Andrew Rowson – Written evidence (FDF0034)

 

Summary

  1. This evidence comes from my experience as a financial IT professional of twenty-six years standing engaging with local government for the last fifteen years.  Over that time I have specialised in identifying accidental duplicate supplier payments in large bodies of historical accounts payable data.  In the last decade I have also specialised in uncovering alleged fraud at local authorities.  That work has been entirely pro bono.  Four case studies on alleged local authority fraud – the tip of the iceberg – featured in my submission of evidence to the Public Accounts Committee last July for its investigation into local auditor reporting in England (HC171).[1]
  2. This submission is limited to discussing fraud within local authorities, in particular alleged abuse of position fraud (Section 4) committed typically by senior council officers and sometimes elected members, either to make a gain for themselves or others, or to cause loss to others.
  3. I have responded to some of the Committee’s questions below.  Paragraph 22 onwards contains detailed personal evidence as a victim of fraud at the hands of senior council officers and elected members, including a former council leader.  The West Sussex County Council case study below has many similarities with my earlier and subsequent IT projects and overpayment recovery contracts at five other large English local authorities.  They all showed hostility when I found them seven figure cash savings that were clearly much larger than they were expecting. 
  4. I have been cheated of most or all of my contract fees at every council I have engaged with.  In total my losses come to over £1 million.  By failing to collect the savings I identified, the councils also cheated their own taxpayers of at least ten times that amount.  Some councils have attempted, and largely succeeded in destroying my professional reputation and career by issuing defamatory lies in the mainstream media and in public meetings.  As a direct result my life savings accumulated over thirty years have been destroyed and I have had no professional income in seven years.  It has also meant I did not receive a penny from the Chancellor’s generous Covid-19 schemes for the self-employed, which were based on prior year tax returns.
  5. I have had no effective support from my own Member of Parliament (the Financial Secretary to the Treasury), who has lied to me in writing and repeatedly failed to respond to subject access requests.  She has also failed to challenge the lies issued by former West Sussex CC leader Cllr Louise Goldsmith in April 2017 on the BBC and ITN Meridien news, and in an earlier letter Cllr Goldsmith wrote to her in June 2016.  I have also been lied about by a former Local Government Minister (Luke Hall MP) in a letter to Northamptonshire MP Philip Hollobone in October 2020 about fraud at Northamptonshire CC.[2]  My letters to Ministers and even to the Prime Minister on overpayment recovery and alleged local government fraud have been routinely ignored – even when supported by mountains of unequivocal documentary evidence.
  6. I would be willing to share my experiences with the Committee in a private or public setting, and where appropriate, share documentary evidence and/or recorded meetings and transcripts which support the statements in this document.

 

Fraud Landscape

Question 1a & 1c)

  1. Given the similarity of my experiences at many councils, I would expect many small businesses or sole traders are likely to be defrauded across the piece at local authorities if they offer services that their clients find inconvenient.  Bullying and fraud at local authorities go hand in hand.  One reason is that councils know that small business lack the funds to challenge them in the courts. Council officers, backed up by elected members therefore feel that they can lie, slander and bully with impunity.  Another reason is that none of the agencies in what used to be called the “local government accountability system” shows any appetite for challenging bad actors and bullying in the sector.  If they respond at all it is usually to pass the buck onto a different body. 

Question 1b)

  1. Local government is particularly vulnerable to procurement fraud, which represents an estimated 57% by value of all fraud in the sector (£4.4bn out of £7.8 bn) according to the 2017 Annual Fraud Indicator.[3]  Few councils comply with their own procurement rules,[4] especially when suppliers have close connections with senior officers such as CEOs and CFOs.  In addition, local auditors are reluctant to investigate allegations of fraud put to them by the public in formal objections to the accounts under S27 of the Local Audit & Accountability Act 2014.  At Cambridgeshire County Council (CCC) for example, two local taxpayers have submitted five formal objections – one for each year since 2017.  They include compelling evidence of fraud at the top of the organisation.  None has yet been addressed by two statutory auditors (BDO and EY).

