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Page last updated at 07:43 GMT, Thursday, 3 November 2011
Benefit claimants with Bentleys, second homes, yachts

Graham Axford sailing yacht
Graham Axford sailed his yacht while claiming benefits

Bentleys, 42ft yachts and restored farmhouses in France are not generally considered to be the hallmarks of life on benefits in Britain today.

Yet BBC Panorama has tracked down claimants leading double lives.

One man claims benefits for his rent on a council flat in Croydon yet was discovered living in Devon and running a village pub - commuting between the two in a Bentley.

Another man, claiming incapacity benefit for a bad back, told an undercover reporter about his trans-Atlantic sailing trip from South Carolina to the Azores on his yacht and his work in restoring a farmhouse in Normandy.

Experts estimate that £4bn of taxpayers' money is being lost to benefit fraud, tax credit fraud and social housing scams in the UK each year.

Overall, government is losing an estimated £22bn to fraud and error across all departments.

'Yacht for sale'

The man with the yacht and the French farmhouse is Graham Axford, 57, who has been on incapacity benefit since 1996 after he injured his back in a motorcycle accident.

I think that you are sending out a message that if you engage in fraud the chances of getting caught are low
Mark Button, Fraud Researcher, University of Portsmouth

Because of that he has also been getting benefits that cover most of his rent and council tax on his council flat.

Investigators from Croydon Council suspect that he misled them in order to get his flat and that he is getting incapacity benefit that he is not entitled to receive.

When Mr Axford met with an undercover reporter posing as a potential buyer for his yacht, he arrived on a bicycle and said he would not sell the boat for less than £25,000.

Mr Axford's solicitors have stated on his behalf that he has never fraudulently misrepresented the nature or extent of his back injury and that his eligibility for incapacity benefit has been assessed and verified by medical professionals.

He has also said that he has separated from his wife, who lives in the farmhouse in France while he lives in his council flat in London.

Forged passports

Research carried out by the Centre for Counter Fraud Studies at the University of Portsmouth suggests that fraud has risen by as much as 30% over the past three years.

As a result, some councils have increased their investigative teams to try to catch more of the cheats.

Jim Gee is the former head of counter fraud for the NHS and is now a government adviser on welfare policy.

Find out more
Richard Bilton
Richard Bilton presents Panorama: Britain on the Fiddle
BBC One, Thursday, 3 November at 8pm
Then available in the UK on the BBC iPlayer

He said cash is disappearing at record levels at a time when every pound counts.

"It undermines the quality of public services that people pay their taxes to get. And each time fraud takes place it means that public expenditure cuts have to be more painful. More jobs have to go."

Council fraud investigators told the BBC that they are seeing more examples of fake identities - including forged passports - being used to apply for benefits.

'Low risk'

Mark Button, director of the Centre for Counter Fraud Studies, said cash-strapped councils have limited resources to put into following up suspicious claimants, making it easier than ever for benefit cheats to get away with it.

He added that those cheating the system do so without sensing that there is a risk of getting caught - or punished.

"I think that you are sending out a message that if you engage in fraud the chances of getting caught are low. Your chances of ending up with a stiff criminal penalty are even lower."

Croydon Council is also investigating the benefit claims of Stephen Sussams. Mr Sussams, 58, had his incapacity benefit stopped two years ago, but did not tell the council, which continued to cover most of the rent and council tax on his council flat as a result.

Investigators found that Mr Sussams appears to be leading a double life - one in a council flat in London and the other as a pub landlord in the village of Kingswear in Devon.

When Panorama found him he was driving a Bentley and told an undercover reporter that he had been living in the village for two and a half years.

When asked by the BBC about his council flat and benefit claim Mr Sussams said he could not discuss it because of Croydon Council's ongoing investigation.

"I have no intention of being involved with trial by television," he added.

Mr Sussams is still the subject of a council investigation and his housing benefit was recently suspended.

Mr Axford also continues to be investigated by the council.

Panorama: Britain on the Fiddle, BBC One, Thursday, 3 November at 20:00 GMT and then available in the UK on the BBC iPlayer.



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