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'VERY POSITIVE TURNAROUND' IN FRAUD ADMIN AT SOUTHWARK LBC

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A second report by the Benefit Fraud Inspectorate ...
A second report by the Benefit Fraud Inspectorate

(BFI) into the administration of housing benefit and council tax

benefit and counter fraud activity by Southwark LBC has been published.

The latest BFI report finds that the council has achieved a very

positive turnaround in performance since it was first inspected in

September 1999. Many of the BFI recommendations have been implemented

in full and the majority of previous weaknesses in benefit

administration had been addressed. The report commends the work done

to collect the information required to verify a customer's claim to

benefit, to improve the process of making payments on account and to

introduce new guidance for fraud and overpayment staff.

Inspectors found that there were still weaknesses in customer

service. The council introduced a new telephone system to improve the

long delays for telephone callers and the number of abandoned calls

which, inspectors consider will significantly improve customer

service.

The report notes an improvement in the clearance time for claims. In

1999 only 20% of claims were cleared within the 14 day target. At the

second inspection this was found to have improved to 52%. But the

council could do more by ensuring that all information is available

when claims are first received.

At the time of the inspection the council was using more than one

claim form for Housing Benefit and Council Tax Benefit although it

was planning to introduce a new single claim form taking account of

the standards of the BFI model form.

The council had reduced the large backlog of work, which in 1999

stood at 19,000 claims, and at the time of the second inspection the

council estimated around 5,000 claims were outstanding. However, the

report notes that the council had no formal plan to clear the

remaining arrears.

Significant improvement was noted in the quality of Southwark's fraud

investigations. Preparation, record keeping and general file

maintenance was found to be good and this was supported by a high

standard of staff training. In line with BFI's recommendations, the

council's review of its anti-fraud strategy had been successfully

implemented.

Inspectors remained concerned over weaknesses existing in the

council's approach to overpayment of benefit and, in this, the

council acknowledged that progress against BFI recommendations had

been slow. Several new recommendations relating to overpayments have

been made to improve the overall effectiveness in this area.

The Benefit Fraud Inspectorate is an independent unit within the

department for work and pensions that reports directly to the

Secretary of State for Work and Pensions on the standard of benefit

administration and counter fraud activity. It works to help councils

improve efficiency and deter, prevent, detect and investigate fraud

by strengthening the security of the delivery of benefits. This

report includes recommendations of good practice which Southwark

LBC will be able to make use of these to further improve.

Malcolm Wicks, work and pensions minister, announced the publication

of the report in response to a Parliamentary Question from Vernon

Coaker.

Notes

1. The process for inspection at Southwark LBC included an initial

fact finding stage, an on site visit and report generation and

clearance. The onsite visit part of the inspection took place during

May 2001.

2. Each BFI inspection report is considered by the secretary of state

who decides whether any further action is appropriate. The secretary

of state has powers to issue directions to a local authority to

secure acceptable/minimum standards in performance.

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