7 Aug 2013

Sandwell housing fraud pilot a triumphant success

This blog has consistently said that social housing fraud is the most wicked welfare fraud. It doesn't just cost the rest of us money, it also stops people who deserve social housing getting it. Here Sandwell report on a pilot which recovered 44 properties and saved £1m.

The Audit Commission and National Fraud Authority consider social housing fraud to be the single largest fraud risk to local government. At a time when demand for social housing is outstripping supply, the research indicates that 2% of social housing stock outside London is subject to fraud.

With a stock of just under 30,000, up to 600 homes in our area of Sandwell could be occupied by people not entitled to them, making it more difficult to satisfy the council's waiting list of around 13,000 people.

Research has found that 85% of organisations with an fraud strategy or a dedicated team were able to detect and act on fraud cases, compared to only 19% of organisations without.

Our specialist investigative team comprises housing benefit investigation staff and a member of staff co-opted from housing services.

Housing benefit investigators are extremely useful, not only because of the strong links between benefit and social housing fraud, but they have investigative skills and can conduct interviews under caution, while the member of staff from housing services provided an essential effective link to frontline housing staff.

The plan was to run a pilot exercise for six months to gather evidence, if available, to justify the continued application of resources towards preventing, detecting and tackling social housing fraud.

The results

We recovered five properties obtained by false declaration, three properties that were being sub-let and recovered 36 abandoned properties. Although the council already had procedures in place to identify these, the pilot formalised procedures so the extent of the problem could be accurately recorded and monitored. We also prevented three fraudulent right-to-buy applications.

The Audit Commission calculates the cost of social housing fraud at £18,000 per property a year. With 44 properties recovered this amounts to savings of more than £750,000 with right-to-buy discounts totalling £138,000. The investigative resource was less than £60,000 and was funded from within existing budgets.

How we did it

Awareness briefings were delivered to relevant groups. This included all housing staff including janitors, cleaners and repair operative managers, as well as tenants. A fraud e-leaning package was made available to council staff and strong lines of communication were established between neighbourhood offices and the investigative team. We were represented at the antisocial housing fraud partnership group within the West Midlands making best use of stock partnership, local press covered the scheme and a dedicated telephone hotline was set up.

Existing documentation was reviewed ensuring it was fit for purpose and would support prosecutions if necessary. To improve our tenancy audits we started photographing new tenants and tenant transfers. We also improved security of the entry-fob system used at 28 high-rise blocks by cancelling unused key fobs and reissuing them for tenancy changes. The data from entry fob systems at high-rise blocks was also used to identify properties which were not being accessed.

Our top tips

• Ensure investigators stay focused on social housing fraud and are not side-tracked by other cases of problem tenants

• Get support from cabinet members and senior management

• Buy-in from housing staff at grass roots who feel they can't tackle the problem alone but can significantly contribute to intelligence gathering

• Data matching is a key part of an anti-fraud strategy. Sandwell council is looking to make greater use of the national fraud initiative and develop the partnership working of West Midlands Making Best Use of Stock Partnership supplementing this with data matching from other agencies

• Keep up to date with the latest news and predict the consequences. When government increased the incentives for the right-to-buy, there was an increase in applications – including fraudulent ones

• The pilot primarily concentrated on recovering properties, but we should be pursuing offenders through the courts where possible. The Prevention of Social Housing Fraud Act has given local authorities additional powers to take action against council tenants committing social housing fraud. We will be looking to make full use of this legislation and promote it as a deterrent.

1 comment:

trace said...

The major gain here is the recovery of abandoned properties... and you're congratulating yourselves? It's unbelievable that you allowed so many of your properties be abandoned in the first place, and then, not to know about them simply suggests your administration is incompetent.
This program recovered 8 properties that were being fraudulently rented, was that worth £1,000,000?