Staff shortages leave Southend’s counter fraud team struggling to handle growing number of cases

A backlog of almost 100 fraud cases and struggles to employ enough investigators has left Southend Council’s counter fraud team overwhelmed with cases just 12 months after it was formed.

Council papers reveal the authority’s counter fraud team is no longer being “proactive” in tackling financial crimes in the borough because of a backlog of 90 investigations – 40 of which are yet to be assigned to an investigator.

The team was formed in October 2019 and has been plagued with staffing issues.

One of its three investigators and its only intelligence analyst resigned within the first six months of the team being formed and while those roles have now been filled, another investigator has taken maternity leave causing “a significant loss of knowledge and experience for the team”.

A council report due to be discussed next week notes it is “too early to determine” whether the current staff levels are sufficient to address the backlog of work and as the team struggles to catch up it will “not be embarking” on “proactive detection activities”.

Council leader Ian Gilbert, leader of the council, gave reassurance over the problems promising the team is “committed to clearing all cases waiting to be resolved”.

He said: “The team has been working extremely hard over the last few months to ensure the backlog of cases are being resolved.

“As we have only recently dealt with the reduction of one member of the team, it is too early to assess the impact this will have on the team’s ability to deal with cases.

“However, staffing resources are under constant review and should additional cover be required, we will take appropriate action in recruiting a temporary position.

He added that cases are being prioritised based on their need for attention and the council is confident the team will remain on top of the workload.

Of the 310 cases dealt with by the council over the past 12 months, 114 have been linked to financial crimes involving council tax and business rates. Since July there have been an additional 30 cases.

Cllr Gilbert explained that an increase in these cases was “expected” in recent months “compared to a time where people were staying indoors throughout lockdown”.

He also said these crimes were the most common to be reported to the council.

In total, the council has recovered more than £2.5million of taxpayers’ money by tackling council tax fraud cases.

Other prevalent crimes have centred around housing and parking permits.

There has also been several cases involving council employees.

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Steve Shaw

Local Democracy Reporter