The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has used controversial laws designed for confiscating property from terrorists and drug dealers to freeze the assets of two disabled businessmen under investigation for benefit fraud.
The two disabled men – who cannot be named for legal reasons – say the investigation by the DWP has destroyed their lives and ruined their business, even though they have yet to be charged with any offence.
The government has used the Proceeds of Crime Act (PoCA) to freeze all of their assets – and made it impossible to continue running their company – before they have had a chance to defend themselves in court.
Allegations of Access to Work fraud were first made in March against the two men, who are directors of a company that provided jobs for a number of disabled people.
The allegations were later extended to cover fraud relating to disability living allowance. They have both been extensively interviewed over claims of fraud totalling millions of pounds, although they claim the grants they received totalled far less than this.
They say their Motability vehicles, electric wheelchairs, disability benefits, bank accounts, medical aids and access to council care and support have all been seized, restrained or denied.
Both men even had all of the cash taken from their wallets by police after being interviewed about the allegations. Under PoCA, they are both given £250 a week to live on, although it has taken four months for them to start receiving that money.
One of the men, David (not his real name), said they had had their right to a fair hearing removed, which had led to a “Kafka-esque situation” in which they had been subjected to “all the available sanctions available under law” before they had been charged with any offence.
Both men say they can prove that they are disabled and were entitled to claim the benefits.
David said: “They have literally thrown everything they can against us. I have had my company taken away. My livelihood has been removed.
“We feel like we’ve been scooped up and dumped in Communist Russia where justice for the common man no longer exists yet those in charge are able to do as they want and get away with it.”
Writing about PoCA in the Guardian last November – before he became a government minister – the Liberal Democrat MP Chris Huhne said the “Al Capone powers” within the act to search homes, seize cash, freeze bank accounts and confiscate property were “designed to claw back the money and assets accrued by Mr Bigs and deprive them of a luxury lifestyle funded by a lifetime of criminality”.
But he warned that the act had “increasingly been used to seize the assets of minor offenders” in order to meet stiff government targets.
A Department for Work and Pensions spokeswoman said: “We do not comment on ongoing investigations.”
When asked to comment on the DWP’s use of PoCA, she said: “I would not comment on that.”
But she added: “It is one of the laws we are entitled to use.”
A spokesman for the police force which arrested the men said: “We were involved in taking out the search warrants, executing the searches and making arrests on behalf of the DWP. It is the DWP’s case, which…police are assisting on.”
12 August 2010