Westminster becomes latest council to convict under Fraud Act 2006 – sparking calls for greater powers

Ref: Westminster CC v Herminio Nascimento

Herminio Nascimento, the 42 year old former tenant of a two bed property on the Westbourne Park Estate in Westminster, was sentenced to 16 weeks in prison and £7,100 legal costs in March this year. The case marks a landmark in the Fraud Act 2006, being the first where a tenant has been charged under its auspices by Westminster City Council.

Herminio illegally subletted the property without the consent of the council, who owned the property and let to him, whilst he lived in a jointly owned property in Crawley, West Sussex with his partner. The case was decided in Westminster Magistrate’s Courts and has provided further impetus to the arguments for greater powers to councils to act against illegal subletters.

Cllr Lindsay Hall, Chairman of Westminster City Council’s Housing Benefit Fraud Group, said:

“We will not stand for those who think they can exploit and cheat a vital support system that is in place to protect and house our most vulnerable residents.

“Currently, Westminster has over 1,000 families waiting to be moved to a larger property and meanwhile a minority of tenants think they can get away with earning a fast buck by renting out much needed homes.

“This is just a small victory for the council, but much more needs to be done to allow local authorities to take action against what should be a criminal offence.”

In January, Grant Shapps MP, Housing Minister, unveiled proposals for criminalising subletting which would attract sentences of up to two years and fines of up to £50,000. Currently, cases are decided under civil jurisdiction, on a case by case basis, and do not carry particular penalties. He added that the proceeds of tenancy fraud might be given back to the housing associations and councils, as opposed to being confiscated by the state, and promised to give greater powers of investigation to councils suspecting fraud.

Recent developments have seen doubt over the application of powers to housing associations, with fears that such changes would blur the lines over whether they are private or public bodies.

Nevertheless, the proposals have been under consultation with the wider public, which concluded on 4th April. The results should be released soon and may result in a substantial change to the way offenders like Mr Nascimento are dealt with.

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