Monday, 30 December 2013

Prosecution should not be default position for Leicester City Council

Leicester City Council is bringing a growing number of people before the courts and prosecuting them for housing benefit fraud.

In most of the cases, the people concerned are being prosecuted for over-payments they received during periods when they were entitled to the benefit.

The over-payments and subsequent allegations of fraud arise because the people concerned neglected to inform the Council of a change or changes in their circumstances.

In some of the cases, the neglect is neither intentional nor deliberate but arises because some benefit claimants tell one Government department about the change in circumstances and assume the information will be shared with other relevant departments.

I believe that in cases such as these, prosecution shouldn't be the primary aim of Leicester City Council. Instead, the Council's primary aim should be to recover any over-payments that would have been made.

Although the Council can and should concentrate on recovering over-payments, I get the impression that it won't do so because it is more concerned with making an example of the people it is prosecuting than it is with recovering the over-payments.

The punitive stance the Council appears to be adopting in cases such as these is disturbing because, in more instances than not, the people who fall foul of the rules surrounding how housing benefit is awarded are already some of the poorest and most vulnerable members of the community.

Instead of punishing the poor and the vulnerable, the council should be making more advice and support available to them.

In the long run, the punitive stance the Council is adopting is counter-productive because punishing, prosecuting and securing convictions against all people who fall foul of the rules can lead to social and substantive injustice.

It can lead to loss of employment. For example, some companies and enterprises will let go of employees who have been convicted of benefit fraud, notwithstanding the fact that the conviction was secured after the employee joined the company while the "crime" itself occurred before that and had no bearing whatsoever on the work the employee was doing or how the employee was performing.

Convictions for benefit fraud also make a lot of the people who receive them unemployable because very few employers will take on a person who has a criminal conviction.

The convictions, and through them, Leicester City Council, thus trap people in the benefit system and make it extremely difficult for individuals and families to break out of poverty.

The convictions damage lives, aspirations and prospects.

I believe a better alternative would be for Leicester City Council to work proactively with those who have fallen foul of benefit rules and help them understand the rules as well as work with them to ensure that they repay any sums they would have received over and above what they were entitled to.

Taking them to court should be a last resort. It should be an option that should only be used when the people concerned refuse to pay back the over-payments.

Prosecution shouldn't be the default position.

*An earlier version of this article appeared in the Leicester Mercury letters page on 26 September 2013.

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