Brierfield woman (53) jailed for £100,000 benefits scam

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A £115,000 benefits cheat who raked in taxpayers’ cash while “living a lie” for 12 years has been locked up for 15 months.

Irene Barnes had got married and her husband was working and supporting her, but she still carried on claiming income support and housing and council tax benefits. When she was interviewed last year by the Department for Work and Pensions, she denied the scam and claimed she and her husband had spilt up shortly after they wed, Burnley Crown Court heard.

Barnes, who has recently been living on disability living allowance and employment support allowance, sobbed as she was led from the dock.

The defendant (53), of Walter Street, Brierfield, had earlier admitted three counts of false accounting, one of obtaining a money transfer by deception and one of evasion of a liability by deception. She had no previous convictions.

Mr Edmund Haygarth (prosecuting for the DWP) said it was not a fraud from the start. Barnes was claiming the three benefits, but her entitlement ceased when she married on July 18th, 1998. The total overpayment was £114,917.

Mr Haygarth told the hearing the defendant made the point it was not a happy marriage and there were a number of short periods of time when they were not living together, totalling 18 months. He said she would have been entitled to benefits during that time and that reduced the amount to just over £101,000.

Mr Haygarth said Barnes and her husband were co-habitating for most of the 12 years and she never declared it to the authorities. He continued: “When matters caught up with the defendant, she was interviewed under caution on July 12th, 2011. She denied the allegations and said they had split up very shortly after they had married and Mr Barnes had been living with his parents.”

The prosecutor said there would be no proceeds of crime hearing, as a preliminary investigation showed Barnes had no significant assets. He added: “The prosecution will seek to recover the money in other places.”

Miss Zoe Nield (for Barnes) said she had “many serious medical conditions” and was in poor health.

She had suffered from depression for a considerable period of time, exacerbated by the stress and anxiety of the court proceedings, which she recognised she had brought on herself. The defendant was on anti- depressants, also had osteoporosis and arthritis and was prescribed medication and painkillers.

Miss Nield continued: “So far as being able to pay back the money, she is a lady of very limited means. She is claiming disability living allowance and employment support allowance, but nevertheless is certainly willing to pay back what she can.”

The barrister said the defendant had had a fall and injured her wrist and was expecting £30,000 compensation. She was content to give it all to the DWP to make restitution.

Miss Nield urged the court to pass a suspended sentence and went on: “The defendant is terrified at the prospect of a custodial sentence. She understands this is plainly a case that does cross the custody threshold.”

The barrister added the court proceedings had been a salutory experience for Barnes. Miss Nield continued: “She is somebody who has most definitely learned her lesson and will not trouble these courts again.

“She loses, of course, her good name by her conduct and that’s a matter she does not bear lightly.”

Sentencing, Recorder Roderick Carus told Barnes: “Week in, week out, you were living a lie.

“You must have been aware of the risk you were running. This court is obliged to make the point that such offending will result in immediate custodial terms, even if it’s your first appearance before these courts.”