Councils 'more efficient' at fighting fraud, but new threats emerging

Published on Thursday, 08 November 2012 12:02
Posted by Vicki Mitchem

A new report on local government fraud, published today, says that councils are targeting their investigative resources more efficiently and effectively, detecting more than 124,000 cases of fraud in 2011/12 totalling £179 million.

But it urges them not to drop their guard, as new frauds are emerging in areas such as business rates, Right to Buy housing discounts and schools.

Protecting the public purse 2012: Fighting fraud against local government gives the results of the Audit Commission's annual survey of English councils.

It says that, despite these detection rates, more can still be done. The National Fraud Authority (NFA) estimates that the total amount of fraud in the UK costs every adult in the country about £1,460 a year. Fraud targeting just local government exceeds £2.2 billion per year.

Chairman of the Audit Commission, Jeremy Newman, says:

'There is no doubt our findings show councils increasingly out-smarting the fraudsters. But while they are busy tackling established frauds, new ones keep emerging. Every threat exposed or investigated safeguards money which is needed more than ever.'

The NFA estimates that housing tenancy fraud, including unlawful sub-letting, costs £900 million per year. This is the single largest area of loss to fraud in local government, and it lengthens waiting lists for legitimate housing applicants.

But the Audit Commission's research shows that councils are hitting back, recovering nearly 1,800 homes last year with a total replacement value of nearly £264 million.

Housing and council tax benefits frauds between them account for more than half of all the council fraud losses detected, valued at £117 million. Nearly £21 million of false claims for council tax discounts were detected last year. Fraudsters are also targeting councils' purchasing of goods and services, with 187 cases of procurement fraud uncovered in 2011/12, worth more than £8 million to the public purse.

In addition to these long-established threats, councils' counter-fraud teams are spotting new fraud risks, including those relating to business rates where evidence is emerging of fraudulent misuse of rate relief.

The report also warns councils to be vigilant as they take over management of elements of the Social Fund from Jobcentre Plus in April. This Fund provides grants and loans through Local Welfare Assistance to help people facing immediate financial difficulty, and was worth £130.1 million last year - an attractive prospect for fraudsters.

Schools have also been victims of internal and external frauds in recent years, including those involving expenses and the altering of cheques, as well as procurement and finance leases.

The government's 'Right to Buy' housing scheme has been targeted, as have grants to individuals, community groups and voluntary organisations, including grants for housing renovation, adult social care, and arts and sports activities.

The report lists case studies of successful fraud prosecutions. Among them:

  • A fraudster claiming she was homeless, who used a false driving licence and immigration status. She claimed eight years' worth of housing benefit totalling £144,000, and received a 12 month suspended sentence for fraud.
  • A husband and wife used fake identities to receive a discount of £38,000 to help purchase a £125,000 property under Right to Buy legislation. They were found guilty of receiving property by deception and were given custodial sentences. The council recovered its losses and regained the property.
  • A school administrator who fraudulently claimed overtime valued at about £55,000, settled her credit card bills through school accounts and gave money to her partner. The total fraud was valued at £142,000. She was sentenced to two years imprisonment, and the school's Headteacher was sacked for poor supervision.
  • A key weapon in fighting fraud is the National Fraud Initiative, in which special statutory powers are used by the Audit Commission to highlight anomalies by the forensic matching of data sets. Mis-matches can indicate human error, but often provide clues to potential frauds worth investigating.

Source: ©Audit Commission

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