A “VERY, very dishonest lady” who fraudulently claimed more than £60,000 in benefits was spared prison because it would cost taxpayers too much, a judge has ruled.

Regina Hutchinson swindled Oxford City Council and the Department for Work and Pensions out of £60,365 over more than 10 years.

The 47-year-old mother of three, from Abingdon Road, Oxford, illegally claimed £26,000 in income support and about £34,000 in housing and council tax benefits.

At Oxford Crown Court yesterday, Judge Christopher Compston said the £40,000 cost of a year’s imprisonment meant the public would be better served if Hutchinson, who works for supermarket chain Sainsbury’s, paid back the money at a rate of £450 a month.

Wendy Hewitt, prosecuting, said: “She had been in receipt of benefits, legitimately, since about 1993.

“In about 1998 she moved to a new address and quite simply failed to disclose she was married and had a child.

“She claimed she was a lone parent, but the reality throughout that time was she was a married lady, her husband was living with her and her husband was working.”

Miss Hewitt said the offences came to light early last year and Hutchinson admitted her wrongdoing when interviewed by council investigators.

She has already repaid £2,000 to the city council and £2,000 to the Department for Work and Pensions, the court heard.

Hugh Williams, defending, said: “On one hand, this is a person involved in a lengthy benefit fraud, but on the other she’s someone who has stuck by her family through thick and very difficult thin.”

He said Hutchinson’s eldest son had been “expelled from about three schools” between the age of four and 16 and had “smashed up” the council house the family lived in.

Mr Williams said his client used the benefit money to pay for the repairs to the house, so she would not have to tell the council.

Hutchinson had earlier admitted two charges of dishonestly claiming exemption from liability, obtaining money transfer by deception, obtaining property by deception and two charges of failing to notify a change in circumstances.

The judge sentenced her to 15 months’ imprisonment, suspended for two years, gave her a six-month supervision order and ordered that her repayments should continue at £450 a month.

Describing her as “a very, very dishonest lady”, he said: “This is a very large sum of money and all of us know there’s far too much of this around and you richly deserve to go to prison at once.

“However, there are some very strong points in your favour.”

He said it cost about £40,000 a year to keep someone in jail and that Hutchinson would have paid off her debt in 10 years, but warned: “I don’t want the public to get any message you can always do this.

“Do this by a whisker again and you will be sent to prison.”

Carol Quainton, the council’s investigations manager, said: “We hope that by taking action against those who commit these kind of offences, the public are becoming more aware that we will take action and recover any money obtained.

“People who cheat the system are stealing from the taxpayer and are restricting the amount of funds available to those who are in genuine need.”

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