it was his renewal form completed in 2013 which led to an investigation two years later.

Woodbridge, a councillor for 16 years, was paid at a higher rate of £140 a week after he stated he was in severe pain every day from the moment he woke, and relied on walking sticks and a variety of support braces for his neck, hands, wrists and knees.

In a detailed claim form he also stated he could not even use a TV remote, struggled to turn on his computer, could not bend or lift and even needed help to attend council meetings.

But prosecutor Edmund Fowler said he failed to 'promptly' notify the DWP there had been an improvement in his condition, as captured by the surveillance investigation filmed over several months in 2015.

Woodbridge falsely obtained a total overpayment of £5,869.

But he told police after his arrest that he had 'good days and bad days', with his severity of pain and ability to move fluctuating.

'The Crown say it was rather convenient that on each day he was filmed he was having a good day,' said Mr Fowler.

'What you can see in the footage is a very different set of circumstances to that set out on his claim form. When there is a change in circumstances there is a duty to inform the DWP. The duty is to give a prompt notification of any change. The Crown say the defendant acted dishonestly in all this.'

Mr Fowler added Woodbridge's original claim for DLA was genuine, as was the renewal application form in 2013.

But he told the court: 'The case is about what happened subsequently because it came to light his mobility and care needs had improved, and he had failed to declare the change in circumstances to the DWP as he was required to do.'

Woodbridge, who lives with his wife in Swanley, was paid a higher rate of DLA on the basis he needed help around the clock and had stated he was 'virtually unable to walk'.

'He said he could walk zero metres for zero minutes before feeling severe pain, the pain started as soon as he got up, walking was slow and poor,' said Mr Fowler.

'He used sticks and had difficulty walking every day. He said he stumbled, tripped and fell often, six out of seven days, and needed someone with him when he was outside. Pain was always there, he said. He suffered from severe pain in his knees and ankles nearly every time he walked and was unable to stand alone.'

Woodbridge also stated he needed help to use the toilet, would fall to the ground with sharp pain, and took 15 minutes to climb his stairs at home.

'I want someone with me when I go out to be sure I'm safe in case I fall over or need help to go the the toilet,' he wrote in his renewal form. Most days are all the same because the pain is always there, and made worse by movement. The pain is extreme.'

Woodbridge, who stood for the Liberal Democrats in local and county elections last year, was covertly filmed outside his home on nine days between August and November 2015.

On one occasion the officers followed him driving his Peugeot alone to his allotment where they captured him loading equipment and his walking stick into a wheelbarrow before pushing it away.

Playing a compilation of the footage to the jury the prosecutor said: 'From what could be observed by the officers it appears he was building a shed - sawing and hammering while at the allotment. You can see he used a foot to steady the plank of wood as he was sawing.'

However Woodbridge maintained in court that his health did not improve in 2015, and he said it had continued to deteriorate since.

He told the jury the aluminium trailer he was seen pulling was in fact lighter than a baby's pushchair, and that he was always assisted at his allotment by friends, comparing it to an 'afternoon tea club' where he did little work.

Asked about one allotment visit he said: 'It was a good day and I had taken Tramadol, paracetamol and whatever I could to get me through the day. It was stupid, it was reckless, it was daft, because I could have ended up killing myself but no one wants to be disabled. You want to live a reasonably normal life but it is very difficult to do that when you are completely wracked with pain. I don't want to be stuck in bed 24/7 or in an armchair doing nothing.'

Woodbridge added he was so grateful for receiving benefits and having his home adapted that he became a councillor in 1999 to 'give something back to the local community'.

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