Question 3

  1. My assessment is that central government is largely in denial about the existence of fraud inside local government and has no concern for its victims if they risk exposing the magnitude or the nature of the problem.  My case study beginning at paragraph 22 goes into more detail on this.  In his recent evidence to the Treasury Select Committee Lord Agnew spoke about the “sewer of Government” and government’s determination to keep a lid on fraud.  The attitude shown by the Post Office, Fujitsu and BEIS towards hundreds of innocent sub-postmasters betrays the same political instinct.  I have engaged with the DLUHC for years, providing documentary evidence of alleged fraud and corruption inside local authorities that councils and their auditors cover up.  With one honourable exception (Secretary of State Sajid Javid MP about Northamptonshire CC in December 2017) the response has been silence.  In November 2019 I wrote to the Prime Minister about the lack of response from the Department on local government fraud issues.  No. 10 simply passed my letter on to the Department (see Appendix 1 below) which characteristically ignored it (See Appendix 2).
  2. The police are loath to get involved in fraud involving those at the top of local government.  The existence of Police and Crime Commissioners with political party affiliations may help explain this.  Agencies such as the LGA appear wilfully blind to fraud within the sector.  The ICO and the LGO tend to claim fraud is not within their remit.  Both show a lack of professional curiosity or professional scepticism when presented with evidence.  The ICO and the Administrative Courts in my experience accept demonstrable untruths from council officers at face value without challenge.  Audit firms, CIPFA and the ICAEW find no end of excuses for failing to investigate alleged fraud at councils that involve their members.

 

Action to Tackle Fraud

Question 5

  1. Statistically there is very little chance of making any progress after submitting evidence to Action Fraud.  None of my complaints about local government has had any response from Action Fraud.  I gave up trying years ago.  In 2018, research by Which concluded that less than 4% of Action Fraud Cases are solved.[5]  Reviews about the service from Action Fraud are poor.[6]  Doubtless insufficient funding is partly to blame.  Anecdotally the police are not trained in sufficient numbers to deal with today’s scale of fraud. 

Question 6

  1. Evidently the SFO is underfunded.  I understand it has a high turnover of staff, and that it selects cases to investigate on the basis of high financial value and public interest thresholds.
  2. Last October I submitted evidence to the SFO and the Financial Reporting Council about alleged false accounting for government City Deal grants at CCC which have resulted in inflated usable reserves balances by up to £160 million/year in each set of financial statements since 2016/17.  I have yet to receive a response from either body.
  3. More counter-fraud resourcing is an easy answer.  But counter-fraud measures generally produce an extremely high return on investment.

Question 9

  1. The role of the individual is twofold.  Firstly, they have a duty to inform themselves of the dangers of being victims of fraud and learn how to minimise their risk.  Some individuals may also wish to be proactive in tackling fraud, for example by taking up Lord Pickles’ challenge in 2010 to become “armchair auditors” in local government.  The social contract on offer was that councils would publish “open data” - on council payments in particular, and the public would be able to inspect financial statements and council documents, write to the auditors and, where appropriate, submit formal objections about councils’ draft financial statements which the auditor could investigate.  But the public has been doubly cheated.  “Open data” – now Transparency Code data, is usually of poor quality and often censored by council officers who hide details they do not wish the public to see.  No official body polices these datasets and no sanctions exist for non-compliance.  Auditors for their part frequently ignore formal objections and show signs of being complicit with councils by failing to investigate alleged frauds and other suspicious activity.
  2. For these and other reasons, the anticipated “army of armchair auditors” failed to materialise.  Citizens with expertise and valuable contributions to make in this area are further discouraged when there is no response from central government to their concerns.  As Lord Agnew commented to your Committee, there is no structure in the UK comparable to the US inspector-general of fraud where these issues could be highlighted to parliament.  At the local government level, every agency seems to be wilfully blind to the existence of fraud within the sector. 

