Anti-fraud bosses promise return to action after year without prosecutions

By James Harrison

Potential scammers have been put on notice as bosses in Northumberland gear up to return to full service following the coronavirus pandemic.

The Covid-19 outbreak brought a halt to many of Northumberland County Council ’s usual activities, including its non-stop hunt for anyone attempting to swindle public funds.

Limited access to facilities such as interview rooms and a growing backlog in the courts saw the local authority’s anti-fraud team fail to pursue a single case in 2020/21, but bosses hope they will soon be back to work.

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“The ability to actually impose sanctions was significantly hampered during the past year due to the pandemic,” said Jan Willis, the county council’s executive director of finance.

“No formal sanctions, such as prosecution, formal caution or administrative penalties, were imposed.

“But as and when we are able to continue normal operations, I would expect a number of those things to be brought back into play.”

According to a report for the council’s Audit Committee, the 12 months to March 31 saw two referrals for internal investigation, both relating to wages and possible payroll issues.

A further 825 probes were triggered by external cases over the year.

Of these, 18 related to payment of Covid-19 grants, a number which bosses claimed was low, relative to the number of handouts awarded due to the “extensive checks being carried out pre and post payment”.

The paper also revealed that 78 applications under the Right to Buy scheme, which allows social housing tenants to buy their homes at a discounted price, has been singled out for further checks.

Following this, 35 were later withdrawn by the tenants, saving the council a combined total of more than £1.4m which would have been lost in discounts had sales been allowed to go through.

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