Southend Council to develop in-house counter fraud team

Southend Council is to begin taking on fraud investigations using its own team after a previous partnership with Thurrock came under fire for allowing the authority to use surveillance powers against people in the borough.

Southend had been working in partnership with Thurrock Council to deliver a counter fraud team which helped recover thousands of pounds of taxpayers’ money, but the council has said “it is now time” to deliver the service in-house.

The end of the partnership was revealed at a council meeting on Thursday when heated discussions erupted over whether it was right to allow Thurrock to carry out investigations in Southend using intrusive surveillance powers under the Regulatory Investigatory Power’s Act (RIPA).

A spokesman for Southend Council has confirmed Thurrock used RIPA surveillance, which includes the interception of electronic communications, three times in Southend over the past five years in 2014, 2016 and 2017.

While it was stressed during the Policy and Resources Scrutiny Committee meeting that in each instance this was carried out with the permission of a Magistrates court, Conservative leader

Councillor Tony Cox, branded it “morally wrong”.

He said: “If we have a shared service or joint service, we will just allow an authority to do it with no control and no guarantees they are doing it right – that can’t be right. We owe our residents and our staff a lot better than that.”

The leader of the council Councillor Ian Gilbert gave reassurance at the meeting that there were a range of safeguards in place and refused to amend the council’s policy, meaning any future partnership of this kind will allow partner authorities to use RIPA powers against the borough.

Mr Gilbert went on to note that the partnership between Southend Council and Thurrock Council’s counter fraud team was coming to an end “at their request” but gave little more detail.

A Southend Council spokesman said: “Though our partnership with Thurrock has served us well, it is now time for us to provide this service directly in-house. This gives us greater autonomy over the future direction of the service to ensure it meets local needs and secures value for money for the council tax-payer.

“As a result, we have taken back the staff that were employed by us, but shared with Thurrock in their Counter Fraud Investigation Directorate, to re-form the Council’s own dedicated Counter Fraud team. This team will continue to deliver the service, while the specific arrangements for the working of the counter fraud service are reviewed over the forthcoming period.”

Thurrock Council said they are unable to comment on the RIPA requests made on behalf of Southend.

Steve Shaw

Local Democracy Reporter