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Welfare Reform Act (Northern Ireland) 2007

Benefit fraud

Sections 42 and 43: Housing Executive powers to investigate and prosecute benefit fraud

At present, section 104A of the Administration Act allows the Housing Executive to investigate fraud against housing benefit. However, significant doubt has arisen as to whether this allows it to investigate fraud in connection with benefits administered by the Department. In particular, the doubt exists where benefit entitlement means that a claimant automatically satisfies some eligibility conditions to housing benefit. This reduces the scope for effective joint working between the Housing Executive and the Department to investigate and prosecute fraud cases that involve more than one benefit.

Most cases of benefit fraud will continue to be investigated by the Department. However, the Act provides the Housing Executive with clear powers to investigate and prosecute offences in relation to benefits, where they already have power to investigate and prosecute offences concerning housing benefit.

Section 42 sets out the scope of the new provisions which give the Housing Executive a wider power to investigate benefit fraud and extends its powers permitting it to obtain information from persons such as employers, pension providers, financial service companies, utilities and educational organisations.

This brings the investigative powers of the Housing Executive generally into line with those available to the Department and allows the Housing Executive to obtain information relating to other social security benefits in addition to housing benefit. However, the Housing Executive will not be able to obtain information about the circumstances of accidents or injuries giving rise to claims for benefit, because such a power would be unnecessary for the investigation of benefit fraud. The measures will not add to the list of persons who may be required to provide information.

Subsection (3) gives the Department power to prescribe in regulations that certain conditions must be satisfied in order for the Housing Executive to make use of these powers. These “prescribed conditions” enable the Department to limit the powers in a way that ensures that only certain benefit offences may be investigated and to provide safeguards against misuse.

Section 43 creates a new power for the Housing Executive to prosecute offences concerning “relevant social security benefits” as defined in section 115CA of the Administration Act, by inserting a new section 110A into that Act.

Subsection (3) of new section 110A gives the Department power to prescribe in regulations that certain conditions must be satisfied before the Housing Executive can prosecute offences against the additional benefits. These conditions allow safeguards to be put in place to ensure that the Housing Executive’s powers are not misused and permit the Department to prevent the prosecution in certain cases on an individual basis.

Section 44: Housing Executive functions relating to benefit: information

Section 44 provides for a number of changes to the information sharing provisions contained in the Administration Act by giving the Housing Executive access to information relating to benefit offences as well as allowing the Department to obtain information from the Housing Executive relating to those offences. These changes are of a consequential nature, in that they are necessary to allow the new investigation and prosecution powers to function effectively.

Currently, section 116C of the Administration Act permits the Department to disclose information to the Housing Executive for purposes relating to the administration of, and offences against, housing benefit. Restricted in such a way, the Housing Executive will not have access to information and evidence held by the Department relating to benefit offences. Subsection (1) amends section 116C so as to allow the Department to disclose to the Housing Executive information relating to benefit fraud investigations and prosecutions. This extension applies to the investigation and prosecution of benefit offences only, and does not extend its power to supply information to the Housing Executive for administrative purposes more generally. This information may include details about the award and payment of benefits as well as copies of claim forms and other signed declarations.

Section 116D of the Administration Act allows the Department to require the Housing Executive to provide it with certain information relating to social security. Subsection (2) amends section 116D so as to permit the Department to require the Housing Executive to provide information it had obtained during the investigation or prosecution of a benefit offence.

Subsection (3) makes a consequential amendment to section 119A(8) of the Administration Act so that it reflects the provisions of section 116D as amended by subsection (2).

Section 45: Loss of benefit for commission of benefit offences

Section 45(1) amends section 6 of the Social Security Fraud Act (Northern Ireland) 2001, which enables benefit entitlement to be removed or reduced where a person is convicted of benefit fraud twice and the second offence was committed within three years of the date of conviction for the first offence. This amendment will extend the period between the date of conviction in the earlier proceedings and the date of commission of the offence in the later proceedings from three to five years. This will have the effect that a person’s benefit may be withdrawn or reduced if he commits a benefit offence, of which he is later convicted, within five years of a conviction for a previous benefit offence.

Subsection (2) provides that this amendment should be disregarded when considering whether an offence committed before the date that this section comes into operation was committed within the relevant period. Where an offence was committed before the date this section comes into operation the relevant period will remain three years.

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Text created by the Northern Ireland Assembly department responsible for the subject matter of the Act to explain what the Act sets out to achieve and to make the Act accessible to readers who are not legally qualified. Explanatory Notes accompany all Acts of the Northern Ireland Assembly.


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