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Council clamps down on fraud despite 50% increase in allegations during pandemic

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Swansea Council’s fraud detection team is helping lead the way in Wales in clamping down on people trying to abuse the system by claiming money or council services they are not entitled to.

During the Covid-19 pandemic there was a 50% jump in fraud allegations made to the council last year on issues ranging from organised fraudsters trying to swindle the council out of pandemic business grants to those fraudulently claiming benefits or council tax relief or abusing the blue badge disability parking system.

But while the council handed out more than £130m in grants, rates and other support to more than 4,000 city businesses over the last 15 months, potentially-fraudulent applications were picked up and dealt with.

When the pandemic started last year councils including Swansea were targeted in sophisticated efforts to claim thousands of pounds of grant by fraudsters posing as some of the high street’s best-known retailers, ranging from household names in pizza outlets to pub chains and department store companies.

In some cases the fraudsters used the identities of company finance directors in the hope of persuading council teams to part with the money.

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Rob Stewart, Leader of Swansea Council, said it was vital that the millions of pounds of public money spent on services every year gets to those who need it. But, at the same time, he warned the council would clamp down on fraud wherever it’s found.

He said: “Among local authorities in Wales our fraud team helped lead the way in seeking out, detecting and acting in cases of fraud.

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“At the time of the lockdowns there was tremendous pressure on our teams to make sure grants got to those businesses who needed them as quickly as possible to help them stave off going under, protect jobs and pay bills.

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“We were among the quickest at handing out funds to those who were eligible. But at the same time fraudsters were submitting grant claims in the hope they’d slip through the net because of the high volume of applications.

“Our counter fraud team also detected a number of applications from businesses no longer trading, others claiming to occupy premises that they didn’t as well as those posing as business owners they weren’t.”

Robust systems put in place to manage and check business grant applications during the pandemic also meant that £2.4m of grants that were incorrectly applied for were instead directed to those who qualified for them.

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Fraudsters were submitting COVID support applications in the hope they’d slip through the net thanks to the high volume of applications (Image: Mikhail Nilov / Pexels.com)

The report said that while most of the rejected applications were due to businesses applying incorrectly and not fraud, the robustness of the application check process ensured money was going to the right place and allowed ineligible businesses to be sign-posted to other potential support schemes.

The council’s work to tackle fraud is highlighted in the counter-fraud team’s annual report being presented to the Governance and Audit committee next week.

Among the figures noted in the report are that a total of 302 cases of potential fraud were reported to the council in the last financial year, 2020/21, up 50% from 216 the year before.

This figure includes 37 cases relating to Covid-19, 86 cases of alleged benefit fraud, 87 cases in relation to council tax, 39 in relation to social housing, 23 claims of potential fraud within the council and 25 claims of blue badge fraud.  

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Of these allegations a total of 81 are currently either being actively investigated or still being evaluated for further action.

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The number of claims of internal fraud at the council was down to 23 in 2020/21 from 34 the year before with 13 new cases reported among a workforce of more than 11,000. Eleven cases are still being investigated while advice and other action was taken in seven cases. Two claims of fraud were found not proven.

The report said that one reason for the rise in overall reported allegations of fraud was due to an online reporting tool set up by the council as part of its work to tackle fraud by making it more straightforward for people to report it.

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Cllr Stewart said: “Fraud is something that happens in society in general and, like other organisations, councils are targets both by individuals and by more organised criminals.

“The annual fraud report shows Swansea Council is not a soft touch and we will challenge fraud wherever we find it, aiming to bring to justice those engaged in such practices.”

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64% of Wales employees set to leave due to cost of living

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During the biggest cost-of-living crises most people will have ever experienced, only 6% of employees in Wales believe their employer is doing enough to support them through the crisis.

Even though staggering 72% believe their employer has a responsibility to support them through the current climate.

That’s according to new research from Blackhawk Network, which says that according to employees, employee benefits are no longer just added incentives, they are now a way for employers to support their staff.

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It says it’s now essential employers are informed on what employees want and ultimately need from benefits schemes to help guide them through the cost-of-living crisis.

Other key findings in Wales show 94% of employers agree that they have a duty to support their employees as the cost-of-living rises, with 79% of employees saying employee benefits play, or could play, an important role in improving the cost-of-living 

Almost two thirds (64%) would leave their current job in order to find an opportunity that provides better financial support during the current cost-of-living crisis. 

