Craven District Council prosecuted benefit cheats who made more than £160,000 in bogus claims last year.

The authority’s legal team succesfully took action acgainst 11 people who claimed more than they were entitled to.

But the team is now under threat of being scrapped due to a government shake-up.

Currently, all prosecutions are carried out at Skipton Magistrates Court – and reported in the Craven Herald – but new proposals could see them being moved to Leeds.

If cases were moved to the city, there are fears that a lack of local knowledge could lower the detection rate, and that it would be harder for local media such as the Herald to name those cheating the system.

It would also mean less work for the magistrates court, which only three years ago fought off a proposed closure.

A plan by the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) would see the setting up of a Single Fraud Investigation Service (SFIS), to be managed by the DWP.

If the proposals, which are due to go before the Treasury later this month, are approved, the service will investigate all benefit and tax credit fraud from DWP offices – none of which are in Craven.

Craven District Council, which is opposing the proposals, believes centralisation will lead to a weakening of the service and has asked Skipton MP Julian Smith to highlight the potential problems of a rushed decision.

The council’s deputy leader, Coun Richard Foster, said: “The council is concerned that if SFIS, led by the DWP, who have little knowledge of council benefits, is responsible for investigating potential housing benefits fraud, it will not be a priority.

“Craven currently receives a significant number of informal investigation referrals from colleagues and other local sources, and it is anticipated that this close local connection and personal contact will be lost under the new proposals and is likely to result in a decrease in fraud detection.”

He said it was currently not clear whether the council’s fraud officers would be transferred to the new service.

“Craven’s prosecution of these cases – which have included significant sums of DWP paid benefits – has meant that prosecutors with specialised and detailed knowledge of offences of this nature and fraud trends, have presented these cases to court.

“This will be lost under the proposed arrangements with this function being transferred to the Crown Prosecution Service, and as a national organisation, the CPS does not always have the local knowledge important in understanding the impact of these cases.”

He added: “There can be significant delays in CPS cases and it does not always prosecute the case in the appropriate local court, with the result that valuable local press coverage, which the council believes assists in preventing fraud, is lost.”

And he believed it could mean an increase in fraudulent claims – leading to a greater cost to council tax payers.

“The law abiding citizens of Craven cannot afford to lose the wealth of knowledge and experience of the successful investigation team.

“Without a Craven based team, this could be an open invitation to fraudsters.”

Skipton MP Julian Smith confirmed he had received representations from the council and would be raising the issue with the appropriate ministers.