HC Deb 25 March 2003 vol 402 cc8-10WS
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Malcolm Wicks)

On behalf of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the Benefit Fraud Inspectorate (BFI) inspection report on Coventry City Council was published today and copies of the report have been placed in the Library.

The report finds administrative problems and poor performance in the council's Housing Benefit and Council Tax Benefit administration and counter-fraud service. This dates back to the installation of a new Housing Benefit processing IT system in February 1999, and the Large Scale Voluntary Transfer of its housing stock to a Housing Association in September 2000. The report concludes that the council had not planned, managed or implemented these changes effectively.

The council had not adopted the Verification Framework, verification of claims to housing benefits was weak, and management checks of work were inadequate. The council gave priority to processing new claims with only 12 per cent. of renewal claims processed on time and, to avoid gaps in payment, claims were allowed to overrun the maximum benefit period.

The report finds a backlog of work, with over 9,000 items outstanding at the time of the BFI on-site inspection in October 2002. There were also delays in dealing with appeals and overpayments, and the amount of outstanding debt had risen to £4.6 million.

Although the council's Benefit Fraud Unit had been restructured in October 2001, the quality of fraud investigations was poor and there were delays throughout the process, including at the prosecution stage.

Members and Chief Officers are aware of the failings and are actively trying to improve the service.

The report finds some good practices, including the security of payment cheques and a Benefits Advice Line open 5½ days a week giving welfare benefits advice.

In 2001–02, Coventry City Council administered approximately £87 million in housing benefits, approximately 28 per cent. of its total gross revenue expenditure.

The report makes recommendations to help the council address the remaining weaknesses and further to improve the administration of Housing Benefit and Council Tax Benefit, as well as counter-fraud activities.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is now considering the report and will be asking the council for its proposals in response to the findings and recommendations of the BFI.