Former councillor escapes jail for benefits fraud

Rahmat Ali Raja leaving Preston Magistrates court (with his face obscured) where he pleaded guilty to three offences of fraud
Rahmat Ali Raja leaving Preston Magistrates court (with his face obscured) where he pleaded guilty to three offences of fraud
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A magistrate and former councillor who was awarded an MBE for services to his home town is facing disgrace after he was caught scrounging state handouts for 10 years.

Rahmat Raja sat in judgement over benefit cheats and was vice-president of a community group which advised locals on what welfare they could claim.

But the former Labour councillor secretly pocketed more than £23,000 in pension credits after failing to disclose he had access to savings of almost £100,000 in 10 different bank accounts.

He was eventually interviewed in July last year after an investigation into his financial affairs by the Department of Work and Pensions. It emerged his scam began in 2003, two years before he was honoured by the Queen for his services to the community in Pendle.

At Preston magistrates court, Raja (75), of Wilkinson Street, Nelson admitted failing to disclose information to make a gain for self between October, 2003 and September, 2013 and dishonestly making a false statement to obtain a benefit.

But he walked free with a 24-week jail term suspended for a year due to his poor health and the fact he has paid back all the money. He was also ordered to pay £85 costs and £75 victim surcharge.

He is still receiving a pension and disability living allowance due to back problems arising out of an industrial accident.

Afterwards Raja, who walked with a crutch and had to be guided out of court, said: “I’m very sorry that this has happened but I’m in ill health and my memory is not good.

‘’I signed the forms and it was a mistake but this concerned my family money. All along I was thinking my own account is my money and that’s where I got confused.”

Raja, formerly from Gujurat, Pakistan, had emigrated to the UK in 1966 and worked as a labourer before being appointed as a JP at Burnley Magistrates Court and becoming a Labour councillor on Pendle Council.

In the 1980s, he joined the community group Ithaad which has been providing help and advice for locals and later became a vice-president. At the time he was awarded the MBE he said: ‘’I am very, very pleased and delighted – but it came as a complete shock.

‘’I don’t see it as an award for me, but for the whole community of Pendle, not just the ethnic group.”

But prosecutor Mr John Abbott said Raja had been claiming £23,235.44 pension credits he was not entitled to over a 507-week period between October 6th, 2003 and September 29th, 2013.

He was in receipt of the handouts for himself and wife, who also retired, on the basis they had little or no capital or other income.

Mr Abbott said: “It was paid by automatic transfer directly into his bank account and based on declaring true circumstances. But evidence became available that he had savings of £83,000 on October 6th, 2003 that were not disclosed at the time.

“Had the true facts been known it would have had an effect on benefits. On July 8th, 2009 a claim form sent from Pension Credit asked him to provide details of capital and savings and it showed no savings reported.

“On July 16th, 2009 he entered ‘yes’ to ‘do you or your partner have savings?’ but he declared he had £5,601. However evidence available showed there were other accounts, he didn’t declare he had savings of £92,343 on July 16th, 2009.

“In interview, he stated he only had one bank account that he shared with his wife. But he accepts he and his wife had access to nine other accounts and he agreed the statement and contents were correct and open when he made the claim for Pension Credit.

‘’He said the monies were to be used by his children when they needed it for marriage or to buy a house. He denied acting dishonestly saying he made a mistake.’’

In mitigation, defence counsel Mr John Wishart said: “He is 75 years of age and is not in good health. The money was instantly repaid.

‘’It is true to say on October 6th, 2003 there is a sum of £83,000 spread over a number of accounts, most of which had the name of him and his wife. But contributions came from family and extended family.’’

Probation officer Scott Mayern said Raja had ‘’significant’’ back problems for a number of years following an industrial accident in the seventies.

He has a metal plate in his spine and for many years was bed ridden. He also has a knee replacement and has had recent heart problems. Mr Mayern added: “Although he does have some mobility he is unable to walk unaided and spends large periods in bed.”

“I don’t think anything will be served by sending him to custody.’’

Passing sentence chairman of the bench Mrs Kathleen Strickland told Raja to stay sitting in the dock and told him: “The offences are aggravated by the fact that it was fraud from the outset over an extended period of time concerning a large amount of money.

‘’But we have taken into account the repayment of the money, your age and ill health, your early guilty plea. We suspend the prison term on the provision that you don’t commit any further offences. If you break this condition it could be very serious for you.”