How technology could help detect social care fraud

Social care has become a political hot topic in the wake of ongoing cutbacks to the sector. The UK’s spending on social care is however a remarkable £32 billion per year – a figure close to matching the defence budget. In total, around £22 billion is spent on adult social care, with a further £10 billion being spent on children’s social care. Adult social care alone accounts for 38% of councils’ spending.

Councils assess the needs of an individual, and approve a care plan. An agency or individual contractor is then typically hired to carry out the plan. In the case of domiciliary social care, this will often, for example, involve visiting an elderly person at home once a day to assist them. Someone entitled to care may also request a direct payment, and can then arrange their own care, or might even choose for a friend or relative to be paid to provide the care.

Councils face a significant burden in administering a huge volume of care contracts with such a multiplicity of providers. Much of the administration of these payments is done the old-fashioned way: paper time-sheets are submitted and then payments are processed.

Unfortunately, those in need of care often suffer from conditions such as dementia, which mean that they cannot themselves monitor whether the services they need are being adequately provided. Both care recipients and local authorities must operate largely on trust that carers are carrying out these contracts in full.

Of course, most professional carers will operate to the highest standards. However, in recent years, a number of cases have come before the criminal courts where unscrupulous carers have defrauded those they were meant to be caring for, taking advantage of their vulnerability and confusion. Some carers had dementia sufferers write them cheques, or took cash and others even had themselves named as the beneficiaries on the will of an elderly patient. Such cases provoke understandable public anger. However, less focus has been on how easily carers can defraud the local authorities themselves.

The Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy releases an annual Fraud and Corruption Tracker survey, which gives a national picture of fraud across UK local authorities. It found that 80,000 cases of fraud totalling £302 million in value were detected in 2017/18. Critically, the survey found that social care fraud was one of the four main types of fraud by volume. The previous year, it had noted that social care fraud was the fastest growing type of fraud.

It is well known that stretched local authorities have little ability to police whether social care contracts are in fact being properly carried out. A recent criminal case revealed how vulnerable this system is to fraud. A couple were convicted of defrauding the Isle of Wight Council of £170,000, falsely claiming care payments without detection over several years.

One of the couple himself worked as a carer. He admitted to a separate fraud in not properly performing care contracts which he himself was being paid to carry out. How much similar fraud is carried out is impossible to say. Local authority insiders familiar with the workings of the system fear it may be widespread.

It is remarkable that billions in taxpayers’ money is spent on such a crucial service with so little oversight. By using the right payroll software for temporary staffing, local authorities could not only make the administration of these contracts much simpler, but they could also detect fraud.

For example, if a carer is being paid for working an implausibly high number of hours – say above 70 hours per week – that could be automatically flagged for investigation. Payments could be cross-referenced with those of other local authorities, as carers may work for more than one authority or agency. Fraudulent invoices and documents could be automatically detected by being cross-referenced with databases. GPS technology could even be used to ensure that carers actually go where they are meant to and spend the correct amount of time with those in need of care. Artificial technology and big data solutions can play a vital role in detecting fraud.

The savings for local authorities would come both in terms of reduced administration costs and increased fraud detection. These savings could more than compensate for the cost of implementing such a system. Most importantly, advanced staffing payroll software helps ensure that vulnerable people get the care they need.

The article was published in Information Age and in Local Gov