Episode 5 Council House Crackdown


Episode 5

Series following housing fraud investigators. Michelle Ackerley hears how a law student was caught breaking the law by subletting her sought-after council flat.


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Transcript


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I'm Michelle Ackerley.

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My parents both grew up on council estates and as a family,

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we understand the difference social housing can make to people's lives.

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Millions of families across the UK

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are struggling to find affordable housing.

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So this is my front room and my bedroom together.

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Many are living in temporary or overcrowded conditions,

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desperate for somewhere decent to live.

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This is our room where we sleep and this is

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what we've got at the minute. We can't really call it our home.

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But some social housing tenants are abusing the system,

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holding on to properties they no longer need.

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When somebody applies for housing,

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you expect them to live in a property and when they don't,

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it does start to take the mickey.

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Or even worse, making a small fortune

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by illegally subletting them.

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He's charging beyond £1,500 a month.

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He exploited this completely to his advantage.

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So I'm with housing investigators cracking down on tenancy cheats...

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-What a waste.

-If you want to commit tenancy fraud,

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don't bother coming here.

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..reclaiming properties...

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I need to speak to you, please.

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They've seen an opportunity and they think

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they're not going to get caught.

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..and giving them to families in genuine need.

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That's how a council house should be.

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It should be loved and looked after.

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This is Council House Crackdown.

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Today, the university law student

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caught breaking the law by subletting

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her highly sought after council flat.

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It's very ironic indeed that Miss Nurse

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had travelled to Bristol to study law when in fact,

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everything being conducted down in London was highly irregular.

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Captured on camera,

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the tenant lying about the size of his family

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in order to jump the housing queue

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and get a bigger property...

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He'd applied stating that he was a single parent with five daughters.

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When I checked the footage, it was always the same two children.

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..and the telltale signs that give away a tenancy cheat.

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These are key pieces of evidence.

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You've got bank accounts coming from that address,

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you've got a Virgin Media account. They're clearly living there,

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-aren't they?

-The tenant can't get around that.

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Tenancy fraud is a serious matter.

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If you're caught and prosecuted,

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you'll end up with a criminal record and could face a fine

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of up to £50,000, or even go to jail,

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which makes it all the more surprising that some of the people

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caught trying to cheat the system

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are people who, frankly, should know better.

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Our first case involves this woman - 26-year-old Kusheema Nurse.

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She was studying law in Bristol

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while at the same time breaking the law

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by illegally subletting her council flat in London.

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You would think for anyone studying that kind of subject that they would

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know the difference between right and wrong?

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That would be our expectation, yes.

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The law student's unlawful actions began in April 2011,

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shortly after she was allocated this one-bedroom flat in one of the most

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densely populated parts of Brent in north London.

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The council's fraud manager, Dave Verma,

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headed up the team who uncovered the law student's unlawful activities.

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Stonebridge is a mixed urban locality.

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It's very near central London.

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The whole NW10 postcode in London is quite up and coming.

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To buy a private dwelling there,

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you're looking at about £1 million for a three bed property.

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Social housing is in high demand in this part of London,

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which made Kusheema Nurse one of the lucky few

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to get a council flat here in such a prime location.

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We're just turning on to the road now. The road is comprised of these

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older terraced type properties,

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which are now worth quite a bit of money

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and they're very solid in build.

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You'd never know that they were social housing, per se.

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When Kusheema Nurse first approached Brent Council in 2010,

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she was in genuine need of housing

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after a breakdown in the relationship with her mother.

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Head of Housing Needs, Laurence Coker,

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was on the team who considered her application.

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So in the first instance,

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we referred her through to our mediation service

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to try and reconcile the relationship with her mother

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to prevent her from becoming homeless.

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Unfortunately, that failed, so we continued to do our enquiries,

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which included a home visit to the mother's address

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to confirm the reasons why the mother was excluding

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Miss Nurse from the family home.

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The mother wasn't prepared to take her back

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and because Miss Nurse was a young vulnerable person,

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we accepted that main statutory duty to accommodate her.

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She was classified as vulnerable because she was a young woman

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with nowhere to live.

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Kusheema Nurse was awarded the first floor one bed flat in August 2010.

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She now had a roof over her head and for the next few years,

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everything seemed in order.

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The rent was paid promptly and there were no problems

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with the tenancy.

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From that time going forward,

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the council was very much of the opinion that she was resident there.

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There was nothing to indicate she wasn't.

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Then three and a half years later in February 2014,

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there was a serious fire at the property.

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Station manager Pam Oparaocha was among those who attended the scene.

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So, as we were coming down the road,

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we could see the smoke issuing from the building.

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Like thick black smoke,

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so we knew it was a developed fire

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and probably had been going on for some time.

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Kusheema Nurse, the official tenant, wasn't in the property,

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but firefighters found another woman

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lying unconscious on the living room floor.

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They brought her down the stairs and brought her to street level.

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Initially, our crews were working on her, trying to revive her.

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We thought that she wasn't going to live.

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She was lifeless when she came out of the building,

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and eventually she started to breathe, she started to come round.

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Very lucky to get out.

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Very, very lucky.

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The woman who was rescued from the fire had been visiting a man

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who was apparently was subletting the flat from Kusheema Nurse.

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The break-out of this fire is what's led to a lot of the problems

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occurring for Miss Nurse.

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It was after the fire that Miss Nurse attended the property

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with some of her friends and was very keen

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for the subtenant to move out very quickly.

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The subtenant felt aggrieved at being asked to leave,

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so decided to go to Brent Council and make a shock confession.

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Surprisingly, a gentleman turned up at our buildings here,

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claiming that he was a subtenant

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and that he wanted to blow the whistle

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on the fact that he was the subtenant

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and give us a statement accordingly.

