Complaints soar over benefits chaos

6 Sep 01
The number of complaints against English councils has reached record levels.

07 September 2001

Figures published this week in the Local Government Ombudsman Annual Report 2000/01 show that the number of complaints – 19,179 – was almost 10% up on the previous year's figure and the fourth successive time they have risen.

The rise was caused by problems with housing benefit.

'Because of systemic defects in the housing benefit administration of a small number of councils, many thousands of people on low incomes have been caused much worry and hardship and, in some cases, have lost their homes', says the report. More than 2,300 complaints were made in this area, the majority of them in London.

Edmund Osmotherly, the ombudsman for Greater London, said in some boroughs the system was 'in chaos'. He criticised the huge variation in performance by councils in the capital. Almost two-thirds of housing benefit complaints in London concerned three councils: Hackney, Islington and Lambeth.

However, the blame may not lay solely with the councils. Until recently, all three had outsourced their service, although Hackney and Lambeth have now taken their services back in-house.

A spokesman for Lambeth said the council was 'the first to admit the service is failing'. However, he said, since it took the service back from Capita in July, the backlog of outstanding claims had been cut from 55,000 to 30,000.

Islington, which uses ITNet, said it was renegotiating the terms of its contract but that the service would remain in the private sector.

Sheffield City Council's large increase in housing benefit complaints was also highlighted. Sheffield, which outsourced its service to CSL, said 'it was obviously disappointed' but added that the backlog of claims had fallen from 22,500 to 2,400 since April 2000.

The ombudsman also expressed serious concern about the quality of education appeal panels. These panels, which received more than 900 complaints nationwide, consider appeals against a council or board of governors' decision not to admit a child to the school preferred by parents.

Many panel members, according to the ombudsman, receive little or no training. 'In the interests of justice to parents and children, the education appeal panel system needs improvement,' says the report.


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