Minute 668 Counter Fraud Update Report

Councillor Paul Collins (Liberal Democrat, Westborough) has written this: At last night’s Council meeting a labour Councillor attacked the report to the last Audit Committee which was presented to us on the current work being done by the Councils’ counter fraud team to challenge and uncover Fraud within and outside the Council.

Attacked? I think he means expressed unease – which is the words I actually used. I am less keen than he is to give extra powers to Council officers. I note that Cllr Collins also says that it “is my duty … that we challenge these reports as presented to us”. It is my duty too, although evidently when I do it I am attacking.

Here is what I actually said in the chamber:

This rather innocuous minute includes a proposal for Council Cops.

Under the Council’s plans, counter-fraud teams will be given new powers to carry out investigations independently of the police and other law enforcement agencies, including the ability to execute search warrants and seize assets that could be the proceeds of crime or benefit fraud.

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.

During the meeting it was announced that the powers will include access to various data sources, including the electoral roll and Tesco clubcard records.

We can all agree that benefit cheats must be caught and punished, and public monies recovered, but that 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?

In addition, the Council is proposing to use powers that have been available since 1985, and I wondered why nearly twenty-nine years have elapsed without need to seek recourse through these powers.

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