Council investigation unit at centre of questions about its efficiency - and £30m paid by government to the cash-strapped authority

By Neil Speight

18th May 2024 | Local News

MANY questions remain about the role, conduct and efficiency of an investigation unit embedded within Thurrock Council.

A recent Times newspaper investigation looked into the role of a council department which was paid millions by the government to supply investigation services looking into fraud against the public purse.

The council department was designated by the government to be its National Investigation Service (Natis).

The newspaper's attention was drawn to the matter over the unit's role in tracking down fraud, related to abuse of the £47 billion covid 'bounce back' loan scheme.

The council was paid £30 million for that purpose, a move that has been described as 'comical' by fraud investigation experts.

For example the Times quotes David Clarke, a former head of fraud at the City of London Police - who has called for government to take Covid fraud more seriously. He said: "This would be comical if so many billions of pounds had not been stolen."

Mike Craig, who runs 'Mr Bounce Back', a website cataloguing issues with Covid loans, said: "We were given the impression that Natis had police powers. It turns out it's an office in a council in Essex whose own record on counterfraud is so bad that it was effectively bankrupted."

The work carried out by Natis is reported to have tracked down and recouped £17 million, an imbalance of public spending of £13 million and there have been accusations of a lack of transparency about the work of Natis at Thurrock Council – questions which came at a time when the council singularly failed to monitor the frittering away of hundreds of millions on its own wasteful and flawed investments in solar energy.

In short, the critics say Thurrock couldn't police itself, so why did the government entrust it with £30 million for other investigation services?

Natis was set up under a different name in 2014 as a counter fraud service for Essex. It became a national organisation in 2018 and shifted focus to Covid-fraud in 2020.

The government frequently cited the work of Natis while under pressure to do more to tackle widespread error and fraud in the bounce back scheme, under which 1.2 million loans were issued.

More than one in four has defaulted or is in arrears. The government, having passed on the responsibility to Thurrock Council to carry out its work, told the public accounts committee that Natis had made scores of "arrests".

Its investigation team was given a police.web domain and staff received police.uk email addresses, normally reserved for staff at police forces.

On its website Natis investigators were said to have been involved in 'raids', to have 'arrested' people, 'searched' properties and 'seized' items.

The Times alleges council staff were guilty of impostering by implying they were police officers.

The Times investigation has drawn the College of Policing into the intrigue. It asked the professional, independent non-departmental body for everyone working across policing, why a non-police authority was using police IT infrastructure and presenting itself as a police body?

There is a direct link between the College and Thurrock Council. The council's former, and now disgraced, chief executive Lyn Carpenter was a non-executive director with the College of Policing.

She was appointed in February 2022, but left her role on 16 December that year, the day after then council leader Cllr Mark Coxshall announced her departure from Thurrock Council due to the billion pound debt created by flawed investments.

In both her roles it seems likely she would have had some oversight on the work carried out by Thurrock under its Natis mantle. Particularly as, in her seven years in office at Thurrock, Ms Carpenter gained a reputation for secrecy and micro-management of staff and instigated policies including searching staff and councillors' emails.

As well as reducing media liaison since joining Thurrock Council in September 2015 she instigated several internal witch-hunts to try and find out who leaked vital documents to the media.

As far as the media can ascertain, and few details were given in the government's 'Best Value Report' into the failings of Thurrock Council, Ms Carpenter has escaped serious investigation – or certainly accountability – into her role in the council's catastrophic financial collapse.

The College of Policing told the Times it would be asking Thurrock Council 'to explain itself.'

The Times investigation.

A spokesperson for Thurrock Council told Thurrock Nub News: "The Council through its Natis service provides specialist investigation services in respect of fraud against the public purse. 

"This provides a vital service at a time when police resources are stretched. 

"Natis officers do not have the power of arrest, all arrests linked to Natis investigations have been carried out by law enforcement agencies with powers of arrest. 

"All investigations are passed to the Crown Prosecution Service which determines whether or not to pursue criminal charges. 

"Eighty-one people have been arrested to date as the result of Natis investigations."

Monty Jivraj, an expert in Fraud Investigations and Non Compliance and a public commentator on such matters, says: "The revelations concerning the fraud team hosted by Thurrock Council underscore a significant lapse in the enforcement of integrity and transparency in public service initiatives.

"This incident raises several critical questions about the oversight of funds and the allocation of enforcement powers to non-police bodies.

"The misuse of police IT infrastructure by a non-policing authority not only misleads the public but also potentially undermines the credibility of legitimate enforcement agencies.

"It is particularly concerning that Thurrock Council, which faced severe financial difficulties and is embroiled in legal disputes over substantial losses from investment scams, was chosen to host this unit.

"The performance metrics of the unit, with just over half of the received funding being recouped, further cast doubt on the effectiveness and governance of such entities.

"This situation serves as a crucial reminder of the need for robust checks and balances within all tiers of governmental operations. It calls for immediate action to ensure that similar breaches of trust and protocol do not occur in the future, particularly in areas as critical as fraud prevention."

     

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