Chichester District Council’s fraud prevention team saving taxpayers’ money

Chichester District Council’s fraud prevention team has saved the taxpayer around £800,000 over the past year, councillors have been told.

Thursday, 30th September 2021, 2:31 pm
East Pallant House, home of CDC. Pic Steve Robards

During a meeting of the Corporate Governance & Audit Committee on Monday (September 27), members were given a run-down of the work of the Corporate Investigations Team.

That work included examining single person council tax discounts and council tax reductions which may have been incorrectly awarded.

A report from Jeremy Todd, Corporate Investigations Officer, said £235,352 had been recovered in 2020, with £80,255 of incorrectly awarded discounts and benefits identified so far this year.

A council spokesman said the money had either been claimed in error or where an applicant’s circumstances had changed and no one had been informed.

He added: “This money is recovered through an individual’s council tax bill over a period of time.

“We would encourage anyone to contact us if their circumstances change by visiting www.chichester.gov.uk/counciltax so that we have the most up to date information when issuing council tax bills.”

As well as recovering council tax money, the team identified 177 homes in the district that were listed as long-term empty but had actually been brought back into use.

This resulted in an additional £288,395 for the council coffers.

People who leave properties empty for more than a year are charged extra council tax.

Mr Dodd said this year-long gap could lead to ‘misunderstandings’ as well as people ‘not prioritising’ contacting the council to let staff know the property was empty.

Because of this, the issue was often only uncovered when the fraud review was carried out.

It’s been a tough couple of years for everyone, and Jonathan Brown (Lib Dem, Southbourne) raised concerns that people were being pursued when they were in a situation which the public might find ‘worthy of sympathy’.

Mr Brown asked about a ‘reputational risk’ to the council if it was ‘too over-zealous’ in uncovering fraud ‘and in the process catching people who are in very difficult circumstances’.

Monitoring officer Nicholas Bennett assured members that investigations included an evidential test (did they do it?) and a public interest test (is it right to take action?).

He added: “It’s not a case of the council ever blindly following what the rules say.

“We follow also a broader assessment of what is right and wrong and ethical as well as what is right that the public should expect us to enforce and to recover monies that have been paid out.”