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Investigators were alarmed by what he had to say about

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Kusheema Nurse's three and a half year tenancy.

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The subtenant was very clear in what he told us about Miss Nurse.

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Firstly, that she was not living at the property and that soon after

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being awarded the property by Brent,

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she'd actually moved to Bristol to do a degree in law.

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If what the man had told investigators was true,

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Kusheema Nurse was guilty of tenancy fraud.

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Later - Brent Council uncover the shocking truth

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about Kusheema Nurse's double life.

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She was spending her money here.

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There was a multitude of transactions showing her regularly

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spending money here, but more so, she was working here.

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Social housing tenancy fraud costs UK taxpayers £1.7 billion a year,

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but the human cost is even greater,

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which is why housing investigators are determined not to let

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unscrupulous tenants get away with subletting their properties.

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Our next case involves a multiple sublet,

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which is only brought to an end

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when neighbours tip off housing investigators.

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We were grateful that there were three or four neighbours

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who came out and gave statements,

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but it just shows that the neighbours are a community

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and wanted the flat to go to someone who should have it.

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This is Sandwell in the West Midlands.

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A clamp-down on housing fraud here is estimated to have saved

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the local council £38.4 million over the past two years.

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One property under investigation in 2014

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was this one-bedroom flat in West Bromwich.

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It had been allocated to a single female back in November 2013

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after she approached the council claiming to be homeless.

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But just a few weeks into the tenancy,

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Sandwell housing officer Jo Green

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was sent round to the flat following a tip-off.

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Suspicions had been raised by neighbours in terms of who was

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occupying the property.

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Neighbours reported that instead of the lone female tenant,

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several Eastern European men appeared to be living in the flat.

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Sandwell Council immediately began an investigation.

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I was asked by a member of the fraud team

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to carry out a visit to the property. Nothing that would

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make the tenant wary of why we were going there because again,

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that would ruin any investigation work that had taken place

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prior to us visiting the property.

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As a housing officer,

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Jo's job is to oversee rent payments and ensure council properties are

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being maintained to a good standard by carrying out regular inspections.

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For fraud investigators, she's also their eyes and ears on the ground.

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I'm very much so a silent observer and investigator.

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Basically amassing evidence...

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..you know, so we can take action against the tenant.

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Jo is trained to look out for telltale signs of subletting,

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and it didn't take her long to become suspicious.

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On entering the property, we noticed that there was quite a large

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collection of male footwear of various descriptions.

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There was a mattress

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leaning against the living room wall

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and there was a lot of Polish cookbooks as well in the kitchen.

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The tenant did not speak Polish as far as Jo was aware,

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and the footwear in the hallway was definitely not hers.

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What happened next did little to allay suspicions.

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Shortly after we got into our car,

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we observed the tenant locking up the property.

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So it was obvious that she'd only

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been there for us to carry out the visit

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and that she wasn't living there full-time.

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Back at Sandwell's Council offices,

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investigator Lee O'Malley was meanwhile using powers

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under the Prevention of Social Housing Fraud Act

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to access the woman's financial records.

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So your next job was obviously to get some solid, hard evidence.

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How did you go about taking it further?

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One of the first things we done was

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-get a credit check in respect of our tenant.

-OK.

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A credit check provides details of any accounts that have been

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registered to an address.

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It looks at things like bill payments,

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credit card activity and bank statements,

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which all give an indication of exactly who's living at a property.

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It's immediately linked a man to the woman's flat,

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even though she said she was living alone.

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This shows that he'd got a bank account at the address,

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which was taken out on the 7th May 2014.

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She'd been living at the address by herself from November 2013.

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Right, and you can see it as clear as day there.

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Mr, you know.

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-You know?

-Yeah, that's right.

-He's a male.

-Yeah, yeah.

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It was possible that someone had moved in with the tenant,

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but a second man was actually paying for the TV and broadband.

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This shows that he opened up a Virgin Media account

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on the 6th of March 2014.

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VOICEOVER: Further checks revealed he also had a bank account

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VOICEOVER: registered at the woman's flat.

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I mean, these are key pieces of evidence.

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You've got bank accounts coming from that address,

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you've got a Virgin Media account.

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-They're clearly living there, aren't they?

-Exactly. The tenant can't get around that.

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She's not making any payments for the Virgin,

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like the internet and the telly herself.

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It's in a totally different person's name.

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-You can't explain that away, can you?

-No, you can't.

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So far, Lee had found solid evidence

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of at least two men living at the flat.

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And then we done checks into the actual tenant,

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which actually showed she had no credit at the property

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where she should be living and all of her credit, well, bank accounts,

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were actually at the family home, her mum and dad's.

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Oh, so that's where she was living?

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That's where, yeah, she was living there, yeah.

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And while the woman was unlawfully subletting her flat,

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she was effectively getting it for free.

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She was claiming between £60 to £80 a week,

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which is the average price that the council normally charge tenants

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for the rent, but that was being covered by the housing benefit

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that she was claiming, based on a single person.

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-So, basically, she wasn't really paying anything?

-No.

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With the evidence stacking up,

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investigators were determined to

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reclaim the flat and re-let it to someone in genuine need.

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Later, Lee discovers more damning evidence.

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There's a big space on the living room floor.

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There was a double mattress up against the wall.

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If there are a few people living in a one-bedroom flat,

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you're going to need somewhere to sleep.

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Emma Reynolds MP grew up in a council house in Wolverhampton.

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These days, she represents

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the Wolverhampton North East constituency,

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where the housing crisis is hitting people hard.

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Week in, week out

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in my constituency surgeries, people come to see me

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because they want a council property

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and they're getting very frustrated

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because they've registered to be on the waiting list

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and it may have been months,

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it may have been years and there are just simply not enough council homes

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for the people that need and want them in Wolverhampton.

