By Grainne Cuffe, Local Democracy Reporter
The number of Lewisham Council employees committing fraud has more than doubled in the past year.
The increase, from four to ten, is not believed to be related to the pandemic.
According to Lewisham’s anti-fraud and corruption team (A-FACT), which investigates allegations of fraud within or against the council, it is “unclear whether this is the start of a trend”.
The details emerged in A-FACT’s annual report, set to go before Lewisham’s audit panel on Wednesday (June 23), which showed that A-FACT investigated 156 allegations of fraud at a cost of £315,367 in 2020/21.
The report acknowledges that it was an “exceptional year” due to the pandemic, while most of the team was helping elsewhere to support the council’s Covid response.
It states: “Only a skeleton service was left to provide a counter fraud response.
“In the remainder of the year the team’s focus has been on the various Covid-19 support schemes.”
Along with the increase in employee related frauds, A-FACT has been looking at allegations related to Covid-19 relief grants, though “many of the cases identified are yet to be brought to a conclusion and therefore are not reflected in the figures for 2020/21”.
Ten fraud cases against Lewisham staff were concluded this year, though not much detail is offered in the report.
Three employees resigned while under investigation, one involved a previously convicted employee paying back money they owed, and one involved a would-be employee found to be subletting their social home and living elsewhere.
Their job offer was withdrawn and social home taken away.
Two more people had their jobs offers withdrawn after A-FACT found “discrepancies” in their applications.
The team investigated 56 allegations of fraud against the public, eight of which were proven.
One involved Blue Badge fraud, two cases of fraud linked to direct care payments, two linked to business rates, and three are not specified in the report.
A-FACT also investigated fraud on behalf of Lewisham Homes though much of the work normally provided has been “limited by the pandemic”.
The report states: “The investigation work for Lewisham Homes has been severely hampered by the pandemic.
“Interviews, visits and court cases have stalled. On this basis it has not been possible to successfully conclude any internal or tenancy fraud cases.
“There are a number of tenancy investigations ongoing.”
A-FACT did 103 pre-employment checks on people applying to work for Lewisham Homes over the past year – the team found some applicants owed council tax and failed to declare company directorships.
As a result, council repayment plans were agreed totally nearly £5,000.
According to the report criminal gangs continue to target the council through ‘bank mandate fraud,’ where someone tricks the victim into changing details of a direct debit, standing order or bank transfer by pretending to be an organisation they make regular payments to.
It states: “Although we have robust controls in place to detect and prevent this, the council is still targeted by organised criminal gangs who undertake phishing exercises.
“Methods are becoming more sophisticated, but our knowledge of this threat continues to develop.”
A Lewisham Council spokesperson said: “Sadly, all large organisations experience employee fraud cases.
“The number of instances are usually very small but they are always investigated and acted upon.
“The level of employee fraud in this instance – ten cases for around 7000 Lewisham Council and schools staff – remains low and numbers vary year on year.
“The council has a zero-tolerance policy to fraud – including ways for staff and residents to confidentially report suspected fraud – and robust processes are in place to investigate any reports that come through to us.
“If any of our residents suspect fraud is taking place, we encourage reporting it to the council immediately by visiting the website https://lewisham.gov.uk/mayorandcouncil/aboutthecouncil/fraud .”
Please make cheques payable to “MSI Media Limited” and send by post to South London Press, Unit 112, 160 Bromley Road, Catford, London SE6 2NZ
Former Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick has encouraged everyone in the country who can afford to do so to buy a newspaper, and told the Downing Street press briefing recently: “A free country needs a free press, and the newspapers of our country are under significant financial pressure”.
So if you have enjoyed reading this story, and if you can afford to do so, we would be so grateful if you can buy our newspaper or make a donation, which will allow us to continue to bring stories like this one to you both in print and online.