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WEAKNESSES FOUND WITH BASINGSTOKE & DEANE'S BENEFIT FRAUD PERFORMANCE

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A report by the Benefit Fraud Inspectorate (BFI) on the ...
A report by the Benefit Fraud Inspectorate (BFI) on the

administration of housing benefit and council tax benefit and

counter-fraud activity by Basingstoke and Deane BC has been published.

BFI inspected the council against the performance standards for

housing benefits. The report found that the council was not fully at

standard for any of the seven functional areas - strategic management,

customer services, processing of claims, working with landlords,

internal security, counter-fraud, and overpayments.

The report found a number of weaknesses in the council's procedures

and performance. A focus on paying benefit quickly, due to the

council's strategy to support vulnerable people, meant that benefit

had been paid without the necessary controls in place. This focus

also resulted in poor adherence to the verification framework, the

national framework used to verify the evidence required to support

claims to benefit.

The quality of the council's counter-fraud activity was inconsistent,

with some good fraud investigation cases being brought to prosecution

while other cases were of a poor quality.

The report expressed concerns that the council's housing benefit

overpayment debt was not being managed and that the council did not

use all of the recovery methods available to it.

The report finds some clear strengths in the customer services

offered by the council which had developed good working relationships

with its major landlords and housing associations.

The report concludes that the council's performance was within

striking distance of achieving standard in the majority of the seven

functional areas of the performance standards.

During the inspection, the council assured BFI that it would act on

the findings and recommendations in the report to bring the council's

housing benefits service up to standard. BFI saw evidence of the

council implementing several of the recommendations during the

on-site phase of the inspection.

In 2001/02, Basingstoke and Deane BC administered

approximately £22m in housing benefits. This is approximately

22% of its gross revenue expenditure.

BFI 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.

Notes

1. The process for the inspection at Basingstoke and Deane BC

included an initial fact finding stage, an on-site visit and

report generation and clearance. The on-site visit took place during

November and December 2002.

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 or minimum standards in performance.

3. In its response to the Housing Green Paper of November 2000, the

Department for Work and Pensions developed a performance

framework for housing benefits. The 'HB/CTB Performance Standards',

published in April 2002, enable local authorities to make a

comprehensive self-assessment of whether they deliver benefit

effectively and securely. They are the standards that the Department

for Work and Pensions expects local authorities to aspire to and

achieve in time.

4. The Department for Work and Pensions has not set a timescale for

when the standards need to be met by local authorities, other than

the speed of processing claims which local authorities are expected

to achieve by 2005/06.

5. BFI inspects against the seven functional areas of the performance

standards:

- Strategic management - clearly stated aims and action, resources

and monitoring, with effective training and IT

- Customer services - providing an efficient and prompt service that

meets the needs of all claimants and persons with a legiti mate

interest in a claim

- Processing of claims - speedy and accurate claims processing with

effective verification

- Working with landlords - to give private landlords the confidence

to let to claimants and to support delivery of social housing

- Internal security - preventing internal fraud

- Counter-fraud - deterring, preventing, detecting and pursuing

fraud

- Overpayments - preventing, identifying and recovering

overpayments

6. The 'HB/CTB Performance Standards' can be downloaded from:

www.dwp.gov.uk/housingbenefit/publications/perf-stands/index.htm.

7. Copies of BFI inspection reports can be found on the BFI website -

www.bfi.gov.uk

A press release from the local authority follows:

The report concludes that the council's performance is within 'striking distance' of achieving Standard in the majority of the seven functional areas of the Performance Standards (see notes).

The council welcomes the BFI's report and its findings and is continuing to work at implementing its improvement plan, which will see overall standards raised further over the coming months, in line with the BFI's performance standards.

The report highlights the council's strengths in its approach to customer services, and recognises the good working relationships it has with major landlords, housing associations and its partners and stakeholders in the housing partnership board. The report also states how the BFI, during its on-site phase of the inspection, could clearly see that the council was already implementing several of the recommendations it was making. During the inspection there were no identifiable cases of fraud that the council failed to detect.

As part of the council's improvement plan additional staff, to oversee training and quality control, have already been recruited; a new claim form that meets the BFI's standards, is being introduced; and new procedures to improve overall efficiency are already being implemented.

One of the council's priorities has always been to ensure that all benefit payments are paid as quickly as possible to those in genuine need. Last year the council succeeded in meeting the national performance standard for processing claims, which is 35 days, placing the authority in the top 25% in the country.

The council is continuing its programme of partnership working, particularly with the housing partnership board, which focusses on helping those customers who find themselves in vulnerable circumstances. The council is also continuing to work more closely with registered social landlords to reduce the levels of homelessness and evictions.

The council has a duty to protect the public purse, and whilst the vast majority of the council's housing and council tax benefit claimants have genuine needs, the council actively deters, detects and pursues any fraudulent claims. In the last financial year it achieved a 100% record by successfully prosecuting all of the 19 benefit fraud cases it brought to court.

Cabinet member for housing, health and homes, Laura James: 'The council is committed to a programme of service improvements across the board, and this applies equally to the housing and council tax benefit service. We are committed to a programme of improvements to ensure that our customers receive the most efficient and robust benefits service possible.'

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