COUNCIL cops could be created to search homes and seize cash as part of a crackdown on benefit cheats.

Southend Council wants to give its counter-fraud teams new powers so they can carry out investigations independently of police and other law enforcement agencies.

The new powers would enable council officers to execute search warrants and seize assets that could be the proceeds of crime.

The powers could be used to target benefit fraudsters, people illegally sub-letting council homes and even disabled blue badge scammers.

Martin Terry, leader of the council’s independent group, cautiously welcomed the plans.

He said: “It seems a bit draconian for council officers to be able to search people’s homes and my biggest concern is that at some point they get it wrong.

“But, in principle, I support this, if it is to seize back money from people who have genuinely defrauded the taxpayer.”

Council investigators currently need police with warrants to help them search residential or business addresses.

Under the new plans they would not need police back up.

The plans were revealed in a council audit report that also talks about expanding investigations to include properties run by South Essex Homes, which manages social housing for Southend Council.

The report stated: “The counter- fraud team’s working practices will be subject to a fundamental review.

“The intention is to provide training in premises searching and seizure so officers will be able to lead investigations independently of other law enforcement organisations, while providing opportunities to use cash seizure powers under the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002.”

It also stated staff would be trained as accredited financial investigators, so investigative orders to obtain financial accounts, solicitors’ records and other confidential information could be obtained in all fraud investigations. This would allow the council to apply for orders on assets suspected to be from the proceeds of crime.

The report added: “This will significantly enhance the team’s ability to deliver its services in preventing, detecting and deterring fraud and corruption in all areas of the council.”

Officers will also be trained in surveillance, and forensic computer investigation.

Southend Council operates a joint fraud team with Thurrock Council, under a deal due to end in March, led by David Kleinberg, 32, from Leigh.

Until February, he was a director of fraud investigation company HJK Associates, based in Leigh, set up by his dad, Howard, 60, and now run by his brother Robert, 40.