Stiffer sentences should be imposed on people who fraudulently claim benefits they are not entitled to in Northern Ireland, politicians have claimed.
It comes after the News Letter obtained figures which reveal that a shocking £4m in social security benefits were falsely claimed in the Province over an 18-month period.
The figures, provided by the Department for Communities following a Freedom of Information request, show:
• There were 425 cases of benefit fraud dealt with by the courts service from January 2016 to June 2017;
• During that period, £3.97m was wrongfully paid out from the public purse;
• Only one person was handed an immediate custodial sentence, which amounted to one-month imprisonment;
• Cases range from relatively small amounts of less than £100 to over £100,000;
• The most egregious case saw one woman falsely claim almost £110,000 in housing benefit and income support. She was handed a 16-month suspended term;
• Another defendant who claimed £71,564.37 received 240 hours community service.
The sentences meted out by the courts in the vast majority of cases included community service orders, fines, probation or suspended jail terms.
The information provided by the department did not include a breakdown of the types of benefits that were being wrongfully claimed.
Benefit fraud costs taxpayers in Northern Ireland millions of pounds every year.
If a person is suspected of providing wrong or misleading information to do with their benefits – such as income support, Jobseekers Allowance or housing benefit – the Social Security Agency may investigate them for fraud.
It is important to note that not all overpayments of benefits are fraudulent, as a mistake may have been made by the benefits office or a claimant may genuinely not have been aware they had to declare a change of circumstance.
But UUP justice spokesperson Doug Beattie said more needs to be done to deter those people who make a concerted effort to cheat the system.
He told the News Letter: “£4m is a shocking figure. But it is important that every case of benefit fraud must be dealt with on its own merits.
“Some people may have inadvertently claimed amounts without realising it was wrong for them to do so.
“However, there are undeniably people out there who purposefully make fraudulently claims for benefits which they have no entitlement to.
“We must not be afraid to give these people immediate custodial sentences. If all the courts are doing is handing out suspended sentences and community service, then the problem will not be addressed in the long run. The punishment must fit the crime.”
TUV leader and barrister Jim Allister said he believed many hard-working people will be asking if the courts are doing enough to combat the issue of benefit fraud.
He added: “It isn’t much of a deterrent when people wrongly claim sums like £70,000 and get away with probation orders or suspended sentences. I have no doubt that there will be many people who will be outraged by this, not least those who genuinely struggle to get by on benefits to which they are entitled.”
The Office of the Lord Chief Justice Office said it is “not appropriate” to compare the sentences imposed in different cases of benefit fraud, as the circumstances in each “may vary considerably”.
A spokesperson added: “Sentencing is a matter for each individual judge after consideration of the specific circumstances of each case.
“In calculating the appropriate sentence for the offence, the judge will have considered a range of factors specific to that case including the seriousness of the offence, the offender’s previous convictions, aggravating and mitigating factors, whether the offender pleaded guilty and at what stage in the process, the relevant law including the maximum sentence which the court can impose and any sentencing guidelines relevant to the offence committed.”