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MINISTER PRAISES BENEFITS CHEATS CRACKDOWN

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A crackdown by West Somerset DC on benefits fraudsters has been praised by housing benefit minister Chris Pond....
A crackdown by West Somerset DC on benefits fraudsters has been praised by housing benefit minister Chris Pond.

The council's excellent track record during 2004-05 has also won extra government funding of£20,000 to continue to develop the work.

The council has been tackling the issue through a joint-working partnership with Sedgemoor DC and the Department for Work and Pensions.

Together, they have brought a string of successful prosecutions before local magistrates and the crown court during the past 12 months.

They included a high-profile case which made national news headlines with the conviction of a 73-year-old man for systematically defrauding£15,000 of council tax benefit and housing benefit while indulging in property speculation with his ex-wife and going on a luxury cruise holiday with her.

Only the pensioner's poor health saved him from prison, with a crown court judge imposing a 12 months custodial sentence suspended for two years.

Mr Pond said in a letter to counter fraud officer Simon Hankinson: 'I am grateful to you and your colleagues in the West Somerset and Sedgemoor benefit fraud teams for your efforts in tackling benefit fraud.

'I am always pleased to see good press coverage when an outrageous fraud is stopped by clearly professional action and is brought before the courts.

'Such cases will cause people to think twice about engaging in fraud, which reinforces the messages of our Targeting Fraud media campaign.'

Mr Pond also offered to try to arrange a future ministerial visit to meet the counter fraud team based at the West Somerset authority's offices in Minehead.

Mr Hankinson said: 'West Somerset may be one of the smallest local authorities in the country, but when it comes to tackling benefit fraud, it is punching well above its weight.'

West Somerset deputy leader Colin Hill, who holds the finance portfolio, said: 'I am delighted that the tough stand we have been taking on benefit fraud has been recognised both with ministerial praise and with the award of substantial additional government money.

'Our counter fraud team works tremendously hard in what is a difficult and sensitive area and they have recorded significant levels of success with cases brought to court.

'We are pleased also with the high level of public support we receive through people making use of our benefits fraud hotline, which is available 24-hours-a-day.

'We always follow up the information we receive, even if it is provided anonymously. The number to ring is 01984 635236.

'However, we recognise that there are people who find the benefits system quite complex to follow correctly, and they make genuine mistakes with their claims and are not deliberately trying to defraud the system.

'In these cases, provided they come and tell us about their error as soon as they can, then we can usually put it right and do not have to take them to court.'

More information about benefit entitlement is available on the council's website, www.westsomersetonline.gov.uk, which also has claim forms for downloading, or by telephoning 01643 703 704 or emailing customerservices@westsomerset.gov.uk

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