Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Coalition Council targets housing tenancy fraud

In March 2009 I asked the then Labour-run Council in Reading three questions about illegal subletting in properties managed by the Council - something which at that point had been identified as a big issue nationally. I have copied the questions I posed then, below:

Experts estimate that 5% of social housing properties in inner city areas could be being unlawfully sub-let.

a) How many Council properties is the Lead Member aware are currently unlawfully occupied within the Borough?

b) What investigations have been carried out by the Council into the extent of the problem of illegal sub-letting of Council properties ?

c) How many properties has the Council successfully recovered from unlawful occupancy in the past 12 months?
I was keen to raise these issues after nationally the Audit Commission found that 1,600 properties across 60 councils were recovered from unlawful tenants in 2009/10. The Audit Commission published a report: "Protecting the Public Purse 2010" which suggested that unlawful subletting could represent around 1% of all tenancies in metropolitan areas. This could mean up to 70 tenancies in Reading.

The response I received to my questions didn't say much at all. It suggested very little fraud took place. This indicated to me that that much more could be done and should be done to proactively identify potential housing fraud to protect Council tenants and taxpayers.
One year later, in March 2010, the Annual Fraud Report presented to CCEA Scrutiny Panel (which I was then Vice Chair) identified a  need for greater targetting of Council resources to proactively identify fraud. One of the areas identified for further investigation was Housing Tenancy Fraud.
In my role at that time as Chair of the Housing, Health and Community Care Scrutiny Panel I requested a report be brought forward outlining progress so far and planned action for dealing with Housing Tenancy fraud in the Council's own stock.
Several months on, as Lead Councillor for Housing I was pleased to see report I requested all those months ago tabled at tonight's meeting of the Community Care, Housing and Health Scrutiny Panel.
This report revealed my close scrutiny of this subject has borne results, and an improved approach - exactly what scrutiny should do.

Key findings of the report included-
  •  A Housing Fraud Panel was set up in April 2010 to proactively manage cases of tenancy fraud. This approach ensures "a more joined-up and efficicent process for tackling individuals cases.
  • As a result of this closer working the team have looked at 21 cases of possible illegal subletting or non residency of RBC properties.
  • Of the 21 cases referred for further investigation a total of 5 (24%) of properties have been returned to RBC ownership or re-let.
  • The Council estimates that re-letting these properties to families temporary accomodation approximately £55k could be saved to date.
More work is planned by officers to increase awareness and knowledge of Tenancy fraud both with Council staff and the Council's tenants. We will also be investigating the use of civil proceedings to recover unlawful profits - something other housing providers have pursued successfully.

I fully support this work as Council houses are valuable  public assets in high demand. Any fraudulent tenancies represent an abuse of the public purse and damage the chances of people in housing need by putting increased pressure on waiting lists.
I am pleased that the questions I raised over a year ago led to this more proactive, robust approach. This approach was fully supported by all members (cross-party) of HHCC Scrutiny Panel this evening - including Labour councillors. I will be recommending to my coalition colleagues that we continue in this vein, as well as urging officers leave no stone unturned in identifiying potential housing tenancy fraud. This is in marked contrast to the complacent approach taken by my Labour predecessors which in failing to identify potential fraud failed tenants and taxpayers.

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