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So, you know, there are heartbreaking stories.

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And here, as in many cities across the UK,

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the properties most in demand are family homes.

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In Wolverhampton there are nearly 9,000 individuals and families

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on the waiting list. Deciding who's

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at the top of that list is a difficult task,

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made all the more difficult by

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dishonest tenants trying to cheat their way

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to the top of the queue.

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In this next case,

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a Wolverhampton tenant tries to jump the queue

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by pretending he had five children living with him

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in an overcrowded two-bed flat.

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I established that there was the applicant

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and an adult female and I only ever saw two children.

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It was always the same two children and I didn't see any others that

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appeared to be part of his family.

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In 2013, suspicions were aroused at Wolverhampton Homes

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when they received an application from one of their existing tenants.

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Counter fraud manager Elaine Morgan was called in to investigate.

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We received an application from a single male applicant who had listed

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that he'd got five young children living in the household.

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The man wanted to upgrade from a two-bedroom flat

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to a three-bedroom house.

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Sympathetic to this family's seemingly desperate situation,

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the council immediately considered his application.

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The applicant was given higher priority on the waiting list.

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His band was a band one priority and that was given

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because based on the information that he provided,

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he was short of one bedroom and he was living in a property

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with no private access to a garden.

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Band one is reserved for applicants

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who are deemed to have an urgent need to move.

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As a father living with five children in overcrowded conditions,

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he appeared to fit all the criteria and in December 2013,

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the family were offered one of the council's larger properties.

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The property was a three-bedroom house

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in the Castlecroft area of Wolverhampton -

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a very sought-after area, very popular area.

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Good schools.

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People who have lived in this area want to stay in the area.

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Three bed houses hardly ever become available,

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so to be fast-tracked to a house in Castlecroft

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made him one of the lucky few. But before handing over the keys,

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investigators decided to check out his story.

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The point of allocation,

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that's when we look at the information they've provided.

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We check to see that they can provide all the documents

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they are asked to provide, that their household circumstances

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are still the same and that they are eligible for that property.

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It was under that close scrutiny that Elaine became suspicious

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of the tenant's claim - that he was bringing up five young children

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on his own.

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We were concerned at the ages of the children.

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The youngest one at that time was listed as being seven months old

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and the next one up was only a few months older.

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So there weren't...

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It wasn't possible they could be from the same mother.

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A man bringing up two babies from separate mothers,

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along with three other children, sounded very unusual.

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Because there wasn't any mention of an adult female,

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we were a bit concerned and curious more than anything to begin with

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that there might be something not quite right with the application.

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Wolverhampton Homes decided to investigate further.

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The tenant had not yet been given the keys to his new house,

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so was still living in a two-bedroom flat in a tower block.

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The block had a control key fob entry system.

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Each time a tenant entered or left the building,

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an image was captured on CCTV.

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It was using this system that Louise Humphries

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started to check on the tenant's living arrangements.

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As we get a bit nearer to the door,

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you can see there's a camera on the right-hand side,

0:17:440:17:46

which in the CCTV control room,

0:17:460:17:48

it will be showing that I'm walking towards the block.

0:17:480:17:51

This is my door entry fob, so I'll use that to enter into the block.

0:17:510:17:55

As you can see, the camera will pick me up now.

0:17:550:17:58

The images are stored and can be

0:17:580:17:59

used in investigations like this one.

0:17:590:18:01

As I enter into the block,

0:18:080:18:09

there's another camera up here that will show me on the CCTV.

0:18:090:18:12

There are also cameras here that are showing me.

0:18:150:18:17

Control room supervisor Ian Rawlings

0:18:190:18:21

and his team often help investigators

0:18:210:18:23

with gathering evidence.

0:18:230:18:25

We work very closely with other teams within Wolverhampton Homes,

0:18:250:18:28

in particular the lettings team and the fraud team.

0:18:280:18:30

If they believe they've got some issues,

0:18:300:18:32

they'll guide us in the direction of

0:18:320:18:34

where they might want some footage recorded.

0:18:340:18:36

In recent years,

0:18:360:18:37

Wolverhampton Homes has spent over £1 million updating their CCTV

0:18:370:18:41

and key fob system.

0:18:410:18:44

This particular system is really useful for the fraud team

0:18:440:18:47

because we can monitor who are coming and going into the properties.

0:18:470:18:50

Any reports of housing tenancy fraud that we have where somebody's living

0:18:500:18:55

in one of our blocks that has CCTV footage,

0:18:550:18:58

we will always use that as a tool to investigate.

0:18:580:19:01

Later - the tenant tries to turn the tables on housing investigators.

0:19:030:19:09

He accused us of manipulating evidence.

0:19:090:19:13

He accused us of not displaying evidence and not exhibiting evidence

0:19:130:19:17

that showed other children.

0:19:170:19:19

He said that we had deliberately withheld evidence

0:19:190:19:24

and he wanted to go to the High Court.

0:19:240:19:26

Earlier, we met Kusheema Nurse,

0:19:370:19:40

who'd been allocated a one-bedroom property in London by Brent Council

0:19:400:19:44

when she declared herself homeless in 2010.

0:19:440:19:47

From that time going forward, the council was very much of the opinion

0:19:470:19:50

that she was resident there.

0:19:500:19:51

There was nothing to indicate she wasn't,

0:19:510:19:53

and the rental payments came in as expected.

0:19:530:19:55

It wasn't until the spring of 2014 when following a serious fire

0:19:550:19:59

at the property, council investigators were told

0:19:590:20:03

Kusheema Nurse hadn't been living there for some time.

0:20:030:20:06

The subtenant was very clear in what he told us about Miss Nurse.

0:20:060:20:11

Firstly, that she was not living at the property

0:20:110:20:14

and that, soon after being awarded the property by Brent,

0:20:140:20:18

she'd actually moved to Bristol to do a degree in law.

