Up to the 1980s, crime control in the UK was widely seen as virtually the sole domain and responsibility of law enforcement. Nearly all police forces had, for example, a fraud squad whose purpose was laid out in a 1970 Home Office circular (apparently 115/1970 since you ask) and who traditionally dealt with criminalised aspects of local government misconduct.
As I noted in my recent article and elsewhere that world has changed substantially. Successive governments have initiated policy-driven changes, from frontline policing to prioritised local policing plans, more recently reinforced by the election of local police commissioners with local objectives and local audiences to keep onside. The increasingly attuned political antennae of Chief Constables and the continuing downward grind of spending reviews have thus seen the abolition or downsizing of fraud squads in favour of these agendas.
Those which remain have an increasing focus on ‘economic crime’ – code for another government agenda which relates to financial offences involving organised crime, professional enablers (lawyers and others) and higher-end corporate scams. It is the same code that had the government announce the end of the National Fraud Authority as shifting the focus to ‘cutting economic crime’ through ‘concentrating effort into law enforcement bodies’.
Fraud squads – or economic crime sections or units as they are now invariably labelled – have long dealt with specialist crimes in this area, including misconduct in public office and, more recently, the steadily-growing number of election frauds. So they will no doubt be expected to take on the consequences of the government’s decision to swap some of the Standards Board’s and Audit Commission’s arrangements for a single conflict of interest/disclosure offence in Chapter 7, section 34, of the Localism Act.
Given what I know about their past enthusiasm for wading into local politics and council cultures, I am sure that the police are relishing having to untangle what on earth what is meant by councillors being ‘reckless’ about whether information on their disclosable interests is ‘true’ and ‘not misleading’ (and that’s after the police have already dealt with a whole raft of legislative linguistic ambiguities, including disclosable, pecuniary, taking steps, participating and – my favourite – reasonable excuse). Indeed, and given the economic crime agenda’s focus on serious and organised crime, one may wonder whether the police, and especially economic crime sections, are likely to have the interest and appetite for Section 34.
A wider issue concerns not just the police but also those other agencies and resources councils could draw upon as part of maintaining an effective control environment. In a landscape populated by agencies with various anti-fraud and anti-corruption roles and responsibilities, from the Land Registry to NHS Protect, a number have worked together with local authorities as task forces. Councils themselves shared information through the at-risk National Fraud Initiative. Councils have also been able to rely on DWP-funded Housing benefit investigators whose involvement in non-benefit-related frauds rose from 13% in 1994/95 to more than 40 per cent in 2010/11.
All these arrangements and resources, as well as the continuing fallout from the abolition of the Audit Commission, are, however, in a state of flux, leaving councils to ponder how they will sustain their control environments at a time when the localism agenda will require councils to become increasingly engaged in traditional red-flag areas, such as planning, new areas, such as public health, or spending through other partners, such as charities.
With two ministries debating over who pays the – very modest – bill to revive councils’ in-house investigative resources (with each council being lucky to get one FTE out of whatever deal is cobbled together), councils must wonder where the support exists in terms of any low road journey that involves criminal investigation, joint or joined-up working and information-sharing.
With only Greater Manchester Police bucking the trend and setting up a volume fraud, locally-focussed team to add to its economic crime section, accessing police expertise and capacity may be as unlikely as expecting any of the law enforcement or other bodies tasked to take on National Fraud Authority functions showing any willingness for leading, coordinating and working with councils. Even if the high road thus remains closed for the foreseeable future, the journey along the low road is not going to be without its challenges.
Alan Doig is Hon. Senior Research Fellow at the International Development Department, University of Birmingham; Visiting Professor, Newcastle Business School, Northumbria University and Board member, Management Board, North-east Fraud Forum.