A BENEFITS cheat who pocketed more than £50,000 walked free from court - with nearly 85 years to pay it back.

Donna Morris would be aged 116 before the debt could be settled at the current repayment rate of just £11.30 a week.

A judge said the 31-year-old mother-of-four should be locked up for her fiddle - but it would punish her children more.

Loading article content

Morris dishonestly claimed three different benefits for three years after not telling officials that she had got married.

Her lawyer, Andrew White, told Teesside Crown Court that the thought of prison had mace Morris "sick with worry".

He said the impact on her kids would be "disproportionate and draconian", and added: "They have never been separated."

Judge Howard Crowson told Morris that a nationally-suggested six-month sentence would be seen by many as too low.

"There are lots of people who work very hard in this country who struggle to earn what you received in overpayment," he said.

"It is a great frustration to them when they pay their taxes, and you have managed to accumulate a sum of money that never be repaid - not even a significant amount towards it will be repaid.

"It was dishonest. There are no two ways about that. There seems to be a misguided view that dishonesty has different shades. It does not.

"People must not get away with it. We must send out clear messages about it, but on the other hand I am bound by the guidelines.

"There will be those who think six months is a relatively low sentence for a sum of that order.

"More than £16,000 a year are not insignificant sums to most families in this country."

Morris, of Pelham Street, Middlesbrough, admitted failing to notify a change in circumstances to claim Income Support, housing benefit and Council Tax relief.

Mr White said soon after getting wed, the marriage hit trouble and Morris was never sure when her often-absent husband would return or send money.

He said she was in "a very difficult situation" and told Judge Crowson: "She has gone about it the wrong way. She entirely accepts that.

"The money had not been used to fund any kind of luxury lifestyle. It has been applied to her family members, bringing up four children."

Imposing a six-month jail term, suspended for 18 months, with 150 hours of unpaid work, the judge told her: "You are repaying the money at a rate you can afford, but that's a drop in the ocean.

"I have to have regard for your children, who would suffer far more than anyone else."

Reacting to the sentence, Dia Chakravarty, political director of campaign group the TaxPayers' Alliance, said: "Taxpayers will be rightly outraged at this preposterous judgement, which the judge himself admitted was soft due to the guidelines.

"Someone has worked hard to earn every penny of the huge amount which has been pocketed, so we desperately need welfare reform to ensure work pays and cheats are punished."