 

Legislative Remedies

Question 10

  1. The Fraud Act 2006 spells out what the offences are in clear terms.  The problem with fraud inside local government, and fraud by abuse of position in particular is that they are difficult to commit without several other senior officers and/or elected members being complicit, either proactively or under duress.  Consequently, if a CEO, a CFO or a Monitoring Officer abuses his/her position there is every incentive for other senior people involved to close ranks and cover up alleged criminal conduct.  With auditors often showing little if any independence or professional scepticism it is hard for the truth to emerge and harder still to get the authorities to investigate.  If the proper authorities are not interested in investigating alleged fraud, it is all but impossible for members of the public to interest the police in investigating.
  2. From a personal perspective the government’s localism policy in recent years has contributed to the cover-up culture.  Central government uses the excuse that “councils are accountable locally” as justification for its hands-off approach.  Many councils are not accountable, and in the absence of regulators with teeth, the sector is fertile soil for fraud.  When prima facie evidence for fraud at the very top is not investigated, and highly paid alleged fraudsters are rewarded with six figure settlements before being recycled elsewhere, there is little disincentive for dishonest public servants to commit fraud, and so the sector is brought into disrepute.

Question 13

  1. For the reasons indicated above, there is little chance of fraudsters at senior level in local government being prosecuted.  A few high-profile investigations and prosecutions might have some deterrent effect, but it is hard to see which agency in today’s local government accountability landscape would initiate proceedings.

 

Best Practice

Question 15

  1. Procurement fraud is the single largest fraud by value in local government (57%), NHS England (50%) and Central government excluding benefits (55%).[7]  I have no knowledge of the quality of published spend data at the latter two, but local authority spend data quality is frequently extremely poor, with some councils improperly redacting the names of commercial suppliers and selectively removing some records they do not wish the public to see – on occasions up to hundreds of millions of pounds worth of spend data.[8]  By the nature of the data extraction process, such omissions are not accidental, but deliberate.
  2. Transparency Code spend datasets are currently of limited use to the public because they are not comparable between councils and the public cannot know if and how many records are being hidden from view.  One recommendation would be for government to insist that published payment data include at least some standardisation of formats and category names so that datasets from different councils can be usefully compared.  That would allow a single mega database to be constructed.  That would make it easier to spot trends and suspicious patterns at any one council, and may result in an appreciable reduction in fraudulent and/or inappropriate council spending.  That was clearly Lord Pickles’ original vision.  Another essential initiative if spend data is to serve any useful purpose is for the published datasets to be properly reconciled back to councils’ general ledgers on a regular basis (e.g. annually) by a competent, truly independent body.  That is the only way to ensure that councils stop concealing some payment records from the public for no good reason.  Given their track record in recent years, statutory auditors would not appear to be the right body to perform that work.

 

Fraud case study – local authorities systematically defrauding suppliers and taxpayers

 

