�17m Norwich housing benefit overpaid

Norwich City Council has overpaid more than �17m in housing benefit over the past three years, it has emerged, but City Hall bosses say more than 50 cheats were caught this year.

Partly through fraud, partly through mistakes and partly through claimants delaying telling City Hall about changes in circumstances, the council last year overpaid by �4.7m –almost the same amount the council's budget will be cut by next year.

Those budget pressures are putting jobs at risk, while cuts to services include closing Tombland public toilets, reducing our Christmas lighting, charging homes for replacing lost wheelie bins and halting tree planting outside of conservation areas.

But it comes against a backdrop where claimants are failing to tell the council that their details, such as their income or the number of children living with them, have changed.

And that means, over the past three years �17,055,301 was overpaid.

But the figures, obtained by the Evening News through the Freedom of Information Act, also show housing benefit cheats have taken an additional �1m since 2008, with 123 people prosecuted.

A spokesman for the council said: 'We doggedly track down people who intentionally defraud the council, taking legal action to recover money, where necessary.'

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Last year the council exposed 51 housing benefit fraudsters, with the biggest false claim reaching �30,650.

And their work to target cheats has meant �108,136 has been paid back through legal action in the past three years.

Since 2008, the percentage of housing benefit wrongly paid has dropped from 11pc of the total amount spent on housing benefit to just over six per cent this year.

While housing benefit is administrated by local councils, the money comes from the government, with the city council last year distributing �69m in housing benefit cash.

Alan Waters, deputy leader of Norwich City Council said: 'The vast majority of claimants are legitimate, with benefit paid to people who genuinely need it.

'With more people claiming housing benefit this means increased demands on local authorities to keep up with and process these payments.

'We strongly urge people to keep us informed about any change of circumstances so we can respond appropriately to these.'

At Broadland Council �1,141,200 was overpaid in the same period – �1,058,600 caused by a mistake from a claimant and �82,600 by mistake from the council, while fraudsters took �311,200.

South Norfolk Council paid �76,314 in error and cheats took �782,193.

All the councils said they were attempting to claw money back and were punishing false claims through courts, sanctions, warnings and fines.

But with fraud only accounting for a small fraction of the overpayments, councils will have to target those who delay in telling them their circumstances have changed to combat the wastage.

Do you think more needs to be done to stop housing benefit overpayments? Write to Evening News Letters, Prospect House, Rouen Road, Norwich NR1 1RE, or email eveningnewsletters@archant.co.uk