Scores of immigrant nurses have been investigated by NHS anti-fraud investigators amid claims black staff members have been unfairly “targeted”.
Over 13 times more black people than would be proportionate have been charged with offences by NHS Protect – the body responsible for cutting fraud in the health service – figures released to Nursing Times under the Freedom of Information Act suggest.
The figures have resulted in suggestions that immigration cases are prioritised above harder-to-investigate offences.
A total of 66 of the 98 people prosecuted in the year were recorded as “African Caribbean”. Black people make up only 5% of NHS staff, according to figures from the NHS Information Centre.
Some 57% of investigations launched by NHS Protect between April 2010 and March 2011 involved black and minority ethnic (BME) people. BME groups make up 16% of NHS employees.
In the previous year only about a quarter of those investigated had their ethnicity recorded, but the majority of those known were BME.
Half of the cases published on the body’s website involve a nurse or healthcare assistant.
The cases often concern an employee’s right to work in the UK. Although figures are not held on how many cases related to immigration offences, 59% of cases prosecuted “constitute frauds or criminal offences in which provision of false documentation has been a factor”.
The website for the NHS Counter Fraud Service - the body’s name before it was renamed NHS Protect in April - said it “aims to reduce NHS fraud to an absolute minimum, and maintain it at that level”.
Director of the centre for counter fraud studies at the University of Portsmouth Mark Button said fraud specialists in some public bodies were given “performance indicators” which could incentivise tackling relative simple immigration frauds. “It could be that they go to look for particular kinds of frauds,” he said.
He said it was important to prevent people getting work without the appropriate qualifications. However he said there were “limited resources” to tackle fraud and focusing on migrants could mean “other frauds will be less well investigated”.
Transitional lead for the NHS BME Network Dr Vivienne Lyfar-Cissé said although fraud should not be “condoned” it was “extremely worrying that fraud by non-BME staff may be overlooked giving rise to the disproportionality observed”.
Don Flynn, director of the Migrant Rights Network campaigning group, said it seemed NHS Protect was “targeting largely black and ethnic minority staff” as they were “low hanging fruit”.
He said many people had the right to remain in the UK but not the right to work, due to an estimated 450,000-person backlog in the immigration system. Mr Flynn said many migrants are “quite strongly oriented to work in the health professions but are not documented”.
“The only way they can get employment is coming up with false bits of paper,” he said.
Royal College of Nursing England director Tom Sandford said: “I’m concerned about this over-representation. It reflects our analysis of case work which demonstrates that members from BME groups are over-represented in employment disputes.”
An NHS Protect spokesman said: “NHS Protect’s focus is the investigation and collection of evidence relating to allegations of fraud or corruption, not a person’s ethnicity. Before 2010/11 the collection of ethnicity information was not mandatory. However, since the introduction of a new case management system, NHS Protect has been able to collect it more easily and accurately.
“NHS Protect investigations involve not only NHS staff but other medical professionals and anyone else who may have committed fraud against the NHS. Our activities are largely determined by the referrals we receive, and we are obliged to follow up wherever a reported suspicion merits closer investigation.”