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Special report: Council benefit cheats con Sussex taxpayers out of £1m in a year
Benefit cheats were prosecuted for conning Sussex taxpayers out of £1 million in a year.
Figures obtained by The Argus show 81 cheats were taken to court by Sussex councils for claiming £981,628 in housing and council tax benefit.
Councils provided their last full year of available statistics for housing and council tax benefit prosecutions. They included Brighton and Hove City Council, which brought 23 prosecutions against residents claiming handouts they were not entitled to in 2012/2013.
The 23 people prosecuted claimed a total of £244,551 in housing and council tax benefit between them – averaging more than £10,000 each.
One of them was 46-year-old Yekta Nakhosteen, also known as Yasmine Riaz, of Lanfranc Road, Worthing.
Nakhosteen claimed more than £70,000 in housing benefit and more than £7,500 in council tax benefit for two flats in Hove where she was not living.
The benefit cheat, who also owned two properties in Worthing, fraudulently told the council she was living in the properties in Highdown Road and The Drive while claiming handouts since 2005.
Brighton Crown Court heard how Nakhosteen was receiving rental income from a property in Worthing and also held a taxi driver’s licence during the periods when she was claiming thousands in benefits.
Council bosses successfully proved she was not living in either of the properties at the time of claiming the handouts. She has been sentenced to 12 months’ imprisonment, being told she would serve six months.
Summing up the case, judge Paul Tain said the claim was “fraudulent from the outset” and “persisted over a significant period of time”.
Last month Cindy Hensby, 37, of Newick Road, Brighton, was also successfully prosecuted by Brighton and Hove City Council and the Department for Work and Pensions after falsely claiming over £120,000 in benefits.
She was claiming housing benefit, council tax benefit and income support but failed to declare she was living with her partner for a nine-year period. Hensby was charged with 11 counts of false claims after failing to notify a change of circumstances and received a 12-month custodial sentence at Lewes Crown Court on January 30.
In Worthing benefits cheat Donna King avoided jail this month after wrongly claiming more than £35,000 for employment support allowance, housing benefit and council tax benefit over three years.
King, of Meadow Crescent, claimed she was a lone parent. But investigators discovered her husband had been living at her home.
The 42-year-old was given a 15-month suspended sentence for two years due to her ongoing health problems.
Brighton and Hove City Council said a “comprehensive policy” ensures benefit fraud has a high profile in the city.
An investigations team consisting of six professionally trained and accredited fraud officers work round the clock to target offenders while “stringent” checking and verification processes for claims are carried out to identify cheats at an early stage.
Town hall staff also use the Housing Benefit Matching Service to compare housing benefit information with other data held for other security benefits and tax credits.
In addition, the National Fraud Initiative compares housing benefit information with other government records including student loans, pensions, National Insurance numbers and payroll data. Whistleblowers can also shop benefit cheats by calling a fraud hotline.
Brighton and Hove is not the only Sussex authority battling benefit cheats.
Eastbourne Borough Council prosecuted 15 people who defrauded the council out of £316,777 in housing and council tax benefit.
In West Sussex, Chichester District Council said it prosecuted 21 people for fraud for falsely claiming more than £180,000, and Crawley Borough Council prosecuted six people for fraud totalling £135,182.
Lewes District Council brought three prosecutions for claims worth £20,653.
Worthing Borough Council brought 23 prosecutions, but the authority did not provide a figure as to how much it was defrauded for.
This means the total that benefit cheats were caught falsely claiming for in a year is believed to have exceeded £1 million.
Other benefit fraud, including Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) and Jobseeker’s Allowance, is handled by central government at the Department for Work and Pensions.
Jeremy Newman, chairman of the Audit Commission, said: “It’s difficult to isolate the specific factors that cause variations between organisations in the level of detection of different types of frauds.
“This will be influenced by the actual levels of fraud available to detect, differences in the services that bodies provide and their local approach to prioritising and tackling fraud.
“I would urge all councils to review their local policies to ensure they are doing all they can to detect and record fraud cases.”
Landlords are real winners in welfare system, says union
The GMB Union says huge payments for housing benefit in Sussex show landlords are the real winners of the welfare system.
A new GMB study shows the top 20 company landlords in each of the 67 councils in south-east England that receive housing benefit direct from councils for tenants renting their properties.
In the region there are 208,449 households renting private accommodation and entitled to housing benefit. The study showed where benefits were paid by councils directly to company landlords, not private individual landlords.
Paul Kenny, GMB general secretary, said: “This research lifts the lid on the mainly secret payments to landlords who are the real winners from Britain’s welfare system.”
Firms receiving large sums in Sussex include:
Geneva Investment Group £605,000 from Brighton and Hove City Council and £34,000 from Worthing Borough Council. In 2009 the Sunday Times valued directors Ivor and Matthew Sorokin as being worth £32m.
Cowdray Estate / Paddockhurst Estate £87,000 from Chichester District Council and £31,000 from Mid Sussex District Council. Viscount Cowdray is listed on the Sunday Times rich list as being worth nearly £400m. The family firm is the Pearson Media Group and the the family seat is Cowdray Park in West Sussex.
Martin and Co Letting Agents £3.1m from 20 districts nationally. £438,000 from Crawley Borough Council, £84,000 from Arun District Council, £36,000 from Worthing Borough Council and £202,000 from Brighton and Hove City Council.
Northwood National lettings agency, receiving more than £2.3m nationally, including £73,000 from Crawley Borough Council and £156,000 from Eastbourne Borough Council.
Patricroft Investments £49,000 from Worthing Borough Council. Company is based in Gibraltar.
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