DWP under fire amid more corruption allegations

A few months ago, I covered the shocking story of fraudsters within local government organisations, who had lined their pockets to the tune of more than £1 million by creating bogus claimants and taking the money for themselves.

Sentencing is still awaited in that case, but it would be reasonable for us to assume that when the fraud came to light last summer, the DWP and local authorities took the opportunity to get their house in order and take a long hard look at internal controls. After all, that is what you would expect any responsible business to do if it discovered a mature and robust system of fraud within its walls.

Different authority, same story

It beggars belief, therefore, that while the newspapers were sharing all the gory details of the events in London, a DWP employee in Stockton was doing something very similar – and merrily continued to do so for several more months.

Barbara Johnstone, 65, of Middlesbrough, appeared at Teesside Magistrates Court just before Christmas and admitted abusing her power as a DWP employee at the Stockton benefits centre to steal almost £1,500.

This time, Johnstone diverted funds that were rightfully awarded to nine different claimants into a different account that she could then access and take for herself. Johnstone admitted the offences under police interview and pleaded guilty to fraud by abuse of position. She was ordered to repay the money and handed a 12 month community order. Defending lawyer Nicole Horton remarked that the offence “was not something that crosses the custody threshold.”

Special rules?

While the amount of money at stake is not life-changing, anyone who is reliant on benefits is well aware that even £20 can make all the difference. Yet whether it is £1 or £1 million is beside the point – it is the abuse of power by someone in a position of trust that is so shocking.

Given the seriousness of “fraud by abuse of position,” many might be surprised at the relatively light sentencing, particularly given the draconian measures that the DWP is keen to mete out on claimants if there is the slightest hint of fraud.

For example, we talked about the case of Stephen Cannon a few weeks ago. He falsely claimed benefits over a period of several months after he had started drawing a pension. If we take him at his word, it was a genuine mistake, but even if there was a degree of “wilful blindness” involved, what is in no doubt is that when the mistake came to light, he immediately started to pay the money back.

Yet Stephen was also taken to court, was also told to repay the money, was also handed a 12 month community order. On top of this, he was ordered to pay £170 in court costs and handed told to do 100 hours of unpaid work.

How can someone who made a mistake and tried to put it right face tougher sentencing than someone in authority who has abused her power to out and out steal money from claimants? It genuinely defies belief.

Tread carefully and get help

It goes to show that if you work for the DWP and have committed fraud, you will probably be OK, but if you are a claimant and are facing any kind of allegations, you need to get professional assistance. Fortunately, that is what we at Hylton Potts are here for.

I have talked before about the dangers of claimants attending interviews under caution. In short, we always advise our clients not to do so and to let us step in instead. If you have received a letter alleging overpayments, fraud or any other such problem, get in touch with us and let us take a look at it for you.

We take the stress out of dealing with the DWP by handling all that side of things, and will help you work through your problem to the best possible solution. We are a friendly and approachable bunch, so do feel free to give us a call us on 020 7381 8111, or get in touch via email at law@hylton-potts.com

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