  1.          In 2010 and 2011 I wrote to Baroness Hanham, then Undersecretary of State at the DCLG about the unappreciated scale of accidental duplicate payments councils make to their suppliers, and why councils recovered so few of them.  I was invited to give a presentation on the subject to the Department’s head of strategy.  I explained that if councils consider this work at all, they prefer to engage third parties who find relatively few overpayments – up to £100,000 or so, rather than choose true specialists who would find upwards of twenty times that amount per council at zero commercial risk for the client and at better value for money.  Councils, and especially finance departments and back-office outsourcers do not like to be shown up, and acknowledging that overpayments were made and need to be recovered is not a priority for them.
  2.          A few months later Lord Pickles published his “50 ways to save” document.[9]  Duplicate payments featured at number four.  The document mentioned the same Experian research I had brought to the Department’s attention, indicating potential cash savings of £147 million/year for councils.  At the time I was working as a freelance financial IT consultant, implementing, upgrading and troubleshooting tier one ERP[10] financial software systems.  That work had led me to develop algorithms for identifying hard-to-find duplicate supplier payments in large bodies of historical accounts payable data.  By 2010 they had improved to the point where I could detect up to £5 million worth of overpayments per council.  On the few occasions councils investigated the findings, fewer than 20% of the candidate overpayments turned out to be false positives.  By 2010 I had undertaken four overpayment audits at four large councils – Sheffield, Doncaster, Suffolk CC and Kent CC.  Of the £13 million worth of duplicate payment candidates identified, the two county councils only attempted to recover around £400,000, whilst Sheffield and Doncaster simply declined to investigate any.  At Sheffield City Council, as soon as officers validated the candidate overpayments to reveal the scale of the savings identified, I was summarily dismissed from the project.
  3.          My experience at West Sussex County Council (WSCC) is emblematic of how every council I have engaged with responds to being presented with seven figure savings, which are entirely consistent with the estimates from Experian and other subject matter experts.  In 2011 I secured a two-year commercial contract at WSCC on the back of a pro bono exercise that gifted the authority £680,000 in candidate overpayment savings.  Throughout the contract the authority and its £1million/week back-office outsourcer (Capita) simply failed to engage with the project, failed to provide complete data, and failed to investigate or attempt to collect any of the seven-figure savings identified (as it subsequently admitted in a recorded meeting).  Two years later, an opposition councillor (Cllr Sandra James) selected 8 candidates from my shortlist of over 350,  and presented them to the finance department without revealing their provenance.  WSCC validated them and discovered that all 8 were recoverable duplicate payments worth £129,000.[11] 
  4.          Once it realised it had been tricked, the authority resorted to defamation.  In April 2017 the now disgraced former leader, Cllr Louise Goldsmith lied to the BBC and ITN Meridian news asserting that I had not provided the council with any savings.[12]  I have not secured any paid work since then, either in the public or the private sectors.  As noted above, letters to my MP and even the Prime Minister have fallen on deaf ears.  Legal action was out of the question because by that stage I had already been cheated of well over £1m from previous council clients and in my experience councils lie shamelessly, whilst courts tend to believe them.
  5. A year earlier, in 2016, my MP wrote to then Local Government Minister Marcus Jones on the subject.  His response included the following:

 

  1. Ministers like Mr Jones (a former council leader) know perfectly well that a sole trader writing to a corrupt and dysfunctional council like WSCC (see 2019 Coughlan report)[13] is a futile exercise.  I have written fifteen times to leaders and CEOs past and present at WSCC about the breach of contract and defamation in the mainstream media.  On the few occasions I have received a response, they are full of lies or deflections.  Following my third email to the current CEO, Becky Shaw (salary £236,000) I finally received an initial response:

“Thank you for your email and I apologise that you have not received a response or acknowledgement to your recent contact.

This is a very complicated case, which I’m sure you can appreciate takes time to work through. I will be able to come back to you soon with a more substantive response.”

That was on 12th February 2020.  Subsequent emails to her, like the first two, have gone unanswered.

The government clearly does not take duplicate payments seriously.  If it did, it would realise that local authorities have no appetite for recovering the useful savings, and that if they are to be recovered and put to good use, the initiative has to come from central government.

