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Did you know that if you obtain a state benefit that you are not entitled to or deliberately fail to report a change in your personal circumstances, you could be committing the criminal offence of benefit fraud? Perhaps you have been notified that you are under investigation by the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) and you are wondering what will happen next. This article explains the process that DWP follows to check if you are complying with the rules surrounding your benefits claim. We talk in depth about what to expect at a DWP compliance interview, and what could happen afterwards. Read on, so that you are in the know, and so that you can prepare properly for your DWP compliance interview and secure the best possible outcome.
A DWP compliance interview, also referred to as a customer compliance interview, is a procedure undertaken by the DWP where they have reason to suspect that you are claiming a benefit that you are not entitled to, or if they suspect that your personal circumstances have changed but that you have not notified them of the change.
The interview will be carried out by a Customer Compliance Officer (CCO). At the interview, you will be informed of the reason why the interview is taking place. The interview will seek to elicit accurate information from you in respect of your circumstances. The interview will not usually take place under caution. With the information provided, the DWP will then conduct a full review of your circumstances. In addition, the interviewer will probably use the opportunity to remind you of the obligation to keep the DWP updated in respect of your personal circumstances.
Compliance interviews can take place at your home, or you could be invited to attend the DWP’s offices. If the interview takes place at the DWP’s offices, such as at the Jobcentre, you are entitled to have your travel expenses reimbursed, but this does not apply if you are receiving Job Seekers’ Allowance and the interview takes place on your normal day to visit the Jobcentre. Interviews can also take place on the telephone.
The interview will begin with an introduction from the CCO, who will present their identity card or name badge and will take steps to confirm your identity. You will need to bring a document with you that shows your name and address. This could include a passport, driving licence, utility bill, rent agreement, bank statement, or identity card.
Once your identity has been confirmed, you will be informed of the purpose of the interview. You will then be asked questions regarding your circumstances. DWP guidance states that these questions should be ‘robust and challenging’, with the aim of establishing the truth and checking your understanding of your claim to the benefit.
For example, you may be asked if you are currently working and when your work began. You could be asked questions regarding who you are currently living with and their financial circumstances. If someone is financially supporting you, rendering you not entitled to benefits, you would be asked about how much money they are giving you and how long this has been going on for. You may be asked for documentary evidence, such as bank statements, to back up what you are saying. You will also be asked whether you knew you should report the change in circumstances. If you admit that you knowingly gave false information, you will be asked to give a statement (known as an MF47 statement) and sign your name to it.
If you are being accused of cohabiting with someone without updating the DWP, you can ask for time to discuss the situation with your alleged partner. You will then be given a further appointment to discuss your circumstances with the DWP. If you are being questioned about a Community Care Grant claim, you can be asked to show evidence of broken goods such as a cooker or dishwasher. Note that the interviewer is not allowed to ask to see your bed, if that is what is broken.
DWP guidance states that the interviewer should listen carefully to what you say, and is not obliged to accept the first answer that you give. The interviewer is also obliged to note down the key details that you provide. Where no further action is being taken, you may be warned that if you fail to declare a change of circumstances in the future, you could face more serious sanctions. If this is not the first time that you have been questioned by the DWP and you have previously been warned in respect of your obligation to report a change in circumstances, the DWP is more likely to take further action against you.
It is important to know your legal entitlements at a DWP interview. This is especially true because the responses that you provide at an interview could be used as a basis to refer your case to the fraud team, which could ultimately lead to a criminal prosecution against you.
At a DWP interview you have the right to:
After a DWP interview, your case may be referred to the Counter Fraud Compliance Directorate. This could lead to an interview under caution (also known as a voluntary interview), which will be audio recorded. If you are invited to an interview under caution, you are entitled to have a lawyer present. Interviews under caution take place in accordance with the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984. This means that the evidence can be used in a criminal prosecution later on. Having a lawyer attend the interview with you will help you avoid incriminating yourself. It will also ensure that the interviewer does not ask you questions in an unfair way.
Following the fraud interview, you could face criminal charges such as benefit fraud. This means that you could receive a summons to attend the Magistrates’ Court. If convicted, you would receive a criminal record.
If you are convicted, the DWP may instigate proceedings to recover money or property that you have obtained via benefit fraud. In the course of those proceedings, the DWP can seek a Restraint Order, which has the effect of freezing your assets, and preventing you from disposing of them until the final judgment has been given.
However, your case will not necessarily result in a criminal prosecution. DWP can also issue administrative penalties, such as administrative cautions. These are different to criminal cautions and will not show up on your criminal record. You can also receive a civil penalty of £50. This is usually given where you have been found to be negligent in respect of your benefits award, but the negligence does not amount to criminal conduct.
If you have been invited to a DWP compliance interview, do not ignore it. Whilst it does not necessarily mean that you will face a criminal prosecution, this could be the first step that the DWP takes to build their case against you. And, whilst you may not need a lawyer to attend an interview with you, it is worthwhile seeking legal advice at this stage to ensure that you protect your legal position insofar as possible. At Stuart Miller Solicitors, we are experienced in advising clients in respect of benefit fraud cases. We will help you understand the DWP’s investigation process, and where possible we will help you get your case dropped before it reaches the criminal court. Contact our friendly and professional legal team today.