0:20:180:20:21

So you've got a student here, studying law, pretty intense degree,

0:20:240:20:28

prestigious university,

0:20:280:20:30

you would think if anyone studying that kind of subject,

0:20:300:20:33

that they would know the difference between right and wrong?

0:20:330:20:36

Well, that would be our expectation, yes.

0:20:360:20:38

Counter fraud manager Dave Verma immediately began an investigation.

0:20:380:20:43

He was able to access bank statements

0:20:430:20:45

showing Kusheema Nurse's spending habits.

0:20:450:20:48

I'm sure that's extremely useful for a case like this.

0:20:480:20:50

What did you discover from looking at those statements?

0:20:500:20:53

She was spending her money here.

0:20:530:20:54

There was a multitude of transactions

0:20:540:20:56

showing her regularly spending money here,

0:20:560:20:58

but more so, she was working here.

0:20:580:21:00

We discovered she was very much living her life here in Bristol.

0:21:000:21:04

Back at Brent Council offices,

0:21:040:21:06

Dave showed me the evidence he'd compiled.

0:21:060:21:08

So we're seeing all kinds of payments being made in Bristol.

0:21:080:21:12

And secondly, it shows salary payments

0:21:120:21:15

for a nightclub in Bristol...

0:21:150:21:17

..and also that she has various transactions

0:21:190:21:22

showing that she is living in Bristol.

0:21:220:21:25

Brent Council contacted the nightclub

0:21:250:21:27

to confirm she'd been working there.

0:21:270:21:29

This is a letter that we obtained from her employer in Bristol.

0:21:310:21:36

This is from a nightclub

0:21:360:21:39

and this confirms her employment, that it started in June 2010

0:21:390:21:46

and that they hold an address for her on file, which is in Bristol.

0:21:460:21:50

This showed she'd been working in Bristol for more than 18 months

0:21:500:21:55

at the same time that she had her council tenancy in London.

0:21:550:21:58

From piecing all this together,

0:21:580:22:00

it's pretty clear that she's not living in London and that, you know,

0:22:000:22:04

a job working in a nightclub, it's late nights.

0:22:040:22:08

Well, clearly. That was confirmed to us by her employers

0:22:080:22:11

that she was often finishing in the early hours.

0:22:110:22:13

It's not easy to be coming back and forth to London

0:22:130:22:17

if you're working in a nightclub late at night.

0:22:170:22:20

Well, it's completely implausible.

0:22:200:22:21

With a university degree in law going on at the same time,

0:22:210:22:24

-it would be implausible.

-It just doesn't make sense, does it?

0:22:240:22:26

No, not at all.

0:22:260:22:28

Investigators were convinced that whilst studying law

0:22:280:22:31

and working in Bristol,

0:22:310:22:32

Kusheema Nurse couldn't have been using her flat in Brent

0:22:320:22:35

as her main place of residence.

0:22:350:22:37

It transpired to the team here that it was very ironic indeed

0:22:370:22:41

that Miss Nurse had travelled to Bristol to study law when in fact

0:22:410:22:46

everything being conducted down in London was highly regular.

0:22:460:22:50

At the start of 2014,

0:22:500:22:52

Brent had over 3,000 households living in temporary accommodation,

0:22:520:22:56

while the number of homeless people in the borough had risen five-fold

0:22:560:22:59

in the previous three years.

0:22:590:23:01

With such a dire need of social housing in the borough,

0:23:010:23:04

it was imperative for Brent Council

0:23:040:23:06

to reclaim their flat from Kusheema Nurse.

0:23:060:23:08

She was called in for an interview under caution.

0:23:080:23:12

At the interview, Miss Nurse decided to give

0:23:120:23:14

what we call a no comment interview.

0:23:140:23:16

This means that questions were asked of her,

0:23:160:23:19

but her standard response was no comment.

0:23:190:23:21

Her demeanour at the start of the interview was somewhat confident

0:23:210:23:25

and she seemed very happy to give a no comment interview.

0:23:250:23:29

However as the interview progressed,

0:23:290:23:31

it appeared that she was becoming more and more nervous

0:23:310:23:33

as she was learning the amount of evidence

0:23:330:23:36

that had been gained about her.

0:23:360:23:38

Yet even now, Kusheema Nurse still wasn't admitting anything.

0:23:380:23:41

In my personal opinion, someone who is studying law,

0:23:410:23:46

one would hope that one would know the legal system and that the weight

0:23:460:23:51

of evidence was definitely stacked against her in this instance.

0:23:510:23:54

In August 2016, Kusheema Nurse appeared before Harrow Crown Court.

0:23:570:24:02

Miss Nurse decided to go with a not guilty plea,

0:24:020:24:05

where she gave explanations that the subtenant was just a person

0:24:050:24:09

decorating for her,

0:24:090:24:11

that she was actually resident at the flat in London

0:24:110:24:14

whilst undertaking her degree.

0:24:140:24:16

She didn't divert from that at all.

0:24:160:24:18

She was very, very stalwart that that was the case.

0:24:180:24:22

The judge didn't believe her claims

0:24:220:24:24

that she was commuting between London and Bristol

0:24:240:24:26

and found Kusheema Nurse guilty of offences

0:24:260:24:29

under the Prevention of Social Housing Fraud Act of 2013

0:24:290:24:32

and the Fraud Act of 2006.

0:24:320:24:34

She was sentenced to 130 hours' community service,

0:24:350:24:39

deferred for three months so she could complete her exams.

0:24:390:24:42

When we first questioned her about all this,

0:24:420:24:45

that was her opportunity to come clean, hand the keys back,

0:24:450:24:49

sign a tenancy termination form

0:24:490:24:52

and throw herself at the mercy of the process.