The findings come from research conducted by Blackhawk Network in conjunction with Sapio, to support the launch of its new Blackhawk Network Extras Benefits Platform.

Workplace benefits are hot property at a time of crisis  

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According to the UK-wide data, 85% of employers agree that they have a duty to support their employees as the cost-of-living rises. While raising wages might seem a simple fix, businesses are also impacted by rising costs and inflation making pay increases unviable. But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing they can do to help. 83% of employees agree that workplace benefits play an important role in helping to balance finances as the cost-of-living continues to rise; and 95% of employers agree.

It is telling that almost a quarter (24%) of employees admit they’ve already used their benefits package more during the cost-of-living. In addition, almost three quarters (73%) of employer’s state that prospective employees are looking for employee benefits as part of the solution to the crisis.  

Employers must dial-up on support to have real impact  

The report says that dialling-up cost-of-living support through employee benefits is a must when talent is at risk. For example, salary sacrifice, where employees are offered the option to pay for services or products from their salary before they receive it to reduce tax, can be found with offers such as Cyclescheme, on technology or gym memberships, to save money that would otherwise eat into pay. However, there are still barriers to overcome.

When employees were asked what the term ‘salary sacrifice’ meant, almost three quarters (73%) admitted they did not fully understand it, including 18% who had not idea at all. In contrast, to almost all employers (98%) believing employees understand it to some degree. There is a clear disconnect between the employer and the employee, yet salary sacrifice can save employees money and help in mitigating the effects of the cost-of-living crisis. 

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If employers want to support employees, they need to make information about benefits, like salary sacrifice, more accessible and digestible to prove that it can have a real-life impact on their current financial situation by making their pay go further.

Over half (53%) of employees say they would be more likely to use salary sacrifice schemes if they had a better understanding of how they work. But this is an issue that only employers can fix. Better communication is essential to close the perception gap on employee benefits to be the support employees want and need during the cost-of-living crisis. 

Chris Ronald, VP EMEA Incentives & Operations at Blackhawk Network said: “It is becoming increasingly clear that employers have a vital role to play supporting their employees during the cost-of-living crisis. But the rising costs also mean that businesses are unable to offer blanket wage increases.

“Our research takes an in-depth look into the current state of employee benefits and the perceptions of the employees who are in a position to use them. With the release of this research, we hope to give businesses the tools they need to improve their benefit packages so they continue to support staff throughout the crisis.” 

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Over 500 teenagers in Wales to get £1600 a month in basic income trial

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The Welsh Government has launched its basic income trial scheme that sees it giving more than 500 people leaving care in Wales £1600 each month for two years – with no strings attached.

Equating to £19,200 a year before tax, it’s believed the cash offered is the highest amount provided on a basic income pilot anywhere in the world.

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The £20m scheme is controversial, and previous universal basic income trials in Kenya, Finland and California failed.

Welsh Social Justice Minister Jane Hutt says this particular scheme is a direct investment in the lives and futures of some of Wales’ most vulnerable young people.

The minister added that those taking part in the pilot will also receive individual advice and support to help them manage their finances and develop their financial and budgeting skills.

Local authorities will play a key role in supporting them throughout the pilot. Voices from Care Cymru will also work with the young people to give them advice on wellbeing, education, employment and help them plan their future after the pilot.

First Minister Mark Drakeford said: “We want all our young people to have the best possible chance in life and fulfil their full potential. The state is the guardian of people leaving care and so has a real obligation to support them as they start their adult life.

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“Our focus will be on opening up their world to all its possibilities and create an independence from services as their lives develop.

“Many of those involved in this pilot don’t have the support lots of people – myself included – have been lucky enough to enjoy as we started out on our path to adulthood.

“Our radical initiative will not only improve the lives of those taking part in the pilot, but will reap rewards for the rest of Welsh society. If we succeed in what we are attempting today this will be just the first step in what could be a journey that benefits generations to come.”

The Welsh Conservatives however have criticised the scheme as “giving out free money” and say it won’t help tackle the problems some vulnerable young people face.

Joel James, the Welsh Conservative shadow minister for social partnership said: “Whilst I wholeheartedly support helping the poorest and most vulnerable in our country, the Labour Government is not even close to living in reality with this trial.

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“Countless trials from across the globe have found basic income does not have the expected outcomes as it fails to incentivise work and proves time after time to be a waste of public money.

