Housing benefit failings slammed

1 Nov 01
Local authorities need to address the failings rampant in the administration of housing benefit as poor management is causing hardship for claimants, according to the Audit Commission.

02 November 2001

A report by the financial watchdog has called on councils to raise the profile of the 'Cinderella service', which pays out £10bn of central government funds annually.

The report states that 'long delays in paying housing benefit and failures of "customer care" are causing hardship, anxiety and even the threat of eviction for claimants'.

It describes the administration of the system as 'tarnished by error, waste and fraud' and notes that not one of the 14 Best Value reports covering housing benefit resulted in 'excellent' judgements, with the 'fair' outnumbering the 'good'.

Greg Birdseye, one of its authors, told Public Finance that councils needed to look beyond the procedural grind and appreciate the human effects of poorly administered housing benefit systems: 'The starting point is recognising the claimants as users of a service who need support, some of them in a fairly desperate position.

'They've got to be treated with fairness,' he said. 'There needs to be a change in focus away from the administrative system to something which is there as part of the contribution to anti-poverty strategies and social exclusion.'

The report, published on October 31, pointed out the marked variation in both the standards of service and the costs of administrating housing benefit across England and Wales. Some authorities take 100 days or more to process new claims.

The Audit Commission called on local authorities to use the report as a springboard for examining how the management of their service can be improved.

'The injection of good management and getting the performance management sorted out can actually make quite a difference. There are some authorities that have managed to get the service by the scruff of the neck and effectively turn it round,' said senior research manager Patrick Clackett.

The report made a number of recommendations for reducing processing time, including improving IT solutions and simplifying forms.

Birdseye cautioned councils against treating outsourcing as a guaranteed fix for their housing benefit problems: 'It's not the instant panacea that will solve the problem with a magic wand. You can't hand over lock, stock and barrel to an outside contractor and assume that it's all going to be wonderful because there are some examples of where it has obviously not worked.'


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