0:24:520:24:55

Later - despite the guilty verdict,

0:24:550:24:59

the fight goes on to get the property back.

0:24:590:25:01

And that's causing us some frustration

0:25:010:25:03

because we've got deserving people on our waiting lists

0:25:030:25:05

who we very much would like

0:25:050:25:07

to get into this property in particular.

0:25:070:25:09

Across the UK, local councils are coming up

0:25:140:25:17

with innovative ways of getting people off the waiting list

0:25:170:25:21

and into some decent, affordable accommodation.

0:25:210:25:24

In Lewisham, south-east London,

0:25:240:25:25

there's been an 89% increase in the number of people

0:25:250:25:28

registered as homeless and living in temporary accommodation.

0:25:280:25:32

In Lewisham, it's a real struggle. So every single day,

0:25:320:25:34

we're seeing more families come to the council because they've been

0:25:340:25:37

made homeless, and that's because landlords are increasing rents.

0:25:370:25:41

Rents in Lewisham have doubled in the last decade.

0:25:410:25:45

It's meant over 1,700 households

0:25:450:25:47

are in temporary accommodation in the borough -

0:25:470:25:49

an experience Lewisham councillor Damien Egan knows all too well.

0:25:490:25:53

I went through homelessness when I was growing up

0:25:530:25:56

and it's something you never forget. For our families today,

0:25:560:26:00

they can be homeless for over a year, that's not uncommon,

0:26:000:26:04

and the impact on those families is huge.

0:26:040:26:06

Many of these families are forced to live

0:26:060:26:08

in bed-and-breakfast accommodation in other parts of the capital.

0:26:080:26:12

But recently, Lewisham has found a novel way

0:26:120:26:15

of alleviating the problem -

0:26:150:26:17

the UK's first pop-up social housing village.

0:26:170:26:21

Co-designed by architect Andrew Partridge,

0:26:210:26:23

it's enabled the council to almost instantly create 24 new flats

0:26:230:26:28

for homeless families by using these prefabricated modular components.

0:26:280:26:33

What's so good about pop-ups is that they can happen very quickly

0:26:330:26:35

and respond very quickly.

0:26:350:26:37

For them, it was a quick response to their immediate problem of families

0:26:370:26:42

in temporary private accommodation.

0:26:420:26:44

The overall scheme was around £5 million,

0:26:440:26:47

but the scheme pays for itself in less than ten years

0:26:470:26:50

because we get rents from the properties but, also,

0:26:500:26:52

we're not paying for the emergency bed and breakfasts and hostels.

0:26:520:26:57

Each home comes in two pieces.

0:26:570:26:59

One's the living area and the second provides the bedrooms.

0:26:590:27:03

They're made of timber stud panels.

0:27:030:27:05

So, walls, floors, ceilings,

0:27:050:27:08

put together in the factory and then fully finished.

0:27:080:27:10

All the power in, lights ready to go, toilets flushing, everything.

0:27:100:27:15

Armand Moulet is a bilingual customer advisor

0:27:150:27:18

at St Pancras International station.

0:27:180:27:20

For him, this pop-up social housing has been a godsend.

0:27:200:27:24

The average cost for a two-bedroom flat in London is £1,700 a month,

0:27:240:27:29

so Armand and his two daughters could not afford to live and work

0:27:290:27:33

in the capital if not for social housing.

0:27:330:27:35

When we looked at the market,

0:27:350:27:37

what was affordable for what we needed was not affordable for us,

0:27:370:27:43

based on my wages and things like that.

0:27:430:27:46

My big worry was to end up on the street with no place to go

0:27:460:27:49

with the child, the children, and be homeless.

0:27:490:27:53

The family were previously housed in cramped temporary accommodation

0:27:530:27:56

in Woolwich, East London.

0:27:560:27:58

We spent about, what, over a year over there.

0:27:580:28:01

On a daily basis, a stressful time.

0:28:010:28:04

And even, I couldn't sleep at night sometimes.

0:28:040:28:07

I was waking up around one, two o'clock in the morning.

0:28:070:28:09

But then, in August 2016,

0:28:110:28:13

Armand and his two daughters were allocated a flat

0:28:130:28:16

in the new pop-up development.

0:28:160:28:18

It was more than they ever dreamed of.

0:28:180:28:21

The house was, er, looking very bigger.

0:28:210:28:25

I say, "Wow!"

0:28:250:28:27

The living room, combined with the open-plan kitchen,

0:28:270:28:31

is, I will say, one of our favourite rooms

0:28:310:28:34

because we spend more time here.

0:28:340:28:36

We watch the TV all together, we have our meal, we cook here.

0:28:360:28:41

And, yeah, we spend time, precious time, I will say.

0:28:410:28:46

From here to my college is just 30 minutes.

0:28:460:28:49

It's better than before because before,

0:28:490:28:53

I was taking one and a half hours.

0:28:530:28:56

Yeah, sometimes, I sleep.

0:28:560:28:58

I'm grateful because I've been lucky enough

0:28:590:29:02

to receive the support at the right time.

0:29:020:29:05

Armand is among the many thousand public service workers

0:29:050:29:09

who could not afford to live in London were it not for social housing

0:29:090:29:13

and yet are important to the economy of the capital city.

0:29:130:29:15

Anything that we can do to reduce the number of homeless families

0:29:170:29:21

on our waiting list is a good thing,

0:29:210:29:23

and that's why we're looking at more schemes like this

0:29:230:29:26

that we can replicate across our borough.

0:29:260:29:28

In five years, this pop-up social housing will be dismantled

0:29:280:29:33

and moved to another brownfield site in Lewisham.

0:29:330:29:35

The current site will be used

0:29:350:29:37

for a more permanent retail and housing development.

