The PSNI have confirmed they are investigating a report of suspected fraud within Mid Ulster District Council (MUDC), which was received the day after a Freedom of Information request was submitted around whistle-blowing.
It is understood management have briefed councillors on the position which relates to the potential misuse of funding.
While the extent and nature of the alleged fraud remains unclear, the issue came to light when a whistle-blower raised concerns, sparking an internal investigation.
It is not known when this commenced but it was at least several weeks before PSNI were alerted.
A series of Freedom of Information requests were submitted to MUDC on October 30 and the PSNI received a report of suspected fraud the following day.
The request asked how many incidents of whistle-blowing have occurred since April 1, 2023, to which the council confirmed there had been one and provided a copy of their policy by which investigations are undertaken.
Asked if all whistle-blower concerns regarding fraud and/or theft are handed over to the PSNI, the council confirmed all such reports are applied against the scope of the Raising Concerns (Whistleblowing) Policy and investigated in line with governance arrangements, adding where appropriate the Northern Ireland Audit Office are informed.
The policy was again referenced when asked if the investigating of whistle-blower reports encompasses all conflict of interests relating to work colleagues.
Finally, MUDC was asked if any members of staff currently and/or previously employed as of April 1, 2023 to date, were found to have committed fraud/theft under previous whistle-blowing reports and/or internal investigations.
While the council confirmed one such report is currently the subject of an ongoing investigation, it declined to address the point around issues contending the live matter means it is unable to provide any further information.
A council spokesperson also advised a report has been made to the PSNI “therefore it is inappropriate to comment further”.
Meanwhile, a PSNI spokesperson confirmed: “Police received a report of fraud on Tuesday, October 31. Enquiries are at an early stage and no arrests have been made to date.”
The council’s Raising Concerns/Whistleblowing Policy which was approved by the Audit Committee in September 2022 and adopted the following month, was developed “to enable individuals to communicate concern where there is reasonable belief that there is malpractice within the public interest. It aims to reassure employees that they can raise concerns safely and in confidence without fear of detriment”.
It further states: “Council Is committed to achieving high standards of openness, probity and accountability throughout the organisation (and) strongly encourages anyone with serious concerns about danger, wrongdoing or illegality in any aspect of council’s operations/processes to come forward … Council recognises that staff could potentially witness bad practice and wrongdoing that could cause harm, loss (financial or reputation) or damage to themselves, colleagues, other third parties, including members of the public, and the council itself. All members of staff have a responsibility to protect the assets and reputation of the council and are expected to be alert to the potential for fraud.”
The policy continues: “Council will not tolerate unacceptable behaviour such as harassment or victimisation of an employee who has raised a concern or attempts at bullying them into not raising the concern. Employees found to have behaved in such a way will be subject to disciplinary action.”
Whistle-blowing is defined in the policy as “when an employee raises a concern about danger or illegality that affects others and which has a public interest dimension to it” including criminal activity or breach of civil law, a miscarriage of justice has occurred, compromised health and safety or information indicating evidence of the above circumstances being deliberately concealed.
Procedural steps for employees raising concerns are also set out which recognise while this should initially be through a line manager “if they feel unable to raise the matter with or are unsatisfied with how a matter was dealt with” they should progress to various contacts at management level including the Appropriate Head of Service or Director or the Chief Executive.
According to the policy, any action taken will depend on the concern and could involve a number of options, including investigation by a team of Senior Officers (if fraud is suspected council will consider deploying a Fraud Response Team as per the Anti-Fraud, Bribery & Corruption policy); referral to the PSNI, referral to the Local Government Auditor or engagement of an independent adviser.
The policy notes: “The decision to inform PSNI will ordinarily not be taken unless the Chair of the Audit Committee has been consulted.”