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Charlie Adan: the fight against fraud must withstand cuts

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The Fighting Fraud Corruption Locally Board promotes the work done by councils to counter fraud and corruption and ensure that those who are successful receive the recognition they deserve.

The board, which has no formal authority, brings together representatives of local government, the private sector, government and specialists in counter fraud, to formulate a national strategy for counter fraud and corruption for local government, promote it to councils and spread best practice. Volunteers from across the sector and beyond, with support of our sponsors, drive this work nationally.

The threat of fraud is growing; fraudsters are becoming ever more sophisticated and the sector needs to be one step ahead. According to Cifas, the fraud prevention organisation that manages the largest national database, fraud is now the most prevalent category of volume crime; with 3.2 million frauds reported last year.

The cost of fraud to the public purse is notoriously difficult to assess but in its Fraud Landscape report 2018, the government estimated the fraud and error loss in the public sector, outside the tax and welfare system, at between £2.7bn and £20.3bn – between 0.5% and 5% of total expenditure.

However, it is perhaps the lack of certainty about the volume, value and payback from this work that may account at least in part for councils’ varying levels of counter fraud activity. It may also be that with the transfer of housing benefit fraud and many council fraud officers to the Department for Work & Pensions a few years ago and the relentless cutbacks in resources generally that counter fraud and corruption has slipped down the agenda for some.

Councils, if not finding instances of fraud locally, should ask whether they are doing enough.

The first limb of Fighting Fraud & Corruption Locally (the local government counter fraud and corruption strategy) invites councils to acknowledge the threat of fraud and corruption and create a local counter fraud culture. Those who have done so have officers at all levels and in every area of operations who are equipped to recognise fraud and corruption and know what to do when they uncover it. Fraudsters will get to know those councils and are likely to take their business elsewhere.

The strategy also focuses on two further themes – prevent and pursue – and it can be difficult to decide which of these is a priority. There is clearly a dilemma; when money is tight, savings eat into the capacity to counter fraud and the risk of loss to fraud increases as a consequence. Fraud officers often report that they find it difficult to make the business case for investment. However, those who have invested in this work have seen both financial and social rewards.

Government may perceive local government to be lagging behind its Whitehall counterparts in this field of work but the evidence may support the counter view. Whatever the true picture, local government should be celebrating its success to get the credit that it is rightly due. Councils know the threats they face best and we must ensure government knows we are taking those threats seriously, and responding with some rigour.

The FFCL board will be drawing on sector expertise to refresh the local government counter fraud and corruption strategy later this year. We will be promoting those councils, and partners, who are working together to ensure that resources are used to best effect and those getting to grips with information sharing, across the public and with the private sector. Fraudsters do not respect such boundaries, and those countering fraud must not either.

So far, the strategy has focused on tackling the threat of fraud directly to councils. Rightly so, every pound lost to fraud is money that is diverted from local public service provision, and from protecting some of the most vulnerable in our communities.

However, if this threat is not sufficient motivation to think again; it is now apparent that fraud is increasingly becoming a safeguarding issue. Fraud is being committed within families and in our communities. The growth in the older population, particularly those living alone or with dementia, often self funders and if not, with their own personal care budgets, makes it easier for fraud to be committed against some of the most vulnerable. Greater incidence of isolation and loneliness has seen an increase in fraudsters befriending or worse forming romantic attachments with the vulnerable in order to commit their frauds.

These vulnerable people are the very ones for whom local government cares. If they fall victim, and their health, wellbeing and wealth suffers, it is the local council that picks up the pieces. If they lose the means to care for themselves, the cost of that care falls on the public purse. Our partners in the private sector, particularly in financial services, may be ready to work with local government and share expertise in counter fraud to tackle these safeguarding threats.

Charlie Adan, chair, the Fighting Fraud & Corruption Locally Board

 

If want to know more about the work being done to counter fraud and corruption or want to volunteer to support the board’s work, then please email rachael.tiffen@cifas.org.uk

 

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