Inspectors found that the council had some sound processes in place but that the overall service being provided had a number of weaknesses. In particular the report highlights inconsistent standards of verifying claims for benefits. As a result the council could not provide the necessary assurance on the access to benefits being secure. At the time of the inspection the council had five different claim forms with significant variations in quality and style. The BFI notes that the council had begun the process of designing a single claim form taking into account the BFI model claim form.
In the case of fraud investigations better use of the fraud case management system is recommended. Delay in completing investigations and the poor quality of those investigations is noted. It is recommended that the council needs to address the organisation and management of its benefit investigation unit. The council recognised this and was proposing to restructure the unit at the tme of the inspection.
A press release from the local authority follows:
From Peter Jenks, cabinet member for corporate management.
'Southampton City Council welcomes the report by the Benefit Fraud Inspectorate which has identified both good practices and a few weaknesses.
'I'm pleased that so many sound practices were identified. The administration of housing and council tax benefit is complex and the council's benefit services section consists of over 100 employees. The inspection highlights the council's commitment to these employees, and in particular, the report recognises the training and development available to all.
'The service also recognises the problem areas, which were identified, and measures are already in place to address them. The inconsistent standards of verifying and the use of different claim forms were valid criticisms highlighted in the report. To address these issues the Council has undertaken to introduce the department of work and pensions' 'Verification Framework' which ensures that stringent checks are consistently applied to all claims.
'The inspectorate recognised that the council's benefits service had been through a period of great change and that the council had delayed introducing this framework until new computer systems stabilised. The department of work and pensions will be providing additional funds to Southampton to reflect the extra costs of working to the framework.
'Southampton City Council has already substantially improved the performance of the benefits service since the inspection took place in May last year, and I am confident that this improvement, building on a service which alreadyhas much which has been judged to be good, will continue in the future.'