Benefit cheats will face increased jail terms of up to 10 years in a crackdown on those who "flout the system", Britain's most senior prosecutor has said.
Keir Starmer QC warned it was time for a "tough stance" against the perpetrators of benefit and tax credit fraud as he set out new guidelines for the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS).
The Director of Public Prosecutions said the £1.9 billion annual cost of the crime to the taxpayer should be at the "forefront of lawyers' minds" when considering whether a prosecution was in the public interest.
Suspects can now be charged under the Fraud Act, which carries a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison, the CPS said. In the past, benefit cheats have often been pursued under specific social security legislation which carries a maximum term of seven years. A financial threshold which prevented benefit fraud cases of less than £20,000 from being sent to crown court will also be abolished, the CPS said.
"It is a myth that 'getting one over on the system' is a victimless crime: the truth is we all pay the price," Mr Starmer said. "It is vital that we take a tough stance on this type of fraud and I am determined to see a clampdown on those who flout the system."
Under the new guidelines, prosecutors in England and Wales will be told to seek tough penalties in cases with aggravating features such as multiple offences, abuse of position or substantial loss to public funds.
Professionally planned frauds, the use of a false or stolen identity and cases involving attempts to dispose of the evidence will also be targeted. Benefit fraud of less than £20,000 was previously automatically allocated to magistrates courts, which can hand out maximum sentences of only 12 months. The financial threshold will now be abolished, bringing the prosecution of benefit fraud in line with the prosecution of other fraud cases, the CPS said. The move follows the merger of the prosecutions division of the Department for Work and Pensions with the CPS in April 2012, and the transfer of staff to the CPS Welfare, Rural and Health Division.
Mr Starmer added: "The guidance for prosecutors is clear that if the evidence demonstrates an element of dishonesty, rather than just knowledge of a fraud, the appropriate charges should be used. This will ensure that following conviction, all options are on the table for magistrates and judges including custodial sentences. Indeed, prosecutors are also instructed not to shy away from using a range a legislation that carries higher sentences where it is merited."
Last year, the CPS saw more than 8,600 prosecutions in benefit and tax credit cases, along with 4,000 in the first five months of this year, Mr Starmer said. The current conviction rate is 89.7%, he added.
Prime Minister David Cameron "warmly welcomes" the move, Downing Street said. "Benefit fraud is very serious. It's wrong and that's why the Prime Minister warmly welcomes this announcement," his official spokesman said.