Saturday, November 17, 2007

Liberal Benefit fraud councillor 'should quit now'

A COUNCILLOR who committed benefit fraud has been told to quit by opposition politicians after being given a suspended jail sentence.

Coun Arif Waghat, who represents Shear Brow ward, fraudulently claimed council tax benefit and income support of more than £3,000 from Blackburn with Darwen Council.

After being handed an eight-week sentence, suspended for 12 months, he said he would spend a week speaking to his constituents before deciding whether to stand down.

But Labour leader Kate Hollern called for Waghat to step down now, saying the fact that he had worked as a welfare rights advisor for the council for nine years until he was made redundant in 2003 made his offences even worse.

And Labour councillor Mike Johnson, who lost his seat to Waghat in 2006, said his rival should "do the honourable thing" and resign.

Waghat received the support of council leader Colin Rigby, who said he was a "good ward councillor who had made a mistake and apologised".

Waghat had already resigned from the Liberal Democrat party - he had been the group's deputy leader on the council - after pleading guilty to the offence.

But he continues to support the ruling coalition as an independent.

If Waghat had received a prison sentence of three months or more he would have been disqualified from standing as a councillor under the council's Code of Conduct.

A by-election - which could leave the balance of power in the borough hanging by a thread - would be triggered if Waghat, who was elected in May 2006, resigned.

If Labour won his seat they would have 32 seats to the coalition's 32 - meaning the mayor, currently Tory Maureen McGarvey, would keep the coalition in power with her casting vote.

Coun Hollern said: "The acid test should always be how does this appear to the man in the street. If it's okay for him to commit benefit fraud, how does that appear to everyone else?"

Coun Johnson, who was elected in Highercroft ward the following year, said: "I was a councillor in Shear Brow for 16 years, so when I found out he was being charged it was a bit of a shock."

Labour councillor Dave Harling said: "Enough is enough. The public demand high standards, and he has failed."

But Coun Rigby backed Waghat and said: "There has been a good deal of political capital made over this.

"The guy made a mistake, he has repaid the money and made an apology.

"I have no problem with Arif at all. He is a good ward councillor."

After the case, Waghat said he was relieved the court case was over.

He said: "It's a relief I can now get on with my job, and this is tinged with regret that it happened in the first place. I have had this hanging over me for the last year or so.

"I will take advice on my future. Not from my friends and relatives, but from my constituents. I will consult on a daily basis for the next week or so. When I meet people in mosques for daily prayers I will gauge the opinion of people.

"That way I will make a decision based on what my constituents say to me."

Burnley Crown Court was told that Waghat filled out council tax and income support benefit forms which his wife Safia Umerji then signed, But the 50-year-old, of Buncer Lane, Blackburn, failed to tell the authorities when he secured employment as a £14,000-a-year accounts manager for a finance firm called Euroquest.

Waghat admitted two offences of failing to notify a change in circumstances for benefits, both committed before he was a councillor. The overpayments came to a combined total of £3,153.

Richard Bennett, defending, said the offences had occurred following a time of particular hardship for his client - his sick mother had died and he had lost his employment with the council.

It was accepted that Waghat had carried out a "significant breach of trust" but he had made strenuous efforts to repay the falsely-acquired benefits, Mr Bennett added.

Judge Norman Wright also ordered Waghat to carry out 150 hours of community service and pay £250 costs.

The court heard that Waghat had recently set up a new firm JLAS Services, which was still in its infancy.


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