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PS90,000 benefits cheat caught competing in speedway races; fraudster who said he was wheelchair-bound and needed around-the-clock care avoids jail.

Byline: JACK EVANS

A BENEFITS cheat who pocketed PS90,000 of taxpayers' cash by claiming he was wheelchair-bound was caught after competing in speedway races.

Stephen Hodgkinson brazenly swindled thousands of pounds over a 17-year period while taking part in cycle speedway events and teaching exercise classes.

A court heard the 58-year-old had claimed he needed round-the-clock care, was confined to a wheelchair and could only walk with assistance.

Hodgkinson also said his condition left him so weak that on some days he couldn't manage with basic household tasks, such as eating and getting dressed.

But DWP investigators nailed the fraudster after discovering he was racing for the Birmingham Monarchs cycle speedway club.

He was also running and taking part in indoor Vibe cycling classes as well as regularly attending the gym at Birmingham's Alexander Stadium. Pictures of him taking part in races and posing beside trophies on his Facebook and Twitter pages also came to light before he was arrested.

Hodgkinson, of Smethwick, pleaded guilty to failing to report a change in circumstances and dishonest representation in order to obtain benefits.

But he avoided an immediate jail term when he was given an 18-month prison sentence, suspended for two years, at Wolverhampton Crown Court.

He was also ordered to carry out 200 hours of unpaid work.

Judge Martin Jackson said: "Your initial claim for Disability Living Allowance was a legitimate one.

"But over a significant period of time you failed to notify the DWP in changes to your circumstances and painted a picture one can only describe as extreme helplessness.

"You failed to tell the DWP that you were in significantly better condition than when your claim started.

"By your plea you accept you were dishonest in your failure to notify them."

The court heard how Hodgkinson initially made a genuine claim for support in 2002 as he suffered with AIDS. But in the years that followed his condition improved significantly, to the point where he was able to race competitively and undertake regular exercise.

He was put under surveillance by investigators and was seen walking freely around the speedway track and riding in competition in a "fast-paced, competitive nature".

Nicholas Berry, prosecuting, said Hodgkinson told assessors on a "good day" he could drive to see friends but said he "could not walk without significant discomfort." He added: "He described how he needed physical help to get dressed, to eat and use drinks."

Hodgkinson failed to inform the DWP his condition improved and even challenged a lower rate when his support was switched to Personal Independent Payments in 2016.

Mr Berry said there was "significant planning" to ensure he continued to receive cash he was not entitled to once his condition improved.

Balvinder Bhatti, defending, said Hodgkinson's initial claim was genuine.

She added: "He was living with a frightening and life-limiting condition. He accepts it wasn't as bad as he said. It improved and he deeply regrets not telling anybody."

After the case, a DWP spokesman said: "Benefit fraud is a crime that diverts money from those who really need it.

"In addition to any sentence imposed by the court, people must pay back all the money they falsely obtained.

"We have zero tolerance of anyone fraudulently claiming benefits and will take swift action to investigate, supporting our partners and prosecutors to bring them to justice."

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Benefits cheat Stephen Hodgkinson posted photos of himself taking part in the races on social media
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Author:JACK EVANS
Publication:Birmingham Mail (England)
Date:May 14, 2020
Words:575
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