Being accused of wrongdoing by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) – or any other government agency for that matter is stressful enough. The thought of being investigated by officials without really knowing what is happening is especially troublesome. Many investigators wear plain clothes and can show up at any time, and this, understandably, can be very frightening. That said, having some sound knowledge about DWP investigations can make all the difference, enabling you to separate fact from fiction and live your life as normally as possible while investigations are ongoing. In this article, we look at the basics of DWP investigations and dispel some common myths so that you can get back to focusing on what matters most to you.
The DWP is a large government agency responsible for welfare, pensions, and child maintenance for over 20 million individuals. When the DWP needs to investigate something, it is usually because there is reason to believe that someone might be trying to defraud or ‘scam’ the system. As such, most of the investigations conducted by the DWP are related to fraud.
In England and Wales, fraud is a very broad offence, governed, for the most part, by the Fraud Act 2006. Under the Fraud Act, there are three main types of fraud and most DWP investigations will be looking for evidence of one or more of them:
It is important to note that someone can be charged with one of the above fraud offences without actually having caused any loss to the victim of the fraud, which is usually a government agency like the DWP. In other words, even if – for whatever reason – someone’s plans to defraud the system fall through and they never actually get any benefit, they can still be fined or sent to prison for a fraud offence.
Usually, benefits-related fraud occurs where someone has claimed benefits to which they were not entitled on purpose, such as by not reporting a change in circumstances or by providing false information. Common examples of benefits fraud include:
In each circumstance, the DWP will need evidence that shows that someone is receiving a benefit (a tax credit or benefits payment, for example) that they would not ordinarily be entitled to.
As for what investigations look like, there is no blueprint or ‘typical’ investigation. Fraud investigators have a wide range of powers that enables them to gather evidence in a number of ways, including surveillance, interviews, and document tracing. Unfortunately, you often will not know exactly what an investigation against you entails until you are told about it afterwards (which may be in court if you are charged with an offence).
There is a common myth that the only people who get investigated for benefits fraud and other offences that involve the DWP are those who are ‘overtly’ scamming the system, perhaps with their activities being so obvious that multiple people have reported them.
But this is simply not the case. The DWP does indeed act on reports from the public, but it also has its own sophisticated means of detecting when fraudulent activity might be taking place.
As such, any one of the 20 million people receiving benefits from the DWP could be investigated. Investigations have been carried out against everyone from the bankrupt and unemployed through to well-off business owners and executives. To put it plainly, no-one is immune from DWP investigation.
If the DWP is going to commence a formal investigation against you, they will notify you via post, telephone, or email, depending on what information they have available for you. The vast majority will receive this information via post. When you are notified, you will also be told whether you are to receive a visit from a Fraud Investigation Officer (FIO), or whether they require you to attend an interview.
At the outset, however, you may not be notified that the DWP is starting to investigate you. In the early stage of a potential case, the DWP has to assess whether there is good reason to investigate a potential fraudster. Many tip-offs and reports turn out to be false or unsubstantiated, so the DWP wants to make sure that they do not waste their time on a pointless investigation. As soon as there is enough evidence of potential fraud, the DWP will launch an official investigation and notify you accordingly.
DWP investigators are allowed to gather multiple types of evidence against a potentially fraudulent claimant. The most common types of evidence are:
It is possible, yes. One very common form of benefit fraud is falsely reporting income (or failure to report it altogether). If you are claiming unemployment benefits but are seen to attend a workplace, the DWP may well talk to the owner or manager of that workplace to ascertain exactly why you are there are what employment you might be undertaking. This can have significant consequences for employers, too, as those employers may be prosecuted for aiding a person to commit benefit fraud if they knew the person was claiming benefits at the same time as working.
With social media being so prevalent nowadays, it stands to reason that the DWP should use it as a source of evidence against you if necessary. It is possible that the DWP will search your online profiles for photographs, location check-ins, and other evidence which may or may not be useful to their investigation. Those who use social media extensively will leave a breadcrumb trail of their life and lifestyle, often allowing DWP investigators to piece together a big picture of what that person’s life actually looks like. If this is not consistent with the details of that person’s claim for benefits, that evidence may well be used against them.
Not necessarily. If the DWP has concluded their investigation and has reasonable grounds to believe you were involved in fraud in some way, they could issue you a civil penalty.
Remember that prosecutions only happen for criminal offences and being given a civil penalty (like a fine) is not the same as a criminal prosecution. It is still very serious, however, and you should take all steps to comply with the terms and conditions of any civil penalties that are levied against you as failure to comply (by not paying a fine on time, for example) could result in a criminal prosecution down the line.
In addition to criminal prosecution and civil penalties, the DWP may also:
Unfortunately, false reports of benefit fraud are very common in the UK, with some studies indicating that there are around 140,000 false reports a year. Until the DWP determines that there is no case against you, there is little you can do. Co-operate as best as you can and remember that those found to have reported falsely through malicious reasons are likely to end up subject to criminal prosecution themselves.
If you are concerned about a current or future DWP investigation against you or someone you care about, having straightforward advice from a legal expert can help. The team at Stuart Miller Solicitors has decades worth of experience defending people in benefit fraud cases, along with other offences that might attract the attention of the DWP. For more information about DWP investigations and to arrange a friendly no-obligation consultation, please get in touch with the team today.