Sunday, 26 April 2009

More on Benefit Fraud

So, as mentioned before, NCC are 'closing in' on the benefit fraudsters and Cllr Eunice Campbell is getting her name in the papers telling everyone that they've found £300k worth of benefit fraud in a year. Incidentally, Eunice appears to be the portfolio holder for customer services which seems to include Housing Benefits, so it looks like it was her I should have written to over DHPs.

Anyway back to benefits fraud. According to the response I got back via Cllr Trimble the last figure for yearly expenditure on benefits by NCC was £123m. Therefore this identified fraud equates to 0.24% of the budget. This really is a tiny amount.

I'm presuming here that NCC is being honest and reporting on cases which can genuinely be classed as fraud, as opposed to the usual highly misleading central government habit of reporting headline figures of 'fraud and error' which include accidental errors by both the claimant and officials. You don't have to a professional conspiracy theorist to work out why they do that and I'll happily acknowledge that its a step forward for NCC to take this more honest approach.

Even so it doesn't look very much does it? Recent national figures for Housing Benefit fraud seem thin on the ground and the most recent I could find were for 2004/5. You have to scroll through to p30 for the fraud figures to be separated out from the headline figure but for that year it was said to be 2.5% of expenditure. That's 10 times Nottingham's figure. This national figure had reduced from 4.1% 3 years earlier so a rough guestimate could be that, assuming that trend continued, its probably about half the 04/05 figure now. So, our roughly guestimated conclusion is that Nottingham's level of Housing Benefit fraud is about 20% of the national figure...

What's more, our little look at the NCC page on the 'What Do They Know' site threw up a response from NCC that they were not aware of any 'concerted or co-ordinated' attempts at Housing Benefit fraud. I'm not really getting a particularly strong impression of anybody 'closing in' here, more that committing benefit fraud in Nottingham is a bloody good idea because there's bugger all chance of getting caught.

NCC are also proudly telling us that, of the £300k identified, they have so far recovered £200k. Hmmm, I wonder how much they spend on fraud investigations? I wonder how much that 'closing in' advertising campaign has cost? I'm willing to bet that the cost of the two combined will equate to more than £200k.

On a more generous and less facetious note its difficult to win with fraud statistics. If you have low levels of recorded fraud does this mean there isn't any fraud to detect or that you haven't detected whats there? Maybe you've got robust procedures that make it difficult to commit fraud in the first place? I'm not sure its ever possible to know the answer to those questions.

However, that's not really the message given out by this publicity. It's more like they're saying "there's nowhere to hide, we're gonna get you", combined with a clear attempt to demonise those who 'take money away' from vital services.

My own view is that, on the information we have, NCC is unable to justify either of these messages. I'm no fan of benefit fraud but it's hardly the worst crime you can be guilty of and many individuals who do it wouldn't bother if it weren't for difficult personal circumtances. What's more my own experience of dealing with large numbers of people on benefits tells me that there is a very real effect of discouraging legitimate claims with these simplistic advertising campaigns. Furthermore, there is evidence that benefit take up is adversely affected by previous poor experience of claiming (such as wrongly being investigated for fraud perhaps?*).

Are such campaigns really the best use of our money?

*Note; according to the 'Post article, 406 people were investigated for fraud, of those 43 were convicted in court, 77 accepted formal cautions and 19 accepted an administrative penalty. So 139 people in total could be said to have been caught under these investigations, a hit rate of only 34%.

And that assumes that all those accepting a caution or an admin penalty actually committed fraud as opposed to simply being overpaid, there is a big difference.


Innit said...

Jo they have figures on junket fraud in NCC?

Anonymous said...

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John Page said...

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