27 September 2007

An innocent claimant has had to go all the way to the court of appeal to get seven charges of benefits fraud overturned. This was is in spite of the fact that the local council admitted from the very outset that the claimant had not asked for, or received, a single penny more in benefits than they were entitled to.

The claimant set up a limited company whilst in receipt of housing benefit and council tax benefit. When Hillingdon Borough Council found out they successfully prosecuted him for four counts of dishonestly failing to notify a change in circumstances, two counts of dishonestly producing a false statement and one count of dishonestly making a false statement.

The claimant's defence was a simple one: he had received absolutely no money from the company, so there was no relevant change of circumstances to disclose in relation to housing benefit or council tax benefit. Both these benefits are means-tested: you can be unemployed or in part-time or full-time work and still claim, provided your household income is low enough.

Hillingdon Borough Council's case was that the claimant should have informed them about any change of circumstances that a benefits officer might wish to know about in order to check entitlement, even if - as in this case - the change did not result in any reduction in the amount of benefit the claimant was entitled to.

Happily, in June of this year, the Court of Appeal agreed with the claimant. They ruled that the council were trying to insert provisions into criminal statutes that simply weren't there. The claimant, on the other hand, was simply giving them their ordinary, everyday meaning.

It's difficult to imagine why a local authority would think it a reasonable use of taxpayers money to try to turn an honest claimant into a criminal on what was, at best, a mere technicality.

But, bearing in mind our recent story on Nottingham City Council transferring management of its welfare rights team to the Housing Benefit department, it's an extremely good illustration of why payment of benefits and advice for claimants should never be provided by the same team: you can't trust housing benefit teams to be fair, reasonable or even - judging by this case - entirely sane.

[Note: had the claimant been getting incapacity benefit or income support as incapable of work they would have had to declare the change of circumstances, as becoming a company director might well affect the finding that they were incapable of work, even if they did not earn any money.]


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