Julian Ware-Lane, Labour councillor for Milton, has criticised Southend Council’s plans to give counter-fraud teams new powers to carry out investigations independently of the police.
Council officers would be able to access the electoral role and Tesco Clubcard records, execute search warrants and seize assets that could be the proceeds of crime or benefit fraud.
Speaking at a Southend Council meeting, Mr Ware-Lane said:
In the last year benefit fraud and error accounted for 2.1 per cent of total benefit expenditure, ensuring the recovery of this public money is of top priority. However, giving council employees these powers seem draconian, unnecessary and a duplication of the proper authority and procedures of the police.The council has had the ability to strengthen its officers’ hands since 1985, but is only now looking to activate the powers.
Mr Ware-Lane, who is a member of the council’s audit committee, which discussed the plans last year, said:
We can all agree benefit cheats must be caught and punished, and public money recovered, but these proposals leaves me distinctly uneasy. Entering people’s homes, executing warrants and seizing property should be carried out in the proper manner, by the proper authorities. The police are accountable to the judiciary and a number of other public bodies, these new ‘council cops’ are expected to have all the powers, but where is the accountability?Paul Collins, Lib Dem chairman of the council’s audit committee, backed the plan:
It’s appropriate the right authorities pursue this and it’s not always left to the police. The council officers are accountable to the judiciary for their actions, as you would expect. This will significantly enhance the counter fraud team’s ability in detecting, preventing and deterring fraud and corruption in all areas of the council.