0:29:370:29:40

Housing officers are responsible for the day-to-day running

0:29:460:29:49

of council estates and, as such,

0:29:490:29:51

they are the eyes and ears of tenancy fraud investigators.

0:29:510:29:55

Many of them are trained to spot telltale signs

0:29:550:29:58

that a property's being unlawfully sublet, like...

0:29:580:30:01

Earlier, we heard how housing officer Jo Green

0:30:100:30:13

became suspicious during a supposedly routine inspection

0:30:130:30:16

of a one-bedroom flat in Sandwell in the West Midlands.

0:30:160:30:20

When there's more things there,

0:30:200:30:21

male toiletries in the bathroom and you're expecting to see only,

0:30:210:30:25

you know, toiletries for a female lone occupant,

0:30:250:30:29

it does raise your suspicions

0:30:290:30:31

and it's pointing to something more untoward

0:30:310:30:34

going on at the property.

0:30:340:30:36

Backed up by credit checks

0:30:370:30:39

that showed at least two men living at the property,

0:30:390:30:41

investigator Lee O'Malley made an appointment

0:30:410:30:43

to visit the tenant at the flat, where she was supposed to be living.

0:30:430:30:47

We knocked on the door, there was no answer.

0:30:470:30:49

Erm, luckily, we'd taken the tenant's phone number out with us.

0:30:490:30:53

We give her a call, obviously told her who we were.

0:30:530:30:56

Erm, she was a bit worried about what the...

0:30:560:30:58

-I bet she was.

-..what the visit was about.

0:30:580:31:00

She was there within about 15 minutes.

0:31:000:31:02

So obviously, she was quite close to the area, wherever she was.

0:31:020:31:06

She seemed nervous which, obviously, if you're doing something wrong,

0:31:060:31:09

-you would feel a bit nervous.

-Yeah.

0:31:090:31:11

Almost immediately,

0:31:110:31:13

Lee saw first-hand the evidence

0:31:130:31:15

that had concerned housing officer Jo Green.

0:31:150:31:17

We walked in. On the right-hand side, there was a cupboard.

0:31:170:31:20

So we opened the cupboard, there was welding gear in there.

0:31:200:31:23

Erm, there was male shoes, work clothes.

0:31:230:31:26

You'd look at the tenant and you would think,

0:31:260:31:28

"You wouldn't be using that yourself."

0:31:280:31:30

You're walking into that property, you're seeing male shoes,

0:31:300:31:34

welding shoes, equipment that just

0:31:340:31:36

doesn't fit with the original tenant.

0:31:360:31:39

Yeah. She stated that it was her friend's.

0:31:390:31:41

OK. And I'm sure you're thinking, at this point, "A likely story."

0:31:410:31:45

Yeah. Erm... Obviously, alarm bells start ringing with us.

0:31:450:31:49

We've heard it all before.

0:31:490:31:50

Lee suspected this one-bedroom flat

0:31:500:31:52

had been converted into an HMO - a house of multiple occupancy -

0:31:520:31:57

a common way of maximising rental payments.

0:31:570:32:00

There was a big space on the living room floor

0:32:000:32:02

and there was a double mattress up against the wall.

0:32:020:32:04

The space was big enough for the mattress to be laid down.

0:32:040:32:06

If there are a few people living in

0:32:060:32:08

a one-bedroom flat, you're going to need somewhere to sleep.

0:32:080:32:10

-That's a classic sign of subletting, isn't it?

-It is, yeah.

0:32:100:32:13

Using that space in the living room for someone's bedroom,

0:32:130:32:15

for someone to sleep in.

0:32:150:32:16

Exactly. Each person, I'm guessing, would have been paying our tenant,

0:32:160:32:20

-erm, some rent.

-Yeah. When she's not actually paying anything at all.

0:32:200:32:24

That's right. She was getting her rent covered by the housing benefit.

0:32:240:32:27

In the kitchen, Lee found evidence

0:32:270:32:28

to suggest that the unofficial occupants

0:32:280:32:30

were in fact East European.

0:32:300:32:32

There was a lot of Polish cookery books, Polish ingredients.

0:32:330:32:37

Your tenant isn't Polish.

0:32:370:32:39

-No.

-So, why is all this stuff in the kitchen?

0:32:390:32:43

She told Lee that a friend

0:32:430:32:46

was teaching her how to cook Polish recipes.

0:32:460:32:48

It's almost laughable, isn't it?

0:32:480:32:50

It is, yeah. To be honest,

0:32:500:32:51

we probably did laugh at that point

0:32:510:32:53

when she started coming out with the excuses.

0:32:530:32:55

How do you keep your cool in those situations?

0:32:550:32:58

You just have to let them talk.

0:32:580:33:02

Obviously, people talk and they trip themselves up.

0:33:020:33:05

Lee spotted another single mattress on the bedroom floor.

0:33:050:33:08

If there's one person living at an address,

0:33:080:33:10

that's a double mattress that you've got in the living room,

0:33:100:33:12

you got a single mattress in the bedroom, plus a double bed.

0:33:120:33:15

-What's going on?

-Yeah.

0:33:150:33:16

What was her excuse for that?

0:33:160:33:18

Her excuse for that was that was for when her nephew comes and stays.

0:33:180:33:21

The web of lies continues.

0:33:210:33:23

And not only was there men's clothing in the wardrobe,

0:33:230:33:26

Lee also discovered men's toiletries in the bathroom.

0:33:260:33:29

There were three male razors

0:33:290:33:31

and then there were two male deodorants,

0:33:310:33:34

and she said they were her own.

0:33:340:33:36

-She said they were hers?

-Yeah.

0:33:360:33:39

She's getting progressively more nervous, surely, at this time.

0:33:390:33:42

You know, cos as you said,

0:33:420:33:44

it's hard for her to keep up with her own lies and the evidence

0:33:440:33:46

is all around her. It's stacking up, isn't it?

