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N LANK'S BENEFIT ADMIN IS 'POOR' - PLUS COUNCIL'S RESPONSE

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A report by the Benefit Fraud Inspectorate (BFI) into the administration of housing benefit and council tax benefit...
A report by the Benefit Fraud Inspectorate (BFI) into the administration of housing benefit and council tax benefit and counter fraud activity by North Lanarkshire Council has been published.

Inspectors found that the council was a poor performing authority

that needed to bring about an improvement and raise standards in

almost every aspect of its benefits service and counter fraud work.

The BFI found that the council was using three different types of

claim form and none of them was considered to be effective. BFI

recommends the council introduce a single claim form, at least

meeting the standards of the BFI model. This is considered to be

vital to help claimants to provide all the supporting evidence needed

for a claim to be calculated accurately.

Inspectors also identified weaknesses in areas including the

monitoring and control of benefit periods, the renewal of claims, and

the way the council deals with changes in the claimant's

circumstances to prevent overpayments. The council was found not to

have a policy covering overpayment of benefit and no management

controls to show that overpayments were being dealt with correctly.

The council's counter fraud policy was not being managed effectively.

BFI found a lack of staff resources in the counter fraud team and the

quality of the council's investigative work was poor.

The report concludes that overall the council did not demonstrate a

sound awareness of what constitutes a safe and secure benefits

service. Key benefits related policies, needed to provide clear

direction to staff and stakeholders. were not in place and the

management information system was inadequate.

On a more positive note, BFI welcomes the council's very constructive

response to the report, in particular, its stated commitment to take

all recommendations forward. The council has since told BFI that it

has implemented 75% of BFI's recommendations and has plans in place

to implement the remainder as a priority.

A press release from the local authority follows:

IMPROVEMENT PROGRESS IN BENEFIT ADMINISTRATION

North Lanarkshire Council has acted promptly in responding to an inspection by the Benefit Fraud Inspectorate (BFI) that was carried out last April (2001).

In the nine months since the inspection visit by the BFI, 75% of its recommendations have already been put into place through an Action Plan implemented by the council's Benefits Section. The inspection followed an audit of claims for the period from January to October 2000 and is the basis of a report issued today by the BFI.

Progress made to date includes -

- Production of a single claim form, recently approved by the BFI

- All investigating staff have been trained in PINS - Professionalism in Security - as well as undergoing fraud awareness training

- Eradication of backlogs - outstanding work is less than one week's incoming mail

- A free-phone Fraud helpline has been established

- North Lanarkshire is the only Scottish Council taking part in a Verification Framework Pilot in partnership with ten local housing associations that helps to reduce processing time for new and repeat claims.

- A comprehensive training programme for all benefits staff has been implemented and is subject to continuous review.

Tom McKenzie, director of housing and property services, commented: 'The report issued by the BFI does not reflect the current position with our benefits administration. While we fully recognise that there was a need to improve, the report is based on an audit of claims and arrangements that were in place 16 months ago and reviewed at a visit that took place nine months ago. At least 75% of the BFI's recommendations have now been implemented and our systems and security have improved greatly. The remaining recommendations will be responded to as part of our action plan as a matter of priority.

'When North Lanarkshire was formed in 1996, we inherited four very different systems from the former authorities. This, together with the introduction of a new verification framework, meant we did encounter a number of difficulties. However, we have recognised this and since agreeing a way forward with the BFI last April, we have pulled the stops out to improve the system.

'It's also important to remember that we have a shared objective with the BFI in the prevention and detection of fraud whilst maximising benefit uptake for those who qualify. We are working to ensure that we succeed in meeting both these objectives effectively.'

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