The Nottingham Post has published an article about Housing Benefit Fraud committed against Nottingham City Council. Unfortunately it actually tells us very little and merely provides an excuse to run the 'BENEFITS FRAUD INCREASING SHOCK HORROR' meme again. It's a classic case of not asking the right questions or, if they did, not putting the answers to them in your article.
The headline is that benefit fraud prosecutions have increased by 39% and Graham Chapman says that the tough economic climate is to blame. He may well be right of course but we can't tell that from the article.
You see, as the article does explain, prosecution is not the only option open to councils when dealing with benefit fraud. There is the administrative penalty (a kind of bribe/blackmail designed to persuade you to 'fess up, pay a chunk of extra money you haven't got so you don't have to go to court), cautions and simply requiring the money to be repaid. There are arguments in favour of all these options depending on the individual situation. In short therefore, an increase in court prosecutions could simply be down to a change in prosecution policy, formal or otherwise*. In fairness the Post does say that NCC is resorting to prosecution more often but I can't tell from the article whether that was Chapman expressing NCC's declared policy or whether this is simply the Post reporter's conclusion.
Taking the article at face value then, NCC's response to increasing financial woes is to make things worse for those most affected by prosecuting more often when desperate times force poor decision making. I'm not sure that reflects too well on NCC.
It would have been helpful if the Post had asked NCC whether detected fraud had also increased as this would at least help answer the 'changed/not changed prosecution policy' question i.e. if greater detected fraud occurred along with more prosecutions then we could conclude 'no change'. On the other hand, if you assume that any organisation would get better at finding fraud
over time** (practice makes perfect and all that) then if there isn't an increase in fraud then it may not be unreasonable to conclude that NCC has merely toughened its stance. It has to be said that NCC doesn't seem to actually find much benefit fraud, managing to find fraud worth only 0.24% of total benefit expenditure in 2009, about 10% of the national rate. This means that the margin of error is larger and any claim of an increase is less significant. The fact that we're talking about an increase in prosecutions from 31 to 43 in a six month period reinforces this concern.
We know that actual Housing Benefit expenditure has increased by nearly 20% in only two years (I think that's known as 'rocketing' in the trade) and that is without doubt down to the worsening economic conditions. Would we also expect that fraud as a proportion of this expenditure would also increase? It would be worthwhile knowing if that is what is happening.
If we had been given the figures for fraud I'd also want to be sure that they really were actual fraud as opposed to 'fraud and error' which is what tends to be reported in order to amplify the alarm bells further, the 'error' of course tending to combine official and customer error and leaving the general public to assume it's all down to claimants. I've previously uncovered evidence of a perverse incentive for NCC to try and reclassify their own errors as customer error, combine this with clear evidence of the Benefits Service's standards slipping in general and you've got a bit of a mess brewing.
Ok, so I've gone further than you might expect a local newspaper to go writing an article afresh but the information for Post reporters to use has been up here for a while and all the links to sources are still fully functional. There may well be a big story here but, unfortunately somebody somewhere still has a lot of work to do to find out.
* I'm getting indications that quite a bit of high level decision-making is being done 'off-minutes' so to speak, almost certainly to evade Freedom of Information requests.
** Naive I know.