St Albans district councillor escapes prosecution for benefit fraud despite council crackdown

Councillor Simon Calder

Councillor Simon Calder - Credit: Archant

A Tory district councillor has had a case of benefit fraud against him dropped despite the council insisting last month that they would “take action” against people who had over-claimed.

Councillor Simon Calder and his wife Louise, of Norris Close, London Colney, were charged with defrauding the council out of what is understood to be thousands of pounds of housing benefit by failing to notify a change of circumstances.

However, the case against him was dismissed in St Albans Magistrates Court this week when the law firm working on behalf of the council, Harris, Cuffaro & Nichols, brought no evidence against Cllr Calder at a case management hearing.

District councillor Malachy Pakenham said: “It does appear that Councillor Calder’s case followed one procedure whereas other residents of the district have been prosecuted more harshly in similar circumstances.

“I know people who have paid their money back before they have gotten to court and still be prosecuted.”

Under the 1972 Local Government Act, a councillor who is convicted of any offence and receives a prison sentence of three months or more - whether suspended or not - would be disqualified.

The Herts Advertiser reported on a case of benefit fraud last week in which 28-year-old Kayleigh Myring was sentenced to 80 hours of unpaid work and ordered to pay £575 in court costs for over claiming more than £6,700 in housing benefit, which she was ordered to pay back at a rate of £20 per week.

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Following that case, Richard Skilbeck, benefit officer at St Albans district council, said: “Where we have evidence showing that benefits claimants have failed to notify us of a change in circumstances and this has resulted in an overpayment of benefits, we will take action.”

However Cllr Calder and his wife, who were charged with an almost identical offence, have been ordered only to pay back the overpayment and have escaped sentencing.

Cllr Calder said yesterday: “We are quite pleased with the outcome. The council has recognised that there was no intent to defraud or any criminal activity.

“We have absolutely not been treated any differently because I am a councillor.”

Councillor Dreda Gordon, who represents the London Colney ward with Cllr Calder, said: “Ignorance is not a defence. Given the fact that he is a sitting councillor I am very surprised to hear that the case has been dismissed, especially as the council has been quite hard-nosed with benefit fraudsters in recent weeks.”

David Nichols from Harris, Cuffaro & Nichols said: “We take our instruction from the council and do not share the details with anyone else.”

A council spokesperson said they were unable to comment on individual cases.