Benefit fraud is committed when a person deliberately claims benefits they are not entitled to. They might do this by providing false information or by not reporting a change in circumstance. Offences fall under common law, the Fraud Act 2006, the Social Security Administration Act 1992, the Tax Credits Act 2002 and the Theft Act 1968.
Examples of benefit fraud include:
- providing incorrect information about a household’s income, savings or capital
- not notifying the authorities when someone moves in or moves out of the household
- falsely declaring disability or unfitness for work
- not reporting a change in address
- pretending to pay more rent than is really paid
What happens if a person is suspected of benefit fraud?
The person suspected will be contacted by the authority responsible for the relevant benefit. This could be the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) or the local authority.
During the investigation:
- the person’s benefit may be stopped
- they may be visited by Fraud Investigation Officers (FIOs)
- they may be asked to attend an interview to talk about their claim
- FIOs will gather facts about the case and decide whether to take further action
An interview under caution is a formal interview that is often recorded. It can be used in any further criminal investigation.
After the investigation, if the person has committed or attempted fraud:
- their benefits may be reduced or stopped for up to three years
- they will have to pay back any overpaid money
- they may be asked to pay a penalty (between £350 and £5,000)
- they may be charged with a criminal offence and taken to court
Only certain benefits can be reduced or stopped. These are called sanctionable benefits. If the fraud was committed on a benefit that can’t be stopped (non-sanctionable), other sanctionable benefits may be reduced instead. There is a full list of sanctionable and non-sanctionable benefits on the government website GOV.UK.
If a person is prosecuted for benefit fraud and found guilty by a court they will be subject to criminal sentencing. Parliament sets the maximum (and sometimes minimum) penalty for any offence. When deciding the appropriate sentence, the court must follow any relevant sentencing guidelines, unless it is not in the interests of justice to do so.
Sentencing for benefit fraud depends on the type of benefit fraud and the seriousness of the offence:
- for a serious incidence of conspiracy to defraud, the maximum sentence is 10 years’ custody
- for a less serious offence, for example making false representation to obtain benefits, penalties can range from discharge to a lower-level fine
Find out more about the different types of sentence.
How is the sentence worked out?
Sentences are worked out by assessing culpability and harm.
Culpability is a measure of how planned the fraud was and the role of the offender in committing the fraud.
Harm is defined by the amount obtained or intended to be obtained by the fraud.
Factors increasing the seriousness of the sentence include:
- the claim was fraudulent from the outset
- the proceeds of fraud were used to fund a lavish lifestyle
- the fraud went on for a long time and involved multiple false declarations
- attempts were made to conceal or dispose of evidence
- damage was caused to a third party (for example as a result of identity theft)
Factors reducing the seriousness of the sentence include where the offender:
- has no previous or relevant convictions
- has shown remorse
- is of good character
- has a serious medical condition
- has a legitimate entitlement to benefits not claimed
- has a mental disorder or learning disability
- is the sole or primary carer for dependent relatives
The court will also take it into account if the offender co-operated with the investigation, making an early admission and/or voluntarily admitting the fraud, or was experiencing exceptional circumstances of financial hardship or pressure at the time the fraud was committed.
If the defendant pleads guilty, they will also receive a reduced sentence.
Find out more about how sentences for benefit fraud are calculated.
- Sentencing guidelines for use in magistrates’ courts
- Sentencing guidelines for use in the Crown Court
- Research and resources
- Sentencing Council consultations
- News and articles
- You be the Judge – an interactive guide to sentencing
- Going to court
- Crime, justice and the law on GOV.UK
- Sources of legal advice
The information on this page is not a complete legal analysis of the offence and is not a substitute for legal advice. The law will be different in Scotland and Northern Ireland.