ANOTHER VIEW; Hackney's fraud squad

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The Independent Online
The Independent's headline yesterday "Hackney accused of harbouring job cheats" could not be more misleading. In common with other local authorities the council has been the victim of fraud, not the perpetrator. We have also taken robust action to detect and deter it.

In the past five years the council has sacked 110 employees for fraud- related offences, and successfully prosecuted 24.

In the case of job fraud, an investigation of all staff who had joined the housing directorate in the previous two years was begun in November 1993. Of 352 employees investigated, 11 were subsequently dismissed, two resigned and one died who would have been sacked. Two are suspended pending disciplinary action.

This exercise is being extended across the council. We are examining the personnel files of every one of our 11,000 employees to remove any suspicion that any of our staff are fraudulently employed.

On the specific issue of migrants requiring work permits, not only do we require job applicants to produce evidence that they have the relevant permit, but successful applicants must sign a declaration that they have the legal right to reside and take up employment in the UK. We have discussed our procedures with the Immigration and Nationality Department at the Home Office, which has confirmed there is no more the council can do.

These are hardly the actions of a council "harbouring job cheats". And it is not just job cheats the council is hard on. Thirty staff have been dismissed for benefit fraud since 1992.

Since 1991 more than 15,000 properties have been investigated in a systematic block-by-block tenancy check. More than 4,000 have been identified as illegally occupied. Nearly 2,000 have been repaired and re-let to homeless families. This exercise is continuing.

During 1993 and 1994, Hackney council responded to the London-wide problem of student grant fraud with improved systems of control. The number of reported frauds dropped to less than 50 per cent of previous levels by deterring potential fraudsters. The Audit Commission has expressed interest in showcasing the work of our education award section as an example of best practice.

The council's approach to tackling fraud has been praised four years running by the District Auditor. We also have an excellent relationship with the police, with a steering group that meets monthly to co-ordinate all fraud investigation activity within the council. In addition the Metropolitan and City Police Public Sector Corruption Unit worked closely with the council on major fraud investigations. The Audit Commission's 1993 study "Protecting the Public Purse" found that fraud was a widespread problem for local government. Hackney council is undoubtedly in the vanguard of those organisations tackling it.

We are not proud of the statistics referred to above. But they do reflect the council's commitment to detecting fraud, rooting it out and deterring others who are tempted to defraud the council.

The writer is acting chief executive of Hackney council.