HC Deb 20 April 2004 vol 420 cc8-9WS
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr. Chris Pond)

On behalf of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the Benefit Fraud Inspectorate (BFI) follow-up inspection report on London Borough of Ealing Council was published on 14 April 2004 and copies of the report have been placed in the Library.

Following the housing green paper "Quality and Choice: A Decent Home for All", published in April 2000, the Department for Work and Pensions developed a performance framework for housing benefits. The "performance standards for housing benefits" allow 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.

The BFI inspected London Borough of Ealing Council against the Performance Standards for housing benefits. The report finds that the council is not at Standard for any of the seven functional areas of the Performance Standards—strategic management, customer services, processing of claims, working with landlords, internal security, counter-fraud, and overpayments.

However, the report finds that the council had made sustained improvements in a number of areas since the first BFI inspection report published in December 2000. The council: had significantly reduced its backlog of work from 46,000 items to 4,000; was processing housing benefits claims faster; had reduced the amount of time that customers wait when they make an enquiry by telephone or in person; had reduced the number of complaints and increased the level of satisfaction reported by customers; and had prosecuted more benefit fraudsters.

Weaknesses still remained in the controls for internal fraud and for recovering overpayments of benefit. The council still needs to do more to better manage its counter-fraud effort and, in particular, to deter fraud.

The council had improved its processing times for new claims to benefit and changes of circumstances, taking an average 51 days to process claims and 15 days to process changes of circumstances compared to the national standards of 36 and 9 days.

The council had carried out a number of good quality fraud investigations. During 2002–03, it had prosecuted 18 fraudsters compared to one during 1999–00 putting it in the top 25 per cent. of performers compared with the other London boroughs.

In 2002–03, London Borough of Ealing Council administered some £121.2 million in housing benefits, about 18 per cent. of its gross revenue expenditure.

The report makes recommendations to help the council address weaknesses and to further 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 BFI's findings and recommendations.