Agency needs to target Benefit Fraud more effectively

An inspection of the Social Security Agency’s benefit fraud investigation unit has shown that it could make better use of available resources, information and intelligence to tackle benefit fraud.

The Social Security Agency (SSA) gives high priority to tackling fraud, yet inspectors from Criminal Justice Inspection found that currently only one in ten cases of suspected fraud lead to a formal caution, administrative penalty or prosecution – though four out of ten lead to some adjustment and possibly repayment of benefit.
“The SSA’s Benefit Investigation Service (BIS) could make more effective use of the wealth of information and intelligence it has access to, and its specially trained investigators could use this material to prioritise their activities and help make a greater impact in reducing benefit fraud,” said Kit Chivers, Chief Inspector of Criminal Justice.
Mr Chivers added that such action would support the commitment shown by the SSA to address benefit fraud through the launch of its high profile publicity campaign ‘Benefit Fraud -- It’s a real rip off’ in March 2005.
The inspection, which started in September 2005, showed a need for better communication between BIS and other areas of the SSA.
“The inspection team found that while staff within the SSA were aware of the benefit fraud investigation unit, it was often viewed as a separate arm of the organisation and providing BIS with valuable information to help identify suspected fraudulent activity tended to be given a lower priority than other work,” said the Chief Inspector.
He continued: “The inspection report has recommended that greater efforts be made to better integrate BIS within the SSA so members of staff working in other parts of the agency such as benefit offices, have a greater understanding of the role played by BIS and how they can actively contribute and support the unit’s work to reduce benefit fraud.”
While there were several areas where improvements could be made by BIS, Mr Chivers said it had made good use of new powers provided under the Social Security Fraud Act (Northern Ireland) 2001 and the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002.
“This recent legislation provided fraud investigators with greater powers to tackle benefit fraud. They can now liaise directly with financial institutions to access bank and savings accounts without the account holder’s authorisation. This means investigators can gather evidence and build cases behind the scenes without arousing the suspicions of the person under investigation,” he explained.
The Chief Inspector paid tribute to the strong working relationships which existed between BIS and other organisations.
“While new legislation has enabled BIS to build strong working relationships with banks, building societies and other financial organisations, inspectors found close links also existed between BIS and colleagues working in the Housing Executive, Public Prosecution Service and the Assets Recovery Agency,” he stated.
“Excellent partnerships also existed between BIS and staff working for the Republic of Ireland’s Department of Social and Family Affairs.
 “Such co-operation is extremely beneficial when addressing benefit fraud,” concluded Mr Chivers.
The report into the Social Security Agency’s Benefit Investigation Service made 17 recommendations all of which have been accepted. The Agency’s Action Plan is included in the report.