HC Deb 20 April 2004 vol 420 cc9-10WS
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) inspection report on Leicester city council was published on 15 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. Tile 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 Leicester city 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 notes the considerable efforts made by members, senior officers and staff over a sustained period of time.

The report finds that the council had a backlog of around 14,500 cases, poor IT reliability, insufficient management information which together with limited planning had hindered the council's ability to deliver an effective benefits service. This had resulted in new benefit claims and changes of circumstances taking 141 days and 49 days to process during 2002–03.

Although processing, times were taking too long, the quality of processing and verification of claims was found to be of a good standard. However, the lack of effective management checks meant that the council had only limited assurance that benefits were being paid correctly and securely. Also, customers were experiencing problems trying to access the benefits service by telephone.

The quality of fraud investigation work was good and all investigation officers were trained to professional standards. However, limited resources and weaknesses in the planning of investigation work were undermining efforts to secure the benefits system.

In 2002–03, Leicester city council administered some £97 million in housing benefits, about 16 per cent. of its total 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.