0:33:460:33:49

Exactly, yeah. If it was me and I was in their position,

0:33:490:33:52

you'd feel really embarrassed, wouldn't you?

0:33:520:33:54

If you're saying that you live there by yourself,

0:33:540:33:56

but then we're looking and finding all these belongings,

0:33:560:33:59

she's saying that all this Polish stuff's her friend's

0:33:590:34:02

but there's more Polish stuff there than anything else,

0:34:020:34:05

you'd start feeling a bit embarrassed.

0:34:050:34:07

A number of the neighbours backed all this evidence up, didn't they,

0:34:070:34:10

by giving statements?

0:34:100:34:11

Yeah, that's right. We were grateful

0:34:110:34:13

that there were three or four neighbours who came out,

0:34:130:34:15

gave statements.

0:34:150:34:16

Quite unusual that you get neighbours do that

0:34:160:34:19

because some people have got a fear of repercussions from the tenant.

0:34:190:34:23

But to this day, since I've been doing this job,

0:34:230:34:26

I've never, never seen any repercussions.

0:34:260:34:28

But it just shows that the neighbours are a community

0:34:280:34:30

and wanted the flat to go to someone who should have it.

0:34:300:34:33

In July 2015 at a civil court hearing,

0:34:330:34:36

Sandwell Council was granted possession of the property

0:34:360:34:39

on the grounds that it was being unlawfully sublet.

0:34:390:34:42

There was myself, one of my colleagues, a housing officer,

0:34:420:34:46

we all gave evidence.

0:34:460:34:47

But the judge looked at all the evidence

0:34:470:34:49

and before he made a decision,

0:34:490:34:51

the tenant conceded the property and handed it back to the Council.

0:34:510:34:54

The tenant was ordered to pay £2,500 in rent arrears,

0:34:570:35:00

and to repay £1,600 in housing benefit overpayments.

0:35:000:35:06

Thanks to the efforts of counter-fraud manager Oliver Knight

0:35:060:35:09

and his team, the flat has since been allocated

0:35:090:35:11

to someone on Sandwell Council's housing list.

0:35:110:35:14

Does it ever cease to amaze you guys just how brazen

0:35:140:35:16

some people can be to hang onto properties like this

0:35:160:35:21

and not give them back to the system?

0:35:210:35:24

You've got evidence stacking up against you.

0:35:240:35:27

Why they'd hold on to it and not just hand it over...

0:35:270:35:30

There's a lot of greed in it as well. The subletting people get used

0:35:300:35:33

to having the money from the sort of tenants

0:35:330:35:35

and living the lifestyle of using that money.

0:35:350:35:38

So, there's a lot of greed.

0:35:380:35:39

I mean, Sandwell's got 7,000 people on the waiting list

0:35:390:35:42

trying to get properties,

0:35:420:35:44

so any property that we can get back on the market

0:35:440:35:47

and get those people rehoused is obviously very, very important,

0:35:470:35:51

so this one included.

0:35:510:35:53

In Wolverhampton,

0:35:590:36:00

antifraud investigations by the Council

0:36:000:36:02

saved taxpayers an estimated £1.2 million in 2015.

0:36:020:36:07

Wolverhampton Homes lettings manager Pauline Evans

0:36:070:36:10

says robust checks are carried out

0:36:100:36:12

on every application for social housing

0:36:120:36:14

before the keys are handed over.

0:36:140:36:16

At the end of the day,

0:36:160:36:18

we want to ensure that whoever gets that property,

0:36:180:36:21

their circumstances is as on the application.

0:36:210:36:24

A lot of people do play it correctly.

0:36:240:36:27

They're very honest, they're very upfront,

0:36:270:36:29

so it is wrong when somebody

0:36:290:36:31

fraudulently tries to obtain social housing.

0:36:310:36:34

Earlier, we learned how an application for a larger property

0:36:370:36:41

from one of Wolverhampton Homes' existing tenants aroused suspicions.

0:36:410:36:44

He claimed to have five children

0:36:460:36:48

living with him in an overcrowded flat.

0:36:480:36:50

I questioned it because there wasn't an adult female

0:36:500:36:54

as part of the family, according to his application.

0:36:540:36:58

And because there was two children who weren't even yet one years old,

0:36:580:37:03

it did make us a little bit suspicious

0:37:030:37:05

as to what the situation was and what was going on.

0:37:050:37:08

The man had been provisionally offered

0:37:080:37:11

an upgrade to a three-bedroomed house.

0:37:110:37:13

But with doubts over the number of children living with him,

0:37:140:37:16

Wolverhampton Homes first had to be sure he was entitled to it.

0:37:160:37:21

Using a CCTV system linked to the entrance of the men's council block,

0:37:210:37:25

fraud officer Louise Humphries closely monitored

0:37:250:37:28

the family's movements in and out of the building.

0:37:280:37:30

I would have to physically trawl for hours,

0:37:320:37:35

looking at people coming and going out of the block,

0:37:350:37:38

and then just getting a still image of who the person was.

0:37:380:37:41

As she scanned the CCTV, Louise found no evidence

0:37:410:37:45

that the tenant had five children living with him.

0:37:450:37:48

I established that there was the applicant

0:37:480:37:51

and an adult female and only ever saw two children.

0:37:510:37:54

It was always the same two children,

0:37:540:37:56

and I didn't see any others that appeared to be part of his family.

0:37:560:38:00

With three of the children apparently missing,

0:38:000:38:03

Wolverhampton Homes call their tenant in

0:38:030:38:05

to explain the family's living arrangements.

0:38:050:38:08

He was adamant and he explained that four of the children

0:38:090:38:13

live with him permanently, full time,

0:38:130:38:15

that they didn't have any contact with their mother,

0:38:150:38:18

and that the oldest child lived with her mother during the week,

0:38:180:38:22

but spent weekends and school holidays with him.