 

Local government fraud and the personal cost of doing the right thing

 

  1.          Twenty years ago I was an established IT professional earning more than the Prime Minister.  I was in high demand all over Europe for my experience in implementing and troubleshooting complex financial IT systems.  I lived mortgage-free with healthy savings and my pension on track.  Fifteen years ago, seeing a huge untapped commercial opportunity, I made a conscious decision to “take a punt” to help cash-strapped councils recover the seven figure supplier overpayments they were not finding.  Extensive FOI research performed in 2010 and 2015 indicated that councils were only recovering around £11m annually from supplier overpayments,[14] which meant an estimated £135m was not being collected each year.  That difference would comfortably fund the LUHC Committee’s housing-led solution to the rough sleepers problem for example.[15] There is no evidence to suggest that council back offices have improved their internal controls in recent years to the extent that duplicate payments no longer take place.  Councils’ track record on IT generally is every bit as poor as in central government.
  2.          Had I been dealing with honest councils working in the public interest and a government that delivered on its promises, in each of the last fifteen years I could have helped four or five large councils find £10-15 million of windfall cash savings and taken pride in contributing healthy sums of personal and corporation tax to HMRC.  I had planned to grow my business and help the Cabinet Office improve on the extremely modest £5 million or so the National Fraud Initiative recovers every two years from its creditor matching workstream.[16]  I would have been able to support my family in the way I had always planned, making educational and other choices that have since been denied to us.  There are doubtless many other specialists in this and other niche areas whose lives and careers have been wrecked by government’s obsession with prioritising reputation management over the public interest.
  3.          Today my life savings have gone.  I have had to withdraw funds from my pension in recent years instead of contributing to it.  I have been unable to pay myself a salary in over five years.  As a sole trader in the IT sector there is no safety net.  Instead, there is a huge hole in my CV that means the well-paid IT contracts I used to secure with ease are now out of reach.  This is all down to the repeated fraudulent practices and blackballing by local authorities that deliberately throw away cash savings to save face.  I now have a six-figure interest-only mortgage which is repayable in full at the beginning of next year.  I have no funds to pay it.  My children’s young lives have been comprehensively blighted.  They have never had a family holiday overseas and have missed out on many other things most children take for granted.  Financial tensions in recent years have wreaked possibly irreparable damage to personal relationships.  I have lost friends after taking years to pay back loans.  I am only able to put food on the table today thanks to money left after my father’s death.  That too will be exhausted in a few months.  I have never sought, nor received a penny in support from this or any other government – relying instead on my skillsets and the reasonable assumption that someone, somewhere in the political establishment would recognise the utter stupidity of politicians persecuting innovative wealth creators while at the same time covering up for and rehabilitating the many fraudsters in senior positions in local government who steal from the public, wreck innocent lives, and are handsomely rewarded for it.[17]  This is no way to build back better.

Appendix 1 – Response from No. 10 – November 2019

Appendix 2 – Extract from a Subject Access Request to MHCLG – December 2019

 

 

22 April 2022


[1] See  https://committees.parliament.uk/writtenevidence/35850/html/

[2] See my PAC evidence, Case 3.

[3] https://www.crowe.com/uk/insights/fraud-indicator-report-2017 - see report, p17

[4] E.g. https://cambridgeshire.cmis.uk.com/ccc_live/Meetings/tabid/70/ctl/ViewMeetingPublic/mid/397/Meeting/1737/Committee/9/Default.aspx - Agenda Items 6a&b

[5] https://www.which.co.uk/news/2018/09/exclusive-more-than-96-of-reported-fraud-cases-go-unsolved/

[6] https://uk.trustpilot.com/review/www.actionfraud.police.uk

[7] Annual Fraud Indicator, 2017

[8] Full details available on request

[9] https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/50-ways-to-save-examples-of-sensible-savings-in-local-government

[10] Enterprise Resource Planning

[11] Evidence available on request

[12] Full transcripts and recordings available on request.

[13] https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/west-sussex-county-council-report-on-childrens-social-care

[14] https://www.p2pnetwork.org/latest-news/1692-councils-admit-to-making-11m-in-duplicate-payments.html

[15] https://committees.parliament.uk/publications/1216/documents/10264/default/

[16] https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/903221/NFI_report_2020.pdf  - see p10

[17] E.g. https://insidecroydon.com/2020/01/08/300000-the-price-of-failure-for-one-former-council-chief-exec/