Mr Titheridge told the IRRV annual conference in Blackpool today that, of the 12,000 people taken to court each year in the UK for benefit offences, 35% are only given a conditional discharge
He said the Public Accounts Committee found that, of the 380 councils administering housing benefits, 182 took no prosecutions at all in 1996-97.
Mr Titheridge insisted that the war against fraud and error required a more face to face contact with clients.
'The emphasis that the Benefits Fraud Inspectorate is putting on claim forms may not be radical enough. If we are really about preventing fraud and being proactive, we need to move to much more face to face interviews and visits, which still result in the claimant signing a form which includes all the information they have given, but a process which doesn't consist of throwing a 20 page form at them and offering help if they can't fill it in.'
As evidence of the need for 'joined up government' in the benefits arena, Mr Titheridge said: 'I was at a meeting last week when a visiting officer for a local authority was describing the difficulty she had using a portable photocopier to copy a claimant's payment books, which kept coming out totally black, presumably because of some security feature built into the way the book was printed. I don't think that sending local government officers out to photocopy DSS documents at claimants' homes can really be called joined up government.'
Mr Titheridge also insisted that the Benefits Fraud Inspectorate needed to avoid becoming yet another agency dedicated to attacking individual councils:
'Post hoc auditors are important, but these audit bodies are going to be tempted to play to the media, which doesn't like local government much in any case, and if they are rewarded by good headlines, they are likely to act accordingly.
'We have certainly seen this tendency from other audit bodies, but I must say that the communications from the BFI so far have been very positive and generally appear to be balanced.'
- Copies of Mr Titheridge's full speech are available on request from LGCnet. Tel 0171 833 7324/5.