The Keynote Address at Counter Fraud 2021: Combating Fraud in the Public Sector

Jessica Kimbell, GovNet
April 12, 2021

Counter-fraud is an important focus for the public sector today. While much of the public sector is dealing with the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, new avenues of exploitation for criminals and fraudsters have been opened. In response, there’s been an increased effort with government counter-fraud measures. 

These were the topics at hand in the keynote speech of the Counter Fraud 2021 conference. The conference was held to provide an opportunity to hear about the cutting-edge work of the public sector in dealing with fraud, detailing not just work in the investigation but also how counter fraud is becoming a more preventative, intelligence and data-led approach. 

The speech itself, done in the form of a webinar, was given by Parliamentary Secretary, Julia Lopez MP, who supports cross-government efficiency. Her speech was aimed at introducing the importance of the response to fraud in today’s public sector. 

In the speech, she set out the prevalence of fraud today. It’s one of the most common crimes committed in the UK, with an impact on citizens, industries, public bodies, services and the environment that can be serious. While the direct financial loss from fraud is often born by public bodies, there are often cases where individuals’ lives have been destroyed.

“So serious is the targeting of the public sector, including benefit, tax credit an student loan fraud. That upper estimates of the cost reach an astonishing £52 billion a year, more than a third of the entire NHS annual budget," she stated.

Attention then turned to the fraud issues caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Unfortunately, as the government released financial support schemes to help individuals and businesses, these were targeted by fraudsters. Similarly, there’s also been targeting of supply chains for PPE and even the COVID-19 vaccines. 

Fortunately, there has been a vast response to combat these threats, many of them detailed in the Cross-Government Fraud Landscape Bulletin 2019-20.  Lopez stated this bulletin focused on the progress departments had made in preventing and detecting fraud, such as:

  • More than £388 million was saved thanks to fraud and error prevention - a 676% increase from the previous financial year, excluding fraud within the tax and welfare system, which is reported separately.
  • Detected fraud and error across government increased by 51% in the same period.

Lopez went on to say the creation of this bulletin was done to help make the UK government the most transparent globally when it comes to public sector fraud, with much of this inspired by the response to COVID-19. While there’s been an effort to combat the virus, there’s also been an effort to combat the fraud that arose to take advantage of public sector schemes. 

The speech continued to highlight the achievements of this fight, setting a precedent for future anti-fraud efforts. The government’s Counter Fraud Function has been able to achieve many key successes in the fight against this type of crime:

  • Upon forming the COVID-19 Response Team, they introduced critical intelligence flows across both the public and private sectors to facilitate appropriate counter-fraud responses to COVID-19 risks. 
  • In conjunction with the charity Crimestoppers, a COVID-19 Fraud Hotline launched, which allowed members of the public to report suspected fraud against the government. Already, over 1,200 reports have been shared with agencies and government departments. 
  • During the first wave of the pandemic, the Intelligence Unit worked with the Department of Health and Social Care to support them while procuring PPE and medical equipment. 
  • Intelligence flows with law enforcement agencies were established, which created an enhanced due diligence process to be introduced, leading to savings of £76 million. 
  • To date, over £120 million of COVID-19 fraud savings have been identified by the COVID-19 Fraud Response Team. 

Similarly, international intelligence flows, enabled by the UK, allowed for identifying fraudulent or suspicious companies selling PPE and medical equipment during the height of the global demand. This led to the cancellation of contracts with overseas suppliers and prevented suspicious financial transactions from occurring.

But it’s not just about achievements. Lopez was firm in her belief that to truly combat fraud, the methods for doing so much be made universal and accessible. “As part of our efforts, we must also continue to grow and share the very best practices with one another.” 

The keynote then went on to detail exactly how that is happening, with the creation of the Government Counter Fraud Profession in 2018 and its subsequent growth up to now. It's the “first profession working to fight fraud and provides a professional structure with common professional standards and competencies for those working in counter fraud roles.”

The profession now has more than 6,500 members across 33 organisations, including members of the police, NHS and local authorities, going well beyond central government. The government counter fraud profession recognises the specialist skills required of those working in counter-fraud right now. 

Similarly, there’s also been success in the Counter Fraud Investigation Apprenticeship, which represents a significant change in how government recruits and trains investigators. This has created a common training and accreditation approach across government and the wider public sector in counter fraud. “The hope is that apprenticeships, over the long term, will provide a route that thousands of people will use to join the counter fraud community,” stated Lopez.

A large part of the message behind Counter Fraud 2021 was exemplified in the keynote when Lopez says, “In order to fight fraud, first you must find it. Only then can you understand it and stop it.”

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