Benefit cheats swindled nearly £380,000 from the Hyndburn tax payer last year, it has been revealed – the equivalent of a one per cent rise in council tax.
Shocking figures obtained by the Observer under the Freedom of Information Act show that the figure has almost doubled from the previous year.
A total of £868,470 has been fraudulently obtained from the public purse in the last three years.
That’s the equivalent of £10, or a one per cent rise on top of every household in the borough’s council tax bill every year.
Council bosses say they are one of the leading authorities in the country at pursuing benefits cheats.
The number of convictions for dishonestly obtaining a range of council benefits from the public purse rose to 21 in 2010/11 from 16 the year before.
And investigators are currently dealing with ‘a high caseload’ of more than 80 cases.
As recently as August this year Beverley Nailen, 33, of Bradford Street, Accrington, was sentenced to 10 months’ prison suspended for two years with a 12-month supervision, and 150 hours’ unpaid work, for fraudulently claiming £48,000.
Nailen claimed income support on the basis she was a single parent and then failed to declare she was living with her partner, who was then working full time.
Coun Joan Smith, the council’s finance portfolio holder, said: "The message we need to get out is if you’re committing benefit fraud you are likely to get caught.
"There are some quite sophisticated systems where they marry all the benefit claims against bank accounts once a year, so if people are claiming they haven’t got any savings that’s picked up and if people are working and claiming benefits, that’s picked up.
"Some people view it as being a victimless crime but it’s our taxes that pay for it.
"That’s something people don’t understand.
"It’s quite a complicated process recouping the money.
"In the high profile case that went to court recently the lady got a suspended sentence and I think she would be about 117 by the time she paid back all the money.
"But we do attempt to recoup it and there are occasions where people have hidden savings.
"I am very pleased with how conscientiously the fraud department work and they are very thorough in their investigations.
"We are one of the best authorities in the country for actually detecting benefit fraud."
The local authority employs four members of staff to detect and recover benefit fraud, one manager and three investigators, two full time.
Depending on the amounts involved, they decide whether to pursue a conviction or alternative means such as an official caution, or administrative penalty.
Emma Boon, campaign director of the Taxpayers’ Alliance, said: "You’re quite often in a catch 22 situation because they’re on low income or benefits and once you’ve caught them you haven’t solved the problem of getting the money back.
"But, whether or not they can pay it back, without harsher penalties there’s little to deter people from trying to cheat the system.
"Fraud and error together on a national level result in the taxpayer losing billions of pounds a year.
"It doesn’t matter if you have an army of people trying to catch fraud.
"There are more than 50 different types of benefits so you need to change the system as a whole."
The council advises that types of benefit fraud include people not declaring work when claiming benefits, people who claim as single people but actually live with a partner, those who fail to declare an additional income, such as a private pension, people who fail to declare any type of capital or savings, people using false addresses or failing to declare other adults living in their property and people who claim benefits despite knowing that they have no entitlement.
To report benefit fraud you can write to the investigation team at Accrington Town Hall, Broadway Offices, Accrington, BB5 1LA, ring the confidential hotline on 01254 380 240 or call the National Benefit Fraud Hotline on: 0800 328 6340.