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Agenda item

Counter Fraud Unit Report

To consider the annual update on the work of the Counter Fraud Team.


7.1             Attention was drawn to the report of the Head of Finance and Asset Management, circulated at Pages No. 37-45, which provided assurance over the counter fraud activities of the Council.  Members were asked to consider the annual update from the Counter Fraud Unit.

7.2             The Counter Fraud Manager advised that the report outlined the work that had been completed, and results achieved, and provided information about upcoming work streams.  The report also provided an annual update in relation to the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (RIPA) and the Investigatory Powers Act 2016 (IPA) in respect of surveillance activity undertaken by the Council and it was noted that these policies were being updated and would be presented to Audit and Governance Committee in September.  Members were advised there had been no RIPA applications made by the Council during 2019/20; however, the authority was currently undergoing an inspection by the Investigatory Powers Commissioner’s Office and the Counter Fraud Manager had been interviewed by the Inspector earlier that week to talk about the set-up and practices at Tewkesbury Borough Council so she would update Members of the outcome in her next report which was due to be considered by the Committee in December.

7.3             In terms of the 2019/20 work programme, a summary of key tasks was set out at Page No. 39, Paragraph 2.0 of the report.  This had included providing support with business grants in terms of concerns regarding any fraudulent activity; developing a medium term enforcement proposal to manage the current situation whilst it was not possible to carry out interviews under caution in person due to COVID-19; and, procuring a case management system which allowed all clients to send referrals remotely which automatically populated the system.  Paragraph 2.5 of the report outlined the specific activities undertaken in relation to Tewkesbury Borough Council which included assisting the Revenues team to investigate referrals relating to incorrectly claimed Council Tax discounts or exemptions and investigating alleged fraud and abuse in relation to the Council Tax Reduction Scheme.  In addition, all local authorities participated in the National Fraud Initiative which was a data matching exercise to help prevent and detect fraud nationwide - the Counter Fraud Unit had undertaken the match for the Revenues and Benefits team during 2019/20 and had agreed to do this for 2020/21 to alleviate some of the burden on that team.

7.4             A Member drew attention to the risk implications, set out at Page No. 38 of the report, which stated that the Council was required to proactively tackle fraudulent activity and he questioned how the Committee could be satisfied that the authority was being proactive as a lot of the information related to referrals which was more reactive.  In response, the Counter Fraud Manager clarified that the reactive work was detailed in the report and included the Council Tax referrals, Council Tax Reduction Scheme referrals and enforcement referrals from the Planning team etc.  whereas the proactive work was included in the work plans attached as appendices to the report.  This included looking at charity shop exemptions to check whether there was any fraud in that particular area, reviewing the Council’s Gifts and Hospitality process, running staff and Member fraud awareness training and tackling serious and organised crime in transient businesses etc.  She explained that fraud awareness should filter through the whole organisation but it was about looking for it as well and she provided assurance that a preventative approach was taken.  Another Member queried whether the Counter Fraud Unit looked for patterns of behaviour based on referrals to see if there were other areas where the same activity could be happening.  The Counter Fraud Manager confirmed that was the case, for instance, if there was a sudden surge in fraudulent benefit applications, this knowledge would be shared and a fraud drive would be undertaken.  She indicated that work carried out in relation to business grants had uncovered in a scam which had impacted all partner Councils.  The Counter Fraud Unit always thought beyond the particular piece of work they were doing and this was easier now the team was more established as there were stronger relationships with Officers and shared learning between Councils.  In terms of proactive fraud, the Head of Corporate Services pointed out that fraud was the responsibility of management and fraud risk was picked up whenever an audit was undertaken.  He also advised that the Corporate Management Team had given approval to appoint a Business Rates Intelligence Officer to the Revenues and Benefits team which would help to ensure an accurate ratings list.  He stressed that fraud was an important activity across all service areas and it was important not to work in silos in terms of business intelligence.

7.5             A Member noted that, during 2019/20, 1,114 business premises visits had been undertaken as part of the ratings list review and he questioned how those visits would be carried out in future in light of COVID-19.  In response, the Counter Fraud Manager advised that that particular piece of work was a one-off to carry out initial visits to review businesses in the borough.  Any visits carried out in future would need to be done sensitively and consideration was being given to how information could be gathered in a different way, for instance, interviews under caution were often key to a lot of enforcement action and these could not be carried out in the normal way which involved a face to face interview with panic buttons etc.  Nevertheless, she had been working on a solution to this and it was possible to make adaptations.  If a visit was really necessary then it would be a question of ensuring that appropriate Personal and Protective Equipment (PPE) was worn and that the correct processes and procedures were followed.  It had helped enormously that there had been a national shift to using virtual platforms  which meant that others outside of the Council were happy to engage in this way.

7.6             The Chair thanked the Counter Fraud Manager for the good work that had been undertaken by the team during the year and hoped this would continue throughout 2020/21.  It was subsequently

RESOLVED          That the annual update on the work of the Counter Fraud Team be NOTED.

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