£2m fraud at British High Commission

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Several staff members at the British High Commission in Sierra Leone have been suspended on suspicion of defrauding the UK Government of about £2m.

Sir Philip Barton, Permanent Secretary at the Foreign Office, notified the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee of the loss to the department, which he said would be recorded in its annual accounts.

According to the permanent secretary, the fraud related primarily to the procurement of diesel fuel for electricity generators at the UK High Commission in Freetown.

He added that the total sum lost and the full background of the scheme was still being investigated.

“We believe a number of country-based staff colluded to circumvent controls. The staffs believed to have been involved have been suspended and disciplinary action is ongoing,” Barton told the committee in a letter.

In his letter, Barton said he had launched a review into what went wrong and that a programme to improve safeguards at the outpost had been initiated.

The disclosure has sparked concerns among MPs about wider issues regarding fraud, theft and corruption relating to UK Government and UK related charitable funds overseas.

Labour MP Neil Coyle, who sits on the committee, accused the Foreign Office’s leadership of having “taken their eye off the ball” of the management of embassies and commissions since the department’s 2020 merger with the department for international aid.

“The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office need to reassure us there is no other fraud or corruption in the Sierra Leone office, but also that it has the means of preventing fraud and the loss of British taxpayers’ money across the rest of its operations worldwide,” he added.

Conservative MP Alicia Kearns, chair of the committee, highlighted that Barton’s letter came in the wake of news that a charity headed by Rory Stewart, former UK international development secretary, had been defrauded of almost $1mn in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

GiveDirectly, said in a statement on its website last week that some members of its team in the DRC had conspired with others to defraud its cash transfer programme of $900,000 over six months, “diverting aid from over 1,700 families in extreme poverty”.

The charity apologised to aid recipients and donors, and said it had made changes that would prevent such fraud from taking place in future. In its 2021-22 annual accounts, the Foreign Office noted that its aid spending commitments meant it operated in “some of the most challenging contexts”, but nonetheless took a “zero tolerance” approach to fraud.

It recorded gross fraud losses of £2.1mn that year, but after recovering some of the losses the net total lost to fraud was £218,230. In November 2021, the department launched a new counter-fraud strategy.

In 2020, it emerged that nine antique clocks worth £53,000 had been “unlawfully removed” from the Foreign Office’s headquarters in Whitehall. The department’s transparency data on fraud and theft published that year also recorded thousands of pounds lost from a misplaced satellite phone and cash stolen in Africa, as well as a former employee undertaking an Amazon shopping spree on a corporate credit card and a travel agent inflating ticket prices in the Asia-Pacific region.

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