Politics: Blackpool landlords in pounds 5m benefit fraud

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LANDLORDS - and presumably the ubiquitous landlady - in Blackpool could be defrauding the taxpayer out of up to pounds 5m.

Pervasive weaknesses in housing benefit controls have been uncovered by the first report of the new Benefit Fraud Inspectorate, following a detailed investigation of resort.

Harriet Harman, Secretary of State for Social Security, said last night: "Fraudulent landlords are stealing millions of pounds every year from the public purse. Tackling fraud is a fundamental part of our reform of the welfare system."

But today's report from the inspectorate had little hard evidence to add to existing estimates on the scale of landlord fraud. Instead, it repeats what Frank Field's Commons Social Security Select Committee investigation claimed in 1996, "that between 10 per cent and 20 per cent of benefit paid to landlords involves fraud".

The conclusion of the inspectorate is that: "Blackpool paid out nearly pounds 33.4m rent allowance in 1996-97 of which they estimate 70 per cent went direct to landlords.

"We calculate, using the Social Security Committee estimate, that the ...fraud in rent paid to landlords in Blackpool during 1996-97 is between pounds 2.3m and pounds 4.7m."

The report says that control over landlord fraud is so weak that Blackpool does not even know how many landlords are getting benefit. Some had received overpayments of more than pounds 9,000, and the report says that even though there had been only nine prosecutions in 1995-96, the borough was in the top 10 per cent of prosecuting authorities.