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WHO WILL LEAD THE FIGHT WHEN THE AUDIT COMMISSION IS AXED?

Quangos aren't organisations that receive the best of press - even when they do a good job!

The Audit Commission has had its fair share of critics over the years. But, unlike many quangos, it has played an important role - particularly in terms of ensuring local authorities in England remain accountable.

In one of its final acts before being scrapped (it's one of more than 190 public bodies to be axed by the new Coalition government), the Audit Commission has recently published its annual Protecting the Public Purse fraud survey, which has uncovered an alarming increase in the number of scams that are draining our councils of much needed cash.

The Commission logged almost 120,000 frauds - costing £135 million - in English councils during the last financial year.

It says there were 63,000 false benefit claims, and an estimated 50,000 properties, worth £2 billion, that had been illegally sub-let or occupied. Dishonest claims for the 25% single person council tax discount were up and there were also 4,000 fraudulent uses of disabled parking badges.

I am naturally sceptical about the figures contained in official reports - particularly those quantifying the scale of fraud in the public sector. My own view is that for every case detected several could remain undetected.

So is there potential for the figures quoted by the Commission to be bigger? Of course there is!

Fraud is not a new phenomenon in the local authority world. But surely keeping tabs on the scale of the problem is as important as identifying potential solutions?

Personally, I don't think it's right to bash the Audit Commission over the head simply because I may not agree absolutely with the figures it quotes. The reality is they have done a pretty good job since they came into existence.

Could it have done better? Of course, the answer is ‘yes', as it is when the question is asked about the performance of most organisations and individuals.

But the acid test is whether it plays an important public role. And in this regard the answer also has to be a resounding ‘yes'.

Without knowledge, the fraud prevention world is at a serious disadvantage when asked to tackle particular problems like benefits fraud.

Now, with the demise of the Audit Commission, who is going to be keeping tabs on the fraud problem within local authorities - and who is going to help council chiefs and elected members meet and tackle this escalating menace?

In relation to these specific questions, there are no answers coming out of Whitehall - and there are no assurances that the huge cuts recently announced to local government finances will not weaken overall fraud controls.

One thing is for sure: there are no plans to publish an annual report on local authority fraud figures in 2011.

I think this is regrettable and a backward step.

Right now, we need more resources and information - not less - in order to continue tackling the fraud epidemic that is sweeping the UK.

I, for one, wouldn't be unhappy if the powers that be reviewed the decision to scrap the Audit Commission.

It's unlikely, I know. But one has to live in hope!

 

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