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In the past four months, NHS regional offices have reported more than£600,000 worth of fraud to the directorate of counter fraud services at the NHS Executive.

Sums range from£11,000 reported by South West region to£270,000 reported by North West region. The£12,000 reported by West Midlands region includes£2,000-worth of fraud by a locum consultant and£9,000 by a cashier.

In London region, which found£44,000 worth of fraud, cases include an agency nurse who defrauded the NHS of£5,000 and a pharmacist who committed£12,000 worth of fraud. In Eastern region one GP committed£10,000 worth of fraud.

But the days of the crooked cashier, the pilfering pharmacist, the cheating consultant and the greedy GP could be numbered. Last week health secretary Frank Dobson put flesh on the bones of earlier announcements that he wanted to crack down on fraud in the NHS.

Mr Dobson promised that 500 'specially trained and professionally qualified counter-fraud experts' would be recruited to ensure that the NHS becomes 'the toughest healthcare system in the world when it comes to rooting out fraud and corruption'.

The 500 staff, many to be recruited from outside the health service, will undergo specialist training at a new Department of Health counter- fraud centre of excellence in Reading.

Health authority staff will start training in September, followed by 375 trust representatives next April.

Basic fraud detection skills will be enhanced by extra academic study, at foundation and advanced level, which could lead to BSc and MSc degrees. These courses are to be accredited by the Institute of Criminal Justice Studies at Portsmouth University.

Dr Ian McKenzie, deputy director of the Institute of Criminal Justice Studies, says he has no doubt that specialist training produces better fraud officers.

'Preliminary training in interviewing and surveillance techniques is supported by theoretical material which puts the practical skills into context and gives people a broad picture of where fraud fits in with other criminal activity.'

The institute already provides training for fraud investigators from the London boroughs and the Benefits Agency. 'Fraud costs public sector organisations big money but to tackle it properly you need to have people with the right training,' says Dr McKenzie.

But the new NHS 'fraudbusters' will not be tackling the problem in isolation.

The Audit Commission has agreed a 'memorandum of understanding' with the directorate of counter fraud services, enabling the two organisations to work in partnership to identify systems open to potential abuse.

Under the agreement, which is the first time formal arrangements of this type have been drawn up, audit specialists and NHS 'fraudbusters' will work closely together.

'Fighting fraud in the health service is a key priority for the NHS and the Audit Commission,' says Martin Evans, director of audit policy and appointments at the Audit Commission.

The Association of Chief Police Officers is also drawing up a memorandum of understanding to allow greater collaboration between police officers and NHS fraud investigators, says Ken Farrow, chair of the ACPO national working group on fraud.

'We have been giving advice to the NHS on specialist training, such as courtroom skills, as this is where things can often go wrong when bringing a prosecution.'

A Department of Health spokeswoman dismisses fears expressed by finance managers that the network of 'fraudbusters' could mean more work for hard- pressed and understaffed finance departments (news, page 5, 19 August).

'The new appointments ought to make things easier as they will free up resources,' she says. 'At present a variety of different people have responsibility for tackling fraud. But it is usually tacked on to someone's job, which means it is done in different ways in different organisations. In some places tackling fraud is done well, in others it is done less well.'

The DoH argues that the introduction of dedicated 'fraudbusters' will give a consistent approach to tackling the problem across all NHS bodies, and that people recruited to the jobs from within the service - who could include doctors, managers, nurses and other healthcare professionals - will deal only with fraud.

Mr Dobson is convinced that this is the way to go. 'This is the first time any healthcare system in the world has taken these steps,' he says. 'Such a professional and comprehensive approach to tackling fraud and corruption puts the NHS well ahead of other government departments and non-governmental organisations.

'We will ensure that taxpayers' money gets spent on patient care, not illegally diverted through fraud.'