A pilot programme to track down children missing from schools is also set to recover millions of pounds in fraudulent benefit claims.
Bradford Council, alongside Sheffield, Leeds, Harrow and Lancashire, are involved in the joint programme with HM Revenue and Customs, which started in January.
Councils have responsibility for all children registered at their schools which continues until it is confirmed the child has left their areas.
The trial, which runs until June, sees the councils sharing details of any children who have been reported as missing from school with HMRC after their officers have “exhausted” all other enquiries to find them.
HMRC then checks if the families are in receipt of any benefits, and, if there are any differences in addresses, they undergo further checks. It is estimated that £6 million of benefit fraud will be uncovered by the end of the trial period.
Alina Khan, Bradford’ Council’s strategic manager for education safeguarding, told the children’s services scrutiny committee, it had passed on details of 59 families to HMRC:
We have been passed details of alternative addresses for five families, and so far we have located four out of these five. Some are outside our local authority, and others are abroad. There are some families claiming benefits in the UK for children that no longer live in the country. There are huge monetary gains for HMRC. We are working for this to be rolled out as a standard practice beyond June. The HMRC will make a decision in this over the summer, and we hope they re-instate this scheme in September.Councillor Dale Smith, chairman of the which considered the report, said: “From our point of view, this is mainly about finding children who are missing from education but any savings will be great for local communities as well.”
The committee was told that data protection issues meant the council were unable to share details of the families with other local authorities not involved in the pilot, even if the “missing” family is now living in their area. Cllr Smith said: “We should all lobby our MPs to have this pilot more widely extended.”
Councillor Imran Khan, the Council’s executive member for education, employment and skills said he hoped the work will continue after the trial period expires.
“This is the first time we have been able to share this information and until now had not been able to access the addresses of families who receive child benefits,” he said. “We have already seen positive results through this work in locating missing children so we are keen for this to continue beyond the six months of the pilot project.”
The Bradford paper rightly calls for the scheme to be rolled out nationally very soon:
For many years, dealing with the problem of pupils going ‘missing’ from school rolls has dogged Bradford and other councils.
The problem has even been exacerbated in recent years as increased EU migration has produced a more transient population.
Alarming as the figures can seem at face value, the vast majority of cases are simply caused by the fact that parents or guardians fail to tell local authorities when they remove pupils from schools to move to other parts of the country or, in many cases, abroad.
But substantial costs can be incurred in trying to locate those children, including working closely with police in some instances to ensure a child’s safety is not at risk.
Those checks can also be hampered by the Data Protection Act which, unbelievably so in these particular circumstances, outlaws families’ personal information being shared between local authorities.
Now, a ray of common sense has emerged in dealing with this issue.
As we report today, Bradford and four other local authorities are involved a pilot scheme with Her Majesty’s Customs and Revenue using data-sharing agreements.
Its success has been immediately apparent.
Four out of five ‘missing’ Bradford families whose new addresses have been obtained through the data-sharing agreement have been found either in this country or aboard.
And it is forecast that when the six-month trial ends in June, the HMRC will also have uncovered £6 million of benefit fraud.
It seems obvious that this scheme should be adopted nationally and rolled out very soon.