Council's battle against tenancy fraud highlighted in Audit Commission report
Published by Max Salsbury for 24dash.com in Housing and also in Communities, Legal, Local Government
A council's work in combating tenancy fraud has been highlighted in the Audit Commission's National Fraud Initiative 2011/12 report.
While some local authorities are failing to detect any cases of tenancy fraud, Harrow Council's investigators have traced swindlers in Luton, Kent, Sunderland, Leeds, and as far afield as New Zealand, Dubai and Tanzania.
While the Audit Commission has concluded that "too many councils and housing associations are doing little or nothing to detect tenancy fraud", Harrow Council has revealed nine such cases within the current financial year and ten last year.
The council has also received formal agreements to terminate four further properties within the next month. There are additionally 26 cases currently under investigation.
The council claims that its recoveries of illegally sublet social homes have saved taxpayers £162,000.
The local authority's housing management team inspects homes without warning to check who is living there and how the property is being maintained.
Spot checks are carried out at properties where the council believes there could be a problem with tenancy fraud, and are targeted through careful processing of fraud intelligence from various sources.
The council’s housing manager, Karen O’Connell, said: “People who commit housing tenancy fraud have a real ‘catch me if you can’ attitude. They think it is too hard for councils to prove or councils don’t have the time or capability of unearthing their fraud. That is simply not the case.
“They tell us ‘see you in court’. They know it’s illegal but they’re prepared to fight tooth and nail, hoping we’ll give up. But we never will.
“We are leading the way in Harrow but the cases we have successfully prosecuted are the tip of the iceberg.”
In one case, following an unannounced tenancy audit, a housing fraud investigator discovered a council tenant was actually living in a house she had bought in Luton, whilst allowing a friend and her family to occupy her Harrow council property. When challenged, she initially claimed to be living at the property but when faced with overwhelming financial evidence which proved she lived in Luton, she admitted to moving there in 2005.
When the council got the keys back, it was able to give them to Miranda French. Miranda and her daughter had been on the waiting list for a council house for seven years. Miranda said it was frustrating knowing she was patiently waiting while a tenant was "taking the system for a ride".
She added: "Here’s hoping they don’t get away with it much longer because there are people waiting in tiny cramped properties. Knowing people with two or three-bed homes are subletting them, I find it very unfair.
"I have a home, I feel settled. It’s wonderful being able to write my address and think, ‘This is it, it’s permanent. I can look for jobs, go to college. I can breathe now and carry on with living. I feel for the past seven years life has been on hold'."
The council's portfolio holder for performance, customer services and corporate services, Cllr Graham Henson, said: “People who commit housing tenancy fraud are preventing residents, like Miranda, who are in genuine need of housing from being allocated a property. In this exceptionally challenging financial climate there are families waiting seven years for three or four bedroom council properties and others waiting up to four years for two and one bedroom flats.
“Supporting and protecting people who are most in need is at the heart of everything that we do. Unlawfully obtaining social housing properties prevents financially vulnerable people from being housed and costs taxpayers hundreds of thousands each year through emergency accommodation costs and benefits.”
In another case, a tenant was found to be living in Tanzania after being caught out by investigators who could find no trace of her being financially active. The tenant was mysteriously always on holiday and family looking after the property when audits were carried out. After discussions with the tenant via a solicitor, she agreed to hand back the tenancy as she was spending most of her time out of the UK.
Justin Phillips, the council's anti-fraud manager, added: “Fraud is a crime that is unfortunately rising throughout the UK and we take this matter extremely seriously in Harrow. Every penny stolen by fraudsters is a penny less that we can spend on front line services to protect the most vulnerable people who need our help most.
“That is why my fraud officers are driven to do the best possible job they can and stop these cheats stealing from the public purse.”