Cuts are ‘good news’ for benefits cheats

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Axing investigators and internal auditors will have significant impact

CONCERNS have been raised over Sheffield Council’s decision to halve the size of its benefit and council tax fraud investigation team and reduce the number of internal auditors as it implements budget cuts.

The authority currently pays contractor Capita to employ 14 benefit and council tax fraud investigators, tasked with catching up to 300 cheats a year. But the operation is to be halved, with a new target of 150, after the council cut funding to Capita by £3.3 million.

Chris Jenkinson, of trade union Unison, said there are currently about 560 benefit and council tax fraud investigation cases live.

He added: “About 200 of those will have to be abandoned, which means 200 criminals involved in fraudulent activity will be allowed to walk away scot-free.”

Unison claims the Capita team recovered more than £1.5m in over-payments last year. Sheffield Council says it will focus resources on cases with the best chance of successful prosecution.

Meanwhile, the 25-strong team of internal auditors who monitor the work of council departments and budget control is being cut by five posts.

The decision was made despite a warning in a report to councillors that the move will have a “significant impact”.

Internal auditors are trained to spot where rules are in danger of being broken and detect questionable spending.

A report to the council’s Audit Committee, which meets on Tuesday, voiced fears over cuts to the internal audit team - achieved through not filling vacancies and ending temporary workers’ contracts.

Laraine Manley, director of corporate resources, said: “The Internal Audit establishment has been reduced by 20 per cent - five full-time posts. The impact of the reductions is significant.

“The position does represent a real increase in risk to the council.”

The officer said that for the first time, the auditors would be unable to carry out regular checks on many high-risk areas of the council’s work.

There would be a review later in the year to reduce the size of the internal audit team further. Different approaches to the service would be considered.