“If rolled-out across the board with every adult in Wales receiving £1,600 a month it would cost nearly £50 billion a year, and at the same time reward the wealthiest in society rather than helping those who need it most.

“Our NHS is at breaking point and our economy is in a fragile state, but instead of tackling those issues head-on, Labour are more interested in Basic Income – which will cost the country an absolute fortune.”

Welsh Government Minister for Social Justice Jane Hutt said: “We’re in the midst of a cost-of-living crisis like no other and we therefore need new ways of supporting people who are most in need.

“Our Basic Income pilot is an incredibly exciting project giving financial stability to a generation of young people. Too many people leaving care face huge barriers to achieving their hopes and ambitions; such as problems with getting a safe and stable home, to securing a job and building a fulfilling career. This scheme will help people live a life free of such barriers and limitations.

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“We will carefully evaluate the lessons learnt from the pilot. Listening to everyone who takes part will be crucial in determining the success of this globally ambitious project. We will examine whether Basic Income is an efficient way to support society’s most vulnerable and not only benefit the individual, but wider society too.”

Tiff Evans of Voices from Care Cymru, speaking on behalf of young people who have experienced care, said: “This is a brilliant opportunity for care leavers in Wales. It is good to see that care leavers in Wales are being thought of and Welsh Government are providing this opportunity for them as young people to become responsible, control some parts of their lives and have a chance to thrive and be financially independent.

“We thank Welsh Government for investing in them and their future and we look forward to other changes and developments for care experienced young people in Wales in order for them to reach life aspirations.”

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UK households waste almost £170 on average each year on unused subscriptions

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A third (33%) of UK households have multiple individual memberships for the same streaming service, when they could be saving money by paying for one household membership instead, according to research from comparethemarket.com.

UK households spend £50 on average each month on paid-for subscriptions, the equivalent of £600 a year, with 32% spending as much as £50 to £300 a month.

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Depending on the providers’ terms and conditions, paying for one membership could also apply to joining up with family or friends outside your household for a subscription service, as almost two-fifths (39%) say they do not share subscriptions with close family or friends to save money.

Cutting down on infrequently used or forgotten subscriptions is another way households could make savings – the research found that nearly one in two households (49%) spend money on unused subscriptions, wasting on average £14 a month, the equivalent of almost £170 a year.

Of those who keep unused or infrequently used subscriptions, nearly half (48%) keep them just in case they ever use them again, close to a fifth (19%) say it’s too much hassle to cancel, and 15% feel they do not have the time to go through their finances and cancel unused ones.

Popularity boomed for online subscriptions over the past two years, with more than three-quarters (76%) of UK households having signed up for at least one subscription since the pandemic began. However, with the rising cost of living, many are now reviewing their expenditures and almost half of households (48%) say they are likely to cancel at least one subscription in the next few months.

Cancelling or spending money on unused subscriptions varies significantly by age; half of adults under the age of 34 (50%) are likely to cancel and are wasting the equivalent of £192 a year (£16 a month on average) on unused services. Whereas under a third (29%) of people aged over 55 are planning to cancel unused subscriptions and are wasting an average of £84 each year (£7 a month).

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At a time when household finances are being squeezed, the research also revealed that some companies are not making it easy for people to cancel memberships when needed. Free trials are a beneficial way to test a service and 65% of people have signed up for at least one in the past 12 months.

This figure is highest among young people, with 72% of those aged between 16-34 having signed up; this drops to only 28% for those aged over 55.

However, over a fifth (22%) found it difficult to cancel their subscription at the end of the free trial. When asked whether they were warned about the free trial ending and being automatically renewed, 46% said they were not.

Alex Hasty, director at comparethemarket.com comments: “You can get a subscription for just about anything now, with many people having signed up during lockdown seeking access to new forms of entertainment.

“However, at a time when household finances are being squeezed significantly, our research shows that people are now wasting hundreds of pounds a year on services they’re not using regularly or by having multiple accounts amongst family and friends unnecessarily.

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“Frequently reviewing your spending with the help of free tools or apps could help those impacted by the increase in household expenditures.

“This applies for other household bills too – an effective way of cutting costs and relieving some of the financial pressure is shopping around online for a better deal, such as for car and home insurance, or broadband.

“With comparethemarket.com, customers can also set up automated car and home insurance renewal quotes and be notified ahead of their renewal date to help them find great deals and save money.”

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