0:38:220:38:24

So, we went back and we double checked all of the CCTV footage

0:38:240:38:30

and we continued to check that for another couple of weeks.

0:38:300:38:34

During this further check by Wolverhampton Homes,

0:38:340:38:37

there was still no sign of the three missing children.

0:38:370:38:39

The lettings team then approached the applicant

0:38:420:38:44

and said we were no longer going to be able

0:38:440:38:46

to offer him this three-bedroom house.

0:38:460:38:48

He wasn't happy at all.

0:38:480:38:50

He asked if he could appeal the decision,

0:38:500:38:54

and the appeal panel was assembled.

0:38:540:38:58

The panel, after hearing all of the evidence

0:38:580:39:02

and considering the information,

0:39:020:39:05

they upheld the decision to withdraw the property.

0:39:050:39:08

As far as the Council was concerned, this was the end of the matter.

0:39:080:39:12

The applicant decided otherwise.

0:39:120:39:15

He accused us of manipulating evidence.

0:39:150:39:19

He accused us of...

0:39:190:39:20

..not displaying evidence

0:39:220:39:23

and not exhibiting evidence that showed other children.

0:39:230:39:27

The tenant applied for a judicial review of the case.

0:39:270:39:30

It was initially turned down, but on appeal,

0:39:300:39:32

he was granted permission

0:39:320:39:34

to take Wolverhampton Homes to the High Court.

0:39:340:39:36

Although we were disappointed and surprised,

0:39:360:39:38

we were confident that the evidence

0:39:380:39:41

that we'd gathered was accurate and it would stand up under scrutiny,

0:39:410:39:45

so we weren't too worried in that respect.

0:39:450:39:48

The tenant was granted access to all the information Wolverhampton Homes

0:39:480:39:52

had gathered during their investigation into his application

0:39:520:39:54

for a larger property.

0:39:540:39:57

Anything that we held in our systems,

0:39:570:39:59

he was allowed to have a copy of.

0:39:590:40:00

After hearing evidence from both sides,

0:40:000:40:02

the judge ruled in favour of Wolverhampton Homes

0:40:020:40:05

and ordered the tenant to pay £6,000 in costs.

0:40:050:40:08

We were very pleased that the court did find in our favour.

0:40:090:40:12

Obviously, it's never nice to have to go to court,

0:40:120:40:14

especially when you've got somebody accusing you

0:40:140:40:16

of lots of different things that you haven't done.

0:40:160:40:19

And when you're just doing the job that you're paid to do,

0:40:190:40:23

to have somebody who we know has told lies on an application

0:40:230:40:27

and has been given every opportunity to correct the information,

0:40:270:40:31

chose not to do so but instead to stand by their story

0:40:310:40:34

that they'd originally given and then take the Council to court,

0:40:340:40:38

what we can't afford to do is to allow people

0:40:380:40:42

who've not told the truth on applications to gain a property

0:40:420:40:45

which they wouldn't otherwise be entitled to.

0:40:450:40:48

And that in itself sends out

0:40:480:40:51

A - the wrong signal to the genuine people,

0:40:510:40:53

and it's not fair on the majority of people who are telling the truth,

0:40:530:40:57

who aren't telling lies on applications.

0:40:570:40:59

You can lie your way into being rehoused, I guess, which is, again,

0:41:030:41:08

highly immoral because there are people

0:41:080:41:10

who are homeless who really do need emergency housing.

0:41:100:41:14

Certainly in my area,

0:41:140:41:15

Wolverhampton Homes takes this issue very seriously

0:41:150:41:17

and has been very successful in clamping down.

0:41:170:41:20

Back in the London Borough of Brent,

0:41:300:41:32

law student Kusheema Nurse had been caught subletting her council flat

0:41:320:41:36

and convicted of offences under the Fraud Act

0:41:360:41:39

and the Prevention of Social Housing Fraud Act.

0:41:390:41:42

If you're studying the law, it would indicate to me

0:41:420:41:45

that you're someone who should be of a certain standing, really.

0:41:450:41:50

I think it's particularly upsetting

0:41:500:41:53

because I'm aware of the waiting list in London

0:41:530:41:57

and it's a prolific waiting list of very deserving cases.

0:41:570:42:01

Especially in Brent,

0:42:030:42:06

where we're having to sometimes place people outside of the borough,

0:42:060:42:11

so I think it's a very abhorrent crime.

0:42:110:42:16

But incredibly, despite the guilty verdict,

0:42:180:42:21

the Council was still facing

0:42:210:42:22

a lengthy legal battle to get the property back.

0:42:220:42:26

We believe very much that the tenant

0:42:260:42:29

has been using delaying tactics throughout in this

0:42:290:42:33

and that possession hearings have been delayed unnecessarily

0:42:330:42:37

and that's causing us some frustration

0:42:370:42:39

because we've got deserving people on our waiting lists,

0:42:390:42:42

who we very much would like to get into this property in particular,

0:42:420:42:46

so we are very hopeful our legal teams are going to get onto this

0:42:460:42:50

and to get us the result that we very much want.

0:42:500:42:53

For Brent Council,

0:42:530:42:55

and for those next in line on the Council's waiting list,

0:42:550:42:58

reclaiming the property

0:42:580:42:59

and finally closing this case can't come soon enough.

0:42:590:43:03

Housing investigators across the UK are cracking down on tenancy fraud.

0:43:110:43:16

They're determined to stop the cheats

0:43:160:43:18

and ensure that our precious social housing stock

0:43:180:43:20

is in the hands of those most in need.

0:43:200:43:23

Michelle Ackerley hears how a law student was caught breaking the law by subletting her highly sought-after council flat.