Report on Tackling Social Housing Tenancy Fraud in Northern Ireland
Date: 24 September 2014
Reference: NIA 197/11-16
Mandate Number: Mandate 2011/15 Twenty Fourth Report
Download the full report here.
1. Housing tenancy fraud is the use of social housing by someone who is not entitled to it or does not need it. Frauds include sub letting for profit, providing false information in a housing application and abandoning the property with no one living there. Tenancy fraud impacts on some of the most vulnerable homeless families, depriving them of a decent home and creates significant additional cost for the taxpayer in providing temporary accommodation and in building additional new social homes.
2. The Committee considers that Northern Ireland’s social housing providers have been slow to react to the increased recognition of tenancy fraud in GB. In part, this is a result of the failure of the Department for Social Development (the Department) to provide the necessary leadership in getting to grips with social housing tenancy fraud in Northern Ireland. However, the Committee takes some comfort from the range of measures that are now being proposed by the Northern Ireland Housing Executive (NIHE) and Northern Ireland housing associations, to proactively tackle tenancy fraud.
3. Up to now, NIHE and housing association activity has been reactive and largely confined to dealing with abandoned properties. NIHE and housing associations recovered 302 properties as a result of abandonment in 2012-13, although this varied considerably across NIHE districts and housing associations. Until recently, this had been considered routine housing management work as opposed to counter fraud work.
4. The Department explained that it would take several years of careful survey work to establish the level of social housing tenancy fraud across Northern Ireland. This is unacceptable, the Committee expects the Department to urgently establish an evidence based baseline figure for the level of tenancy fraud in Northern Ireland.
5. The Department confirmed that, despite identifying a number of cases of tenancy fraud, there have been no prosecutions for tenancy fraud in Northern Ireland. The Committee supports a robust response to cases of tenancy fraud, in particular sub-letting and providing false information in housing applications, and considers that the threat of prosecution is an important deterrent for potential fraudsters.
6. The Committee was concerned at the significant increase in the cost of providing temporary accommodation for homeless families, with costs more than doubling from £5.2 million in 2008 to £10.9 million in 2013. The Comptroller and Auditor General (C&AG) in his report estimates that for every additional 100 fraudulently occupied properties recovered through a proactive detection programme there is the potential to save around £800,000 in costs of housing those homeless families who would otherwise be placed in temporary accommodation. These significant costs suggest that a proactive prevention and detection strategy could generate significant savings.
7. In the Committee’s view, greater collaboration between a range of bodies will be the most effective means of tackling the issue of tenancy fraud. A key part of this will be to establish formal protocols between social housing providers and utility companies. This data will open up a valuable source of evidence in the investigation of suspected tenancy fraud.
8. The Northern Ireland Tenancy Fraud Forum was established in November 2013. It has been tasked with reviewing the legislative position and the feasibility of establishing a single tenancy fraud investigatory team for social housing providers in Northern Ireland.
9. The Committee welcomes the steps that are now being taken by the Department, NIHE and housing associations to tackle social housing tenancy fraud in Northern Ireland. Given that most of the initiatives are only just beginning the Committee expects the Department to review progress after 12 months and provide a progress report to the Committee.
Summary of Recommendations
The Committee expects the Department to urgently drive forward efforts to establish an evidence based baseline figure for the level of tenancy fraud in social housing in Northern Ireland. The Committee recommends that a progress report is compiled by the Department to determine the extent of tenancy fraud and to assess the success of the Department’s counter fraud measures over the next twelve months. This report should be forwarded to the Committee.
The Committee recommends that the Department, as a matter of urgency, should update the Housing Association Guide, to ensure that dedicated tenancy fraud strategies become part of the Department’s regulatory requirement. The Committee also recommends that the need for a dedicated tenancy fraud strategy should be reflected in NIHE’s Financial Memorandum.
The Committee recommends that the assessment of the adequacy of tenancy fraud strategies and review of performance targets in this area, should be included in the Regulator’s inspection regime for housing associations.
The Committee recommends that the Department, in conjunction with social housing providers, should carefully consider whether additional funding would enable social landlords to organise more effective prevention, detection and investigation activities. In the Committee’s opinion, a strong case for seeking funds under the “Invest to Save” Initiative could be made.
The Committee strongly supports the National Fraud Initiative. Given that housing associations have received around £1 billion of Northern Ireland public funding over the past 10 years, in the form of a Housing Association Grant, the Committee expects all housing associations to participate.
The Committee considers that formal protocols with utility companies open up a valuable source of evidence in the investigation of suspected tenancy fraud and the Committee strongly recommends that the present impetus is maintained leading to the introduction of formal protocols with all social landlords.
The Committee considers that progress on tenancy fraud will best be achieved through co-operation across the social housing sector in Northern Ireland. It welcomes consideration of innovative approaches, such as the introduction of a single investigative team to combat tenancy fraud and the establishment of an inter-agency dedicated tenancy fraud hotline. It recommends that these issues are pursued and enhanced measures to counter tenancy fraud are established as a matter of urgency.
The Committee notes the local Tenancy Fraud Forum’s review of the legislative position in Northern Ireland. The Committee recommends strengthening local legislation, particularly in relation to data sharing.