Threatened by Government for trying to prevent fraud, Crawley Observer Column, Wednesday 19th January 2022

One of the worst parts of a council leader’s job is having to write off business rates debt. Although almost none of rates collected in Crawley stays here, it’s all money which should be going to pay for services. Yet, in every case this is debt we have pursued as far as the legal system has enabled us to go and where our independent auditors have made it clear that because the chance of recovery is nil, for our accounts to be accurate we need to strike it off. There is simply nothing more we can do.

The same is not true for the Chancellor Rishi Sunak, who has announced this week he will be writing off a staggering £4.3bn in COVID-19 fraud. That’s the equivalent of 128,000 nurses, 146,000 police officers or one and a half state-of-the-art aircraft carriers. At £156 per household, Crawley residents alone have lost a collective £6,817,200 in fraud.

Unlike business rates, none of this was legally accrued, it was the result of fraud and it was entirely predictable. Honestly, go check my Twitter feed from the first lockdown. Because Crawley Borough Council insisted on running fraud checks our Chief Executive was called-up by a Government minister who threatened the council with being ‘named and shamed’. That’s not exactly the motivational message people working well beyond their terms and conditions needed to hear. I was clear with officers, despite the threat, it was public money and we’d treat it as such, even if that meant taking a hammering in the press.

Meanwhile, I know of one local authority nearby which received praise from the Government for getting all of their grant money out of the door quickly. Unfortunately, they managed it by just posting out cheques to addresses, regardless of whether there was any business actually there.

How can we expect Britain to thrive, when the most powerful members of our Government are incapable of thinking past the end of the week, never mind into the next decade? Where the Conservatives are praising people today for the problems we know they are causing for tomorrow?

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