Benefit cheats could face up to 10 years in prison as part of the Crown Prosecution Service’s new “tough stance” on those flouting the system.
Keir Starmer QC, Britain's most senior prosecutor, said the £1.9 billion that benefit and tax fraudsters cost the taxpayer every year must now influence lawyers’ decisions on whether a prosecution was in the public interest.
Announcing new guidelines for the CPS, the Director of Public Prosecutions said suspects can now be charged under the Fraud Act, which carries a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison.
In the past, benefit cheats have often been pursued under specific social security legislation which carries a maximum term of seven years.
A financial threshold which prevented benefit fraud cases of less than £20,000 from being sent to crown court will also be abolished, the CPS said.
Mr Starmer said: “It is a myth that 'getting one over on the system' is a victimless crime: the truth is we all pay the price”.
He added: “It is vital that we take a tough stance on this type of fraud and I am determined to see a clampdown on those who flout the system.“
Under the new guidelines, prosecutors in England and Wales will be told to seek tough penalties in cases with aggravating features such as multiple offences, abuse of position or substantial loss to public funds.
Professionally planned frauds, the use of a false or stolen identity and cases involving attempts to dispose of the evidence will also be targeted.
Benefit fraud of less than £20,000 was previously automatically allocated to magistrates courts, which can hand out maximum sentences of only 12 months.
The financial threshold will now be abolished, bringing the prosecution of benefit fraud in line with the prosecution of other fraud cases, the CPS said.
The move follows the merger of the prosecutions division of the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) with the CPS in April 2012, and the transfer of staff to the CPS Welfare, Rural and Health Division.
Mr Starmer added: “The guidance for prosecutors is clear that if the evidence demonstrates an element of dishonesty, rather than just knowledge of a fraud, the appropriate charges should be used.
“This will ensure that following conviction, all options are on the table for magistrates and judges including custodial sentences. Indeed, prosecutors are also instructed not to shy away from using a range a legislation that carries higher sentences where it is merited.”
He added: “The cost to the nation incurred by benefit fraud should be at the forefront of lawyers' minds when considering whether a prosecution is in the public interest. The loss of £1.9 billion of public money has a significant impact on communities up and down the country.
“Where frauds have been professionally planned, carried out over a long period of time and include attempts to conceal or destroy evidence, then we will make this plain when advising the courts on sentencing.”
Last year, the CPS saw more than 8,600 prosecutions in benefit and tax credit cases, along with 4,000 in the first five months of this year, Mr Starmer said. The current conviction rate is 89.7 per cent, he added.
Additional reporting PA
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