Widow Maria Teresa Vieira (63) was yesterday sentenced to 18 months after she claimed £63,459.49 in income support while owning a three-bedroom 120,000-euro house in Madeira and had a Portuguese account with a value of 14,500 euros, the Royal Court heard.
Now Ian Burns, director general of the Customer and Local Services Department – formerly Social Security – has sounded a warning to would-be benefit cheats and said investigations into other potential criminals were ongoing.
‘We have had cases where people have been found to be co-habiting and owning assets abroad, and we do take steps to find the people that do that. However, when the assets are abroad this can be difficult,’ he said.
‘The income support system is designed to help those people who are in financial difficulty. It is not right that some people attempt to defraud us, and we will do our utmost to catch them, recover the monies and take them to court. We will continue with that and continue to take that stance.’
The latest sentencing comes seven days after the case of Laurentina Martins Gouveia (64), who was jailed for illegally claiming £70,000 while owning an undeclared mortgaged property in Madeira.
During the sentencing of Vieira, Crown Advocate Conrad Yates, prosecuting, told the court that in September 2011, Vieira submitted an application for income support as a result of not working due to medical conditions. Advocate Yates told the court that the widow was a States tenant in receipt of a survivor’s allowance pension and short-term incapacity allowance.
She declared that she owned no property anywhere else in the world, it was heard.
In May 2013 and on two occasions in February 2019 the defendant was sent forms giving her the opportunity to make any declarations of foreign-based assets or accounts. No declaration was made.
However, in March 2019, after being asked to obtain confirmation from the Portuguese Ministry of Finance that she did not have any assets in the country, she admitted that her late husband had bought a three-bedroom house in São Gonçalo in Funchal in 1999 and that she held a Portuguese account containing 14,500 euros.
During an interview with enforcement officers, she said that she could not sell the property, as it now belonged to her ‘children’s grandkids’.
She also said that she thought it would be fair for someone who owned property in another jurisdiction but did not have money locally to claim income support as ‘they are working here’ and ‘they’re paying the taxes’.
A sentence of two years’ imprisonment was recommended by Advocate Yates.
Advocate George Pearce, defending, said that his client’s crimes were out of character and made reference to her voluntary work, both for charity and the church.
‘Mrs Vieira is extremely remorseful for her actions and she has asked me this morning to extend her apologies to the court and general public,’ he said.
‘She is going to pay back every penny that she owes by selling her property and has lowered the price from 144,000 euros to 120,000 euros to ensure a quick sale.’
In sentencing, the Bailiff, Tim Le Cocq, said that the court had been able to reduce her sentence based her good character, community work and early guilty plea but was not able to spare her jail.
‘Given the references that have been submitted and as the court have been told about your strong religious faith, we find it strange that you lied on a number of occasions on official forms to obtain £63,459.45.’
He added: ‘It is an affront to all those who make contributions to those funds and those who are worse off than you.’
Vieira was ordered to pay the money back, along with £1,500 in prosecution costs within a year or face a year in prison.
Jurats Lieutenant-Bailiff Tony Olsen and Steven Austin-Vautier were also sitting.