Recently the National Audit Office reported that fraud and error in housing benefit rose to 5.8% in 2013-14.
Public accounts committee chair Margaret Hodge said that the Department for Work & Pensions had an “out of sight, out of mind mentality” regarding the problem and that the department was long overdue in developing a strategy to tackle it.
While it is disappointing that the DWP hasn’t been able to better tackle fraud and error within housing, we must accept that it does raise wider strategic questions about how well the government, and we in the profession, do in dealing with the long-term challenges we face.
When it comes to countering fraud there have been some notable short-term, cost-driven measures being made by the government both nationally and locally that will take a long time to unravel.
For example, many local authorities will have recently had a challenging decision to make when recruiting much-needed counter fraud staff since the government’s announcement that many of such staff would be pulled into the new Single Fraud Investigation Service.
The SFIS is a good thing for fraud prevention but it can’t be the focus of all our attention. Neither should we accept short-term decisions that leave gaps in defences for criminals to exploit.
Equally, politicians’ insistence that universal credit will solve many of the issues we face on benefit payments made in error ignores the fact that many of the DWP’s problems with housing benefit are because of the way people work and the fluctuating and insecure nature of the jobs market.
Cipfa is committed to doing what it can. We have launched a new counter fraud code, which replaces our red book and should give those responsible for governance the tools they need to ensure their organisation tackles fraud. It will sit alongside our anti-corruption strategy Fighting Fraud Locally, as part of Cipfa’s counter fraud centre with an accredited training programme to offer all in public services a variety of tools.
Agreeing common standards and skills for countering fraud will help us. The way forward must be about collaboration but also about being honest about the nature and scale of the challenge.
Just as we must assess whether increases in fraud and error statistics are being driven by the fluctuating employment status of vulnerable people dependent on housing benefit, so we must also challenge our perceptions about where fraud happens.
No part of the public or private sector must be removed from scrutiny. From central government procurement to benefits, the health service or local government, if we adopt an “out of sight, out of mind mentality” about any area of the public sector it will only lead to the misuse and loss of public money.
If we are to truly tackle fraud we must bring every area of public spending, no matter how difficult, under scrutiny by well trained and resourced professionals or continue to risk failure.
Rachael Tiffen, head of counter fraud centre, Chartered Institute of Public Finance & Accountancy