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Former Labour Swanley Town Council leader Robert Woodbridge narrowly avoids jail over benefits fraud

A former Labour town council leader who was exposed as a disability benefit cheat after falsely claiming he could walk “zero metres for zero minutes” because of severe pain has escaped a jail sentence.

Robert Woodbridge walked free despite a judge telling him: “Your dishonesty was, it has to be said, quite brazen and extended for some months.

“You were, of course, a man of some standing in the local community. In your position within the local community you were, or should have been, something of a role model to others.

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Robert Woodbridge leaving court. Picture: IKMPixs
Robert Woodbridge leaving court. Picture: IKMPixs

“By your actions you have betrayed those entitled to look up to you and respect you.”

But because of the health situation of Woodbridge and his wife and the embarrassment he faced, Judge David Griffith-Jones QC said he could suspend four months imprisonment for a year, with no other requirements or costs.

Maidstone Crown Court heard Department of Work and Pensions investigators filmed Woodbridge carrying out every day tasks seemingly with ease.

On several occasions he was carrying items to his car, driving, walking up and down steep steps, pulling a trailer and even building a shed at his allotment.

Woodbridge, who later stood in elections for the Green Party and Liberal Democrats, denied dishonestly failing to notify a change of circumstances, claiming he had good days and bad days, but he was convicted by a jury in just 20 minutes last month.

The 59-year-old former Swanley Town Council leader, who suffers from inflammatory arthritis, claimed a higher rate of disability living allowance he was not entitled to, Maidstone Crown Court was told.

Prosecutor Edmund Fowler said Woodbridge initially made a legitimate claim for the allowance in 1997.

But after he renewed his claim in December 2013 he received a higher rate “care component” paid on the basis he needed help both day and night and a higher rate mobility component payable on the basis he was virtually unable to walk.

“We are not questioning the basis of his initial application,” said Mr Fowler. “This case is about what happened subsequently, because it came to light that his mobility and care needs had improved.

“He failed to declare a change of circumstances to the DWP, as required.”

Cllr Robert Woodbridge
Cllr Robert Woodbridge

As a result, he received an overpayment of £5,869 between August 12 2015 and January 26 last year.

Mr Fowler said Woodbridge’s renewal form stated a number of things that no longer applied.

“He said he could walk zero metres for zero minutes before feeling severe pain,” he told a jury of eight men and four women. “The pain started as soon as he got up and started walking.

“He used sticks to walk. He stumbled, tripped and fell often. His days were mostly the same as the pain was always there. He suffered pain in his knees and ankles when he walked and was unable to stand for long.

"Your dishonesty was, it has to be said, quite brazen and extended for some months" — Judge David Griffith-Jones QC

“The Crown say there was a change in those circumstances. He talks of aids, handrails on stairs, pain and discomfort in his wrists and knees, walking sticks to help walk in and out of doors.”

Woodbridge stated: “Pain and discomfort starts when I start walking as soon as I get up. Walking is extremely poor. I can only walk with the support of sticks. I have sharp pain in my knees and ankles which cause me to fall.”

He said he needed help to get up and to go to the toilet. He needed help seven days a week as the pain was always there. He could not get in and out of bed on his own and it took him about 15 minutes to get down the stairs.

Woodbridge, a councillor for 16 years from May 1999 to May 2015, said he could not use the TV remote control.

Judge David Griffith-Jones
Judge David Griffith-Jones

Mr Fowler said when surveillance was carried out investigators saw Woodbridge appear to walk without a stick, crossing roads, climbing up to particular places and spending time apparently independently.

In film clip he was shown putting his walking stick into a wheelbarrow.

“It appears he was able to build a shed sawing and hammering while at his allotment, using his foot to steady a plank as he was sawing,” said Mr Fowler.

“You can see there was a very different set of circumstances to what was set out in that claim form, and when there is a change in circumstances there is a duty to inform the DWP.

“The duty is to give a prompt notification for any change. The Crown say the defendant acted dishonestly in all this.”

The case was heard at Maidstone Crown Court
The case was heard at Maidstone Crown Court

Woodbridge, of Garrolds Close, Swanley, gave a prepared statement in which he claimed the severity of his pain fluctuated, and that some days he was immobile and others he could move.

But Mr Fowler added: “The Crown say it was rather convenient that on each day he was filmed he was having a good day.”

Fiona McAddy, defending, submitted that the offending did not pass the custody threshold, but Judge Griffith-Jones said: “It seems to me the custody threshold is most certainly passed.”

Miss McAddy said as a result of the conviction, Woodbridge would no longer be allowed to hold a public office, which would end his plan to become a school governor.

“There has been a degree of embarrassment for these matters,” she said. “It extends beyond general embarrassment. The conviction has had a considerable impact on his wife.”

"We are determined to find those we suspect of abusing the welfare system by following up on tip-offs, undertaking surveillance and working with local councils" - DWP

She also suffered from arthritis and had developed anxiety and had seizures as a result of the prosecution.

“He feels responsible for the situation she finds herself in,” said Miss McAddy. “His standing in the community has been diminished. He is a man of limited means. There are no savings he can call on if costs are ordered.”

The judge said Woodbridge was found guilty after a trial in which the evidence against him was compelling.

“It included overt surveillance footage on a number of occasions when you were seen to be moving relatively freely and without apparent difficulty, getting in and out of your car without any need for assistance,” he said.

“You were walking up and down steps, manually manoeuvring a trailer and going to an fro from your allotment where you were observed directing and repairing a shed, including sawing and hammering timber.

“Your suggestion you had good days and bad days and fraud investigators had on what would have been the most extraordinary coincidence caught you on each occasion on a good day, was, as it seems to me, quite absurd.

“Plainly, the jury thought so too.”

His explanation that he could move freely because of an overdose of painkillers was also “fanciful”, said the judge.

Woodbridge involving family and friends to give evidence in his support did him little credit, and they could not have appreciated the issues in the case, he added.

A DWP spokesman said: "Only a small minority of benefit claimants are dishonest, but cases like this show how we are rooting out the unscrupulous minority who are cheating the system and diverting taxpayers’ money from those who really need it.

“We are determined to find those we suspect of abusing the welfare system by following up on tip-offs, undertaking surveillance and working with local councils.

"Deliberately not informing us of a change in your condition that may affect your claim is a crime.

"Don’t wait for our fraud investigators to find you - tell us of a change now.

"If you suspect someone of fraudulently claiming benefits, then call our National Benefit Fraud Hotline